Elsheimer and Velazquez in London.
Rubens attributes Elsheimer's lethargy to il peccato d'accidia (the sin of depressive apathy). Witness to Elsheimer's reclusive and introspective nature is borne by the Spanish painter Juseppe Martinez, who worked in Rome at the same time as Elsheimer. Martinez added that he was never satisfied with his completed pictures; although that is true of many other artists. Rubens's appraisal is further supported by Elsheimer's so-called Self-Portrait (on canvas, not the copper foundation Elsheimer invariably used; supposedly by a man who never painted portraits; and of mysterious provenance) certainly records brooding unease. Whoever painted it may have perpetuated Elsheimer's reputation rather than his actual presence. In the engraving by Hendrick Hondius of c.1610, Elsheimer looks cheerful enough whilst at work. The 'self-portrait' (Uffizi Gallery) is nearer the style of Domenichino's elegant, grave portraits than anything painted by Elsheimer himself. It may be a work of a gifted member of Domenichino's Bolognese School.
Elsheimer was baptised in the Spring of 1578 in the main Lutheran church at Frankfurt. In pre-Reformation times baptism had followed birth so closely that it roughly established the date of birth. Luther himself favoured infant baptism, but some Protestants, particularly in such sects as the Anabaptists and the Mennonites, did not. Frankfurt was a city sternly opposed to Catholic doctrine: the practice of Catholicism was indeed proscribed between 1533 and 1549.
Almost everything known about Elsheimer stems from his biographer, Joachim von Sandrart, a fellow artist. Sandrart's Teutsche Akademie (1675) is an account of outstanding German painters, sculptors and architects during the preceding 200 years. Sandrart was born in Frankfurt only four years before Elsheimer's sadly early death, but was well acquainted with Elsheimer's first master and his contemporaries in Frankfurt, Munich and Rome. He knew Elsheimer's widow, from whom he bought one of her late husband's paintings. Earlier, Sandrart's much older cousin, Abraham Mertens, had commissioned a small picture of St Laurence in a landscape (a copy of which is now in the Musee Fabre, Montpellier) from Elsheimer himself. At that time Elsheimer was living in his father's tailor's shop, 'next to the Red Bathhouse', near the Protestant Cathedral of St Bartholomew (not far from Goethe's birthplace in a grander house many years later) in the Old Town of Frankfurt. The numerous verifiable details which Sandrart supplies attest to his accuracy and, according to Sandrart, Adam Elsheimer was born four years before his baptism in 1674. One would be happy to add four years retrospectively to Elsheimer's brief life, which ended, in Rubens's eloquent phrase, 'while the wheat was still in the blade'. That would add to his Wanderjahre through Bavaria, Austria and Northern Italy, and to his period in Rome which, since he painted most of his pictures there, may have started well before the Jubilee Year of 1600.
His journey was not only geographical but through more than a hundred years of Western European Art, from Durer and Altdorfer in Bavaria and Giorgione in Venice to Raphael and Caravaggio in Rome. Never sure of his own powers, he looked at many pictures and gauged the reasons for their success; assessing and remembering, but never plagiarising, in a humble aspiration to improve his own work. He sought concepts rather than images.
As an apprentice Elsheimer helped his master, Philipp Uffenbach, make engravings for a newssheet about the annual Trade Fair in Frankfurt and was fascinated by the effects of pigment on the copper plates used or prepared for engraving. For the rest of his life he painted on copper. The advantages and the dangers of the method are illustrated by an early coloured copy he made of Durer's engraved print of The Witch (donated to the Royal Collection under Charles I). A witch was a sensational subject likely to appeal to an adolescent, especially at a time when vile witch-trials were taking place all over Europe, and most viciously in nearby Mainz. Whilst following each line of Durer's print he was able, through his use of colour, to depict in thin but moulded low-relief the aged skin and flaccid muscles of the elderly witch, and the variegated flesh-tints and downy wings of her imps: features which Durer was able only to hint at in his monochrome rendering. There were disadvantages too. Either through some chemical reaction of the copper to the paint Elsheimer used, or else through his technical mistake in priming (or undercoating) the copper with black into which related colours sank, the goat which the witch rides has been lost in darkness, except for one horn and a dim outline of its head and back.
The subsidence into murk of several pictures by Elsheimer is an urgent problem. The painting of St Paul benighted on the Maltese shore in the London National Gallery preserves every detail: the gallery has a meticulous scientific department. The Realm of Venus and The Realm of Minerva in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge can be elucidated only from old engravings of them: the Fitzwilliam is not as renowned for careful conservation. The Witch has lost its background: the vast Royal Collection has no proportionate technical staff. One can only hope that modern scientific restoration can retrieve some of Elsheimer's painstaking work from the night into which it has lapsed.
Another problem is the retrieving of the little picture of The Witch from its trebly contestable royal owners. Throughout the twentieth century the collection at Hampton Court was so firmly accessible to the public that several catalogues were issued. The collection has now been dispersed, partly to the private quarters of royal residences, in order to make the palace an indoor theme park. The scattered pictures include not only this apprentice piece by Elsheimer, but also masterpieces by Tintoretto, Mabuse, the Elder Cranach and Pieter Brueghel. Last Summer there were 10 per cent fewer visitors at Hampton Court, perhaps because people who visit the palace prefer picture galleries to vulgar, overpriced raree shows with actors in Tudor costume.
Further juvenilia, perhaps studio exercises, from Elsheimer's time in Frankfurt include his St Elizabeth of Thuringia (Wellcome Institute, London) at work in a hospital, a tiny busy solicitous scene in a cleverly contrived long perspective astir with substantial-looking people. Less skilful is his Conversion of St Paul (Frankfurt Stadtische Galerie), a frenzy of maddened upside-down horses and thrown riders, with little indication of its subject. Since Jacob's Dream (Frankfurt Galerie), like the pictures of St Elizabeth and St Paul, is loosely based on an earlier German engraving, it may well derive from Elsheimer's years of apprenticeship; at their end, perhaps, since it is a more accomplished work. Exhausted by his rovings, his head and arm propped against a rock, Jacob is seen from below at a novel angle in his leather-clad sprawl. Innovatory too are the minute angels who scale a wispy ladder from his dreaming head into a hazy sky. His dog (as foxy-looking as Jacob himself) seems to partake of Jacob's dream, since the dog starts up at the sound of the whirr of angels' wings.
Soon Elsheimer would rouse himself like Jacob to depart, not through deserts but along the network of watercourses within the one continuous forest of sixteenth-century Bavaria. His likely itinerary would have been through Nuremberg on the Pegnitz to Regensburg on the Danube; then along the Isar, which would lead him to Munich and the Alps. In Nuremberg he would have paid homage to Durer, whose prints remained an inspiration to him. In St Catherine's Church he would have studied Durer's Paumgartner Altarpiece of the Nativity (now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich). The entwined cusp of solicitous angels may have suggested those in Elsheimer's own Baptism of Christ (London National Gallery). Regensburg abounded in pictures by its favourite citizen, Alderman Albrecht Altdorfer, lyricist of the Danube landscape and inventive deviser of religious scenes. His Birth of the Virgin (Alte Pinakothek) was at that time in Regensburg Cathedral, where Elsheimer must have seen it, later recruiting the vast dancing wing-flap of hand-holding cherubs for his helter-skelter spin of angels, ecstatic at the cousinly embrace of Jesus and the infant St John in The Nativity with St John (Berlin Gemaldegalerie).
During a protracted stay in Munich he painted a small portable altarpiece of the life, ascension and coronation of the Virgin Mary, less acceptable at that time in Protestant Frankfurt than at the intensely Catholic ducal court of Bavaria. While in part loosely based on Durer's Coronation of the Virgin in the Dominican monastery at Frankfurt, (destroyed by fire in the eighteenth century, although a hard, bright copy survives in Frankfurt Historisches Museum), Elsheimer's central panel is sparser, with fewer geometrically arranged figures. The four side panels and the predella, all tiny, are of homely scenes, free from Durer's grave, stern exactitude. The Duke of Bavaria may have found the altarpiece too mundane, for he did not buy it. Elsheimer was obliged to transport it across the Alps to Venice, no doubt packed on a donkey, and then to Rome, which probably caused its present worn and faded condition. Crossing the Alps was an ordeal for impoverished Northern artists bent on reaching Rome. Hendrick Terbrugghen once traversed the St Gotthards Pass on foot. Before leaving Munich, Elsheimer drew a picture of a painter presented to Mercury (patron of artists) by his famished, ragged Muse (Brunswick Museum). Elsheimer's all too portable altarpiece went with him around Northern Italy and was found unsold in his studio at his death. Perhaps this pietist kept the altar for his private devotions. It is now in the Gemaldegalerie at Berlin.
Of Elsheimer's stay in Venice there is little trace except for, here and there in his later works, hints of a Giorgionesque glow in the faces and luminous white hair of his older saints. Apparently he was already an acquaintance of Hans Rottenhammer, a Bavarian Italianiser for whom Elsheimer worked briefly as a journeyman assistant. Through Rottenhammer, who had a large studio in Venice, Elsheimer may have met the Flemish visitor Jan Brueghel the Elder ('Velvet Brueghel'), who was at that time, unusually for such a painter of earthly paradises, practising the chiaroscuro effects of disaster and conflagration at night. The resulting pictures would later inspire Elsheimer's most dramatic works, such as Noah's Flood. Certainly in Rottenhammer's Studio Elsheimer formed a lifelong friendship with Rottenhammer's collaborator, Paul Bril, another stray Northerner and a brilliant landscape-painter. Elsheimer himself may have collaborated with Rottenhammer in The Adoration of the Kings (Hampton Court from 1914 until recently). The two waiting kings and their retinue, and the right-hand side of the picture which they occupy, are painted with greater talent and subtlety than the rest. The expressions and postures aspire towards the union of liveliness and gravitas, the reverie-laden mobility, of Elsheimer's later achievements.
After so many years of diligence and contemplation Elsheimer reached Rome as an accomplished master. What appear to be his first pictures there were aptly celebratory: The Nativity with St John and The Baptism of Christ. In the first, St John has propped his reed cross against a wondering newborn lamb in his haste to caress his cousin Jesus. An angel in a priestly robe, who is seated beside Mary, pulls back her bulky mantle so that he may witness the event. Mary steadies her eager child so that He does not tumble from her lap. A spiral celerity of cherubs rains down blossoms and beams of light on this image of the incarnation. As in Altdorfer's Rest on the Flight in Berlin, Joseph, though pleased and solicitous, retires into a corner of the picture. Next to Joseph, among the transalpine foliage, a castle surmounts a crag, as in the landscapes of Durer and the Elder Cranach.
St John and Jesus come together again, no longer in their tender infancy but brawny young men, in The Baptism of Christ (London National Gallery). As the water trickles across the Baptist's palm to Jesus's head, Christ gestures others to join him. These include a shadowy figure, grey-bearded, who hesitates as he undoes his sandal, a Roman who loosens his slippery toga, a mother suckling her baby, and a blackamoor who is undoing his robe. On a ferry boat across the Jordan a group of Elsheimer's silvery distant figures (almost wraiths in Noah's Flood and The Fall of Troy) urge a doubter to join them. A Raphaelesque God upborne by angels impels a ray of glory, through a round-dance of cherubs, upon Christ's head. A female angel flies down to wrap Him, after His immersion, in the seamless crimson robe the Roman soldiers gambled for at the Crucifixion. Even at the beginning of His ministry there is a hint of how it will end. A soldier, with the blustering cockade and the slashed sleeves of the disbanded mercenaries (or Landsknechte) who plagued Germany in Elsheimer's time, points the scene out to a sneering Pharisee in a turban. That sneer engenders a series of atrocities, from the Crucifixion itself to the persecution of the early Christian martyrs, which Elsheimer depicts in the paintings of St Laurence and St Stephen.
The Despoilation of St Laurence (London National Gallery) presents malevolence towards the early Christian Church in all its pristine meekness and love of peace. St Laurence was chosen as Archdeacon and Treasurer to Pope Sixtus II (257-8, later St Sixtus), particularly for his placidity and gentle strength. Sixtus was at the time trying to reconcile the Roman and North African Churches over divergent practices concerning baptism. Whilst Sixtus was intent on the appeasement of distant provinces, he was ambushed by an attack on his own. The tolerant Emperor Valerian was about to embark on a war with the Persians, and so left the city in the control of his worthless son (and fellow-consul) Gallienus and the urban prefect, who renewed the pagan persecution. Before his own martyrdom Sixtus assigned the inconsiderable wealth of the Church to Laurence, who in turn distributed it to Christ's poor, the ailing and indigent. Thus penniless, Laurence appeared before the rulers of Rome, who were in this way thwarted in their expectation of plunder: forthwith they ordered his execution. One is glad that the later gruesome legend that Laurence was roasted on a gridiron (what Edward Gibbon would have called 'a monkish imposture') was untrue. Decapitation was the customary method of execution in third-century Rome. Burning alive was a penalty introduced by Pope Sixtus's unworthy successors in a later, tainted Church which would have grieved him beyond measure.
Elsheimer drew on the legend. Watched by Gallienus and the city prefect on their grim thrones, Laurence is made ready for their barbarous sentence. His priestly dalmatic cast aside, he accedes, encouraged by a tutelary angel, to the despoiling of the remaining robe. One of his tormentors unknots the boyish saint's girdle with vicious zeal perhaps tinged with homoerotic impatience. The large insolent turbaned man nearest in the picture is not the Emperor Valerian. Elsheimer was in Rome, surrounded by antiquities and antiquarians, and was well aware that Roman Emperors did not wear turbans. When his admirer Rubens copied this personage, he described him as 'an Indian prince'; although it was common in the art of the sixteenth century to depict even the Ancient Hebrews in the costume of the Turks who then menaced south-eastern Europe. Elsheimer often placed a large figure, sometimes only loosely relevant to the scene, as a repoussoir, or a device to draw the eye into the central picture: the shadowy figure unlatching his sandal at the front of The Baptism of Christ; the naked tree-climber in The Flood; the richly clad spectator in The Beheading of the Baptist. There were many Asians in Ancient Rome. Already, 150 years before the reign of Valerian, the satirist Juvenal had complained that the Tiber had become an Asiatic river (Sat. III 62). The eastern potentate is intently studying the viciousness of imperial Rome.
The distant turbaned spectators of St Laurence's plight have rueful downcast faces. The Martyrdom of St Stephen (Edinburgh National Gallery) is more painful to contemplate. He is stoned by hooligans, with no sign of pity even from the traditional angel, intent only on presenting the martyr's wreath and pointing heavenward. Stephen is utterly isolated yet, ever-articulate, he raises his wounded head to denounce the Sanhedrin's enforcer and pursuer of Christians, the lavishly dressed and turbaned horseman Saul who, averting his eyes, 'was consenting to his death' (Acts VIII i). Elsheimer's painting of St Christopher (Hermitage, St Petersburg) makes it plain that a Christian, as Christ's representative, should be willing to share some measure of the suffering and oppression that He endured. Under clouds so thick that the moon is only visible through a gnarled rift, Christopher struggles across the hazardous river under the preternatural weight of the infant Christ; so solicitous of his charge that he bends his arm to widen the shoulder on which He is sitting. The infant smiles merrily, as He grasps Christopher's grizzled hair, certain that they will safely reach the further bank.
Elsheimer's conversion to the Catholic Church in his last years was predictable. He made a circuit of Catholic Bavaria which concluded in Munich, a centre of the Counter-Reformation, where he painted the domestic altarpiece of the life of the Virgin which he took with him on his Italian journey. In Rome he painted a soft-hued Pieta (Brunswick Museum) in which Mary, half-blind with tears, presses her face against Christ's bleeding forehead and staunches the blood from his side with a stained thumb. Perhaps to emphasise her motherhood, Christ, though bearded, has the smooth body of a child, as if tracing her memory of how she had held Him in infancy. Mary's staring grief, illuminated by the glow from the angel, dominates Elsheimer's Three Marys at the Empty Tomb (a classical sarcophagus with a text from St Mark's Gospel in the Vulgate version chiselled on the lid). Two Flemish Catholics were Elsheimer's close friends: Sir Peter Paul Rubens, who bought his Judith and his Mocking of Ceres and kept them to his death, when they were acquired by Philip IV of Spain; and Paul Bril, who bought his Martyrdom of St Stephen and his Three Marys, and collaborated with him on Mercury and Herse. Paul Bril was a witness to Elsheimer's marriage contract with Carola Antonia Stuart, possibly of royal Scottish descent and the widow of the French painter Nicolas de Breul, in 1606. Three years later Rubens wrote in a letter of his pleasure on learning of Elsheimer's conversion to the Catholic Church.
The so-called Frankfurt Tabernacle (Frankfurt Stadel Museum), which commemorates Elsheimer's conversion, would not have been acceptable in Frankfurt in Elsheimer's time, since it is based on the apocryphal Golden Legend, and depicts a multitude of saints, as well as The Coronation of the Virgin. The small central panel of the miniature retable has even smaller wings and predella. The central panel is of The Elevation of the Cross. The wings and the predella tell the story of St Helena's discovery of the true cross, its theft and its return by the Emperor Heraclitus, who carried it into Jerusalem on foot.
There are two visual recessions in The Elevation of the Cross, the first from the nearer and larger figures of the martyrs and Fathers of the Church. Behind the Cross embraced by St Helena among angels bearing the instruments of the Passion, a further recession introduces patriarchs, apostles and angels. Adam points out the Cross to Eve, whilst a file of angels treads through rays of light diffused by its transom. Above them the Virgin is levitated into a preternatural flare of light congregated by wispy distant angelic cloud-orchestras upon orchestras. Among the foremost saints the scholarly St Catherine, gazing with remembered regret at the sword that slew her, puts her arm round the shoulders of the more intuitive Magdalene. St Gregory, intensely moved, listens as St Sebastian, casually and pathetically resting a quiver on his lap, tells his story. By the gestures and stances of his figures Elsheimer records a dozen Sacred Conversations.
Elsheimer brings some fifty figures, excluding the angels, into a space of 50 cm by 35 cm, yet because of the recessive planes and the effects of light there is no sense of crowding. The picture calls to mind the icon-like compositions of the early Sienese painters, those of Duccio in particular, nor do the Sienese affinities end there. Although the nearby saints in The Elevation of the Cross are presented with Elsheimer's microscopic care, there is a sfumato, or blurriness at the edges of the figures at the top of the picture, which is more marked still in the subsidiary panels. The sfumato resembles that of the later Sienese artist Domenico Beccafumi, who decorated the city-state's Town Hall. The female faces, especially that of St Helena in the subsidiary panels, are akin to those painted by Beccafumi. Elsheimer's squares of small separate paintings of saints remind one of Duccio's similar arrangements, at that time in Siena Cathedral. All this suggests that Elsheimer may have lingered in Siena on his way to Rome, or made a special journey there later; which would account for the accomplished sfumato of his night-scenes.
Although Caravaggio's grip was barely escapable during Elsheimer's early years in Rome, Caravaggio rendered only one scene of deep night broken by the blaze of firelight before his escape from the city in 1606: The Betrayal of Christ, now in the Dublin National Gallery, of 1602. Elsheimer's nocturnes were probably derived from the Elder Jan Brueghel's Lot and his Daughters in their lightning-rent blackness, and The Destruction of Troy, both painted in Italy and now in the Alte Pinakothek at Munich. No doubt encouraged by his memory of Brueghel's version of Destruction of Troy, Elsheimer painted a variant of that disaster by night, as recounted by Aeneas in the Second Book of Virgil's Aeneid (Munich Alte Pinakothek). Desperate to save his family from the Greek invaders at the very threshold of his dwelling, Aeneas, guided by his small son Ascanius, carries his father Anchises through the turmoil lit by the thousand torches of his fellow fugitives and the glare of the burning towers of his native city. In Brueghel's version, Anchises rides like a child on Aeneas's shoulders. Elsheimer conveys a greater sense of panic: Anchises clings to Aeneas's chest and drags his feet along the ground. Brueghel portrays Ascanius as a toddler carrying one of the family's household gods; rightly, since Dido later mistakes Cupid for Ascanius and takes him on her lap. Elsheimer makes him a muscular stripling. Brueghel probably knew the Aeneid better. Aeneas's wife Creusa, lost forever in their flight, is almost the central figure in Elsheimer's rendering. Shrieking, she raises her hand as she stumbles down a slope into a flux of refugees and toppling masonry.
Elsheimer knew the Bible better than the Aeneid. His night-piece, St Paul in Malta, closely follows the incident related in the Acts of the Apostles (ch. 28) in which St Paul was a prisoner on a passenger ship, bound for Rome, wrecked on the Maltese coast. Elsheimer proves that he is a skilled artificer of light, and notable for effects of fire in darkness. Under the lingering cataclysmic fluorescence of the sky the passengers, who would otherwise be concealed by deep night, are clearly lit. The passengers, after fourteen days of being storm-tossed across the eastern Mediterranean, would hardly care. Shivering, they gather brushwood to kindle fires. A viper emerges from their firewood. Paul merely shakes the snake off into the fire, which heartens the others, including a woman holding her dripping and disarranged clothes about her. Unsegregated, males and females, young and old, strip to their skin to dry their drenched garments: a memory for Elsheimer from the Red Bathhouse where, with no impropriety, the sexes mingled. From the steadily advancing sea an extraordinary waterspout rides over the foreshore rocks, vaults through the rain and crashes into the woods in a hurl of splitting jets.
Elsheimer painted The Flight into Egypt twice. The first version, a tiny oval, depicts Joseph in workman's clothes as he leads Mary and her child on a donkey along a stony track through wooded Alps unlikely to be found in the Sinai Desert (Fort Worth Museum). The steady donkey carries not only Mary and her exquisite mite, but also a load of household implements, as if they were an Italian journeyman's family leaving their tied cottage at the end of their tenure at Martinmas. In the other (Alte Pinakothek) the Holy Family are small figures in a moonlit landscape of woods and a lake. Never has the moon been more luminous than among the primrose clouds of the picture; never spread a wider flaxen glow upon water. It pours out so much light that the shadows of the trees are thrown on the lake, with reflected stars, seemingly caught in their branches, now shining upwards among the reeds. At the bidding of Elsheimer's devout fancy, the constellation of the Virgin shines through the bushes behind the three holy travellers, as they skirt the lake towards the comfort of a clearing where a fire has been lit by herdsmen; humble folk like those first summoned to witness the nativity.
The Velazquez Exhibition (18 October 2006-21 January 2007) at the London National Gallery has attracted hosts of visitors; deservedly since the hanging of the pictures in the historical order is mutely and lucidly explanatory. Visitors' explorations are further supported by a free pocket-guide so helpful that I noticed quite a few reading it whilst making their rounds, with occasional glances at the paintings. A fuller understanding would have been promoted if one or two pictures by Francisco Pacheco, admittedly hard to come by, had been displayed as an introduction.
Pacheco links Velazquez to El Greco. Pacheco was the Holy Office's censor of painting, to whose guidance El Greco paid specially little heed, and later became Velazquez's master and father-in-law. El Greco was one of the most fervent of painters, to the extreme of mania, whilst Velazquez was one of the most phlegmatic. What froze Velazquez, whose temperature was already low, was Pacheco's chill inquisitorial eye. Pacheco fed sedatives to a cold fish. Velazquez could be vehement but only purposefully so, in order to achieve a painterly effect.
In his early bodegons (tavern and kitchen scenes), the still-life renderings of utensils--the scour-shining pots, the stout brass mortars with their sword-handled pestles, the glazed earthenware jugs--are painted with an objective exactitude, but with none of Chardin's lingering tones and affection for the objects of domestic life. The same frigid perfection is to be found in The Rokeby Venus (London National Gallery), whose hindquarters have recently become so familiar to Londoners from the exhibition's posters on the underground railway. Impeccably and impassively Velazquez brushed in the delicate osseous tracery of spine and shoulder-blades, as he worked towards his icy miracle who conceals her insouciant face in a clouded looking-glass.
Unemotional himself, he rarely traced the human expression of emotion far. In his Martha and Mary (London National Gallery) what needed to be captured was Martha's complicated resentment at being neglected, and receiving a lesser share of Christ's attention than her sister Mary, whilst she prepared their meal, yet her face shows only the scowling tearfulness of a child deprived of a pleasure. His Virgin Immaculate (London National Gallery), based on John's vision in the Apocalypse, has merely a look of numb docility. His Habsburg royalties of Spain are perceptibly posed. Queen Mariana (Prado) in her eighteenth year and exhausted by an agonising childbirth, in her staring immobility looks no more than thoroughly vexed. Velazquez has imposed a regal restraint on her. (Her husband Philip IV was also her uncle in the blood-line, which is an example of the inbreeding which destroyed the Spanish Habsburgs.) Sometimes he overcompensated for his lack of expressive finesse by exaggerating a discrete outburst of feeling, as in Jacob and the Blood-stained Coat of Joseph (The Escorial) in which Jacob receives the report of his son's death with hyperbolical astonishment untinged with grief or even regret. When Vulcan receives the news of the unsurprising infidelity of his wife Venus in Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan (Prado) not only he, but his fellow blacksmiths too, gape in synchronised amazement.
Gazing at Apollo in unison, Vulcan and his fellow labourers resemble an operatic chorus contrivedly voicing shock. Even in groups, even when in physical contact with each other and exchanging glances--as here or in Baltasar Carlos at the Riding School (Private Collection) or Philip IV Hunting Boar (London National Gallery)--with the peculiar isolation and self-containment of Velazquez's figures, they neither convene nor cohere. The Water Seller of Seville (Wellington Collection, Aspley House, London) and his client do not look directly at each other over the superbly painted water-glass and terracotta jugs. Velazquez was more at ease as a painter of individual self-contained portraits.
Some pictures are meant to be seen at a distance and others nearby: such is the perversity of artists, although one would prefer the pictures to be equally impressive at both ranges. Velazquez asks for two perspectives: the faces in his portraits deserve close scrutiny; the costumes demand several steps back. He painted the steadily drooping jowls and eye-cavities, the loosening then toughening Brie gras cheese, of Philip IV's visage with such veracity that the King in the end dreaded looking at the latest portrait. Yet seen in the same proximity, the paintwork of the King's costume, such as that embroidered in silver thread in the portrait of c.1632 (London National Gallery) is wantonly negligent, with an imprecision startling to an admirer of such an artist as Elsheimer. Further away, it looks radiant. The baubles and ribbons in the feathered wig of the 1653 portrait of the Infanta Maria Teresa (Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum) and her dabbled corsage seem to be execrably and tawdrily daubed, when scrutinised nearby: at a remove they glorify her homely face. Such effects as these account for Manet's devotion to Velazquez. Approaching the portrait again to examine the face, one admires Velazquez's mastery of texture: the moist curvature and translucent sheen, anemone-bright, of her eyes set in two protrusions of flesh; the plump lips compacted by her heavy cheeks and prominent chin; the dark flush of her skin, which leaches colour from her faint eyebrows.
Velazquez's painterly virtuosity brings interest and animation to this otherwise dull-looking adolescent in an inordinate headdress set into her frizzled hair, and a preposterous hooped skirt the width of her extended arms, which serves as a ledge for her watch and locket. Seven years later she would become the ancestress of the Spanish Bourbon kings by marrying Louis XIV of France. She would also renounce the grotesque costumes of a Spanish court, imperial in its power and provincial in its tastes, for the splendour of Versailles.
The reservations about Velazquez's work evident in the present article are clearly not shared by the crowds who have come to see the Exhibition. It is indeed revelatory, once one has traced the mystery-trail to it through the Getty Entrance and the Annenberg Hall (vast blank, marbled wastes of space where pictures pining in the Reserve Collection might have been displayed), up many a stair and across a couple of rooms; and once one can come near the thronged pictures.
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|Title Annotation:||Adam Elsheimer and Diego Velazquez|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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