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Velazquez: The Technique of Genius.

Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido Perez. Velazquez: The Technique of Genius.

New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. 210 color illus. + 30 b/w + 224 pp. $50. ISBN: 0-300-07293-7.

Jonathan Brown. Painting in Spain, 1500-1700.

New Haven and London: Yale University Press/Pelican History of Art, 1998. 328 illus. + 283 pp. $75 (cl), $35 (pbk). ISBN: 0-300-06472-1 Cl), 0-300-06474-8 (pbk).

In a review of four important books about Diego de Velazquez published in the late nineteenth century, a distinction was aptly drawn between the two approaches to the subject reflected in those publications: "There are two ways of getting to know a great master. One is to stand in front of his pictures. The other is to read about his life and times: that is how the historian learns. Neither of these methods, of course, excludes the other. Yet they appeal to different temperaments, not readily combined, and critics may be roughly distinguished as pictorial or historical" (Edinburgh Review, Jan. 1901). The "pictorial critic" has always had difficulty verbalizing what his visual study of Velazquez's paintings might reveal. In the eighteenth century, no less a figure than Anton Raphael Mengs described Velazquez's Fable of Arachne as "done in such a way that it seems as if the hand played no part in the execution, but that he painted it only as an act of will." In like fashion, countless later critics have admire d the master's technique, but have failed to articulate how he achieved it.

Only in recent years have scientific studies using radiography, infrared reflectography, and the chemical analysis of pigments provided information about the material nature of Velazquez's paintings that could not earlier have been discerned through even the most careful observation. One of the authors of the present volume, Carmen Garrido Perez, Head of Technical Services at the Prado Museum, has for years applied her expertise as a conservation scientist to the wealth of Velazquez paintings in the Madrid museum. Her research recently culminated in the publication of Velazquez, tecnica evolucion (1992). This beautifully illustrated volume of over 600 pages meticulously documents what modern technology can tell us about the paintings, replete with many illustrations of radiographs and detailed analyses of pigment samples and the artist's choice of supports. The admirable result is a book for the coffee tables of specialists.

Jonathan Brown, Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts at New York University, is the author of many books and articles on Spanish art. His monograph, Velazquez; Painter and Courtier (1986), is the study of the art and life of the painter that will remain the standard reference for the foreseeable future. Tracing Velazquez's career chronologically, Brown writes not only of the individually great masterpieces, but of Velazquez's career at the court as a portraitist, decorator, and advisor to King Philip II, one of the great collectors and patrons of art of the seventeenth century.

The authors state in the prologue to Velazquez: The Technique of Genius that it was their intention to "try to combine our knowledge and present our findings in a non-technical way so that other admirers of the artist could see what makes him such a great painter. Works of art, unlike pieces of literature or music, are structured by the manipulation of material properties. By engaging with their physicality, we partake of their essence" (7). Following a brief biographical sketch by Brown and a brief introduction to Velazquez's materials and techniques by Garrido, the coauthors have crafted a seamlessly joint approach to each of the thirty paintings (mostly in the Prado) discussed.

Essays on each painting are presented like catalogue entries for a "virtual exhibition." Each "entry" is packed with information about the relevant issues of patronage and iconography and a clear explication of the artist's materials and techniques, as well as how Velazquez's choice of those are determined by the subject at hand. The scientific research that led the authors to this melding of the skills of the "pictorial" and "historical" critic has been assimilated into a text which is perfectly understandable to the non-specialist. The illustrations of radiographs and reflectograms are wisely kept to a minimum: when shown, their significance is carefully explained. The individual contributions of the authors remain discernible: the special photography by Garrido (and their impeccable reproduction) capture splendid details of Velazquez's brushwork, while Brown's elegant, accessible, often amusing prose helps viewers truly see what they are looking at. This volume offers art historians the latest in technica l information about Velazquez's technique, but would serve equally well as an excellent introduction to Velazquez for the general reader.

Likewise, Brown's Painting in Spain, 1500-1700 is both a valuable handbook for the art historian and a clear, well organized introduction to the Golden Age of Spanish painting. Large parts of the present volume are reprinted intact from Brown's earlier book, The Golden Age of Painting in Spain (1991). This is welcome, as the invaluable earlier publication is out of print. Also welcome are the inclusion of more extensive notes, a well ordered bibliography, and a detailed index -- all brought up to date since the 1989 completion of the earlier book (reviewed in RQ 48.1, 197-99). These additions, following the purpose of the Pelican History of Art volumes, greatly enhance the usefulness of Brown's achievement -- quite simply the best survey in English of this great period of Spanish painting. Unlike other Pelican volumes, the history of Spanish Renaissance and Baroque painting is told as a continuous narrative rather than as a series of biographies of the artists (with the exceptions of El Greco and Jusepe de R ibera). The earlier volume in the Pelican series, Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions, 1500-1800 (1959), by George Kubler and Martin Soria, will remain useful for the sections on architecture and sculpture. However, the stingy attention to painting in the earlier book is finally supplemented by a volume that will long be a basic reference for the two hundred years of the "Golden Age" of Spanish painting.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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