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Velazquez in London.

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez is often thought of as a painter of people but his early pictures are best regarded as still lifes. Three Musicians (1616-1617) should be renamed "Bread on a table napkin," Tavern Scene (1616-1617) should be called "Knife and bursting Pomegranate," and An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) "Eggs being Cooked." These early paintings, all of them on view in this excellent exhibition at the National Gallery in London, organized by the American art scholar Dawson W. Carr, are remarkable not for the people in them but for the objects. (1) The party line on these early paintings is that they show how the young Velazquez was able to use his precocious skills to dignify the humble; he was not just a court painter. What we actually see are stereotypes; youngsters with crude simian faces and quaint oldies. Velazquez had not yet learned portraiture. It is the old woman's eggs that matter, floating sunny side up in olive oil. Likewise The Water Seller of Seville (1618-1622) should be called, renamed, "Porous Pot," for it is the pot that counts; you can even see the water seep through its pores so it can evaporate and keep cool what remains inside to be drunk. Even in Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618), it is the fish, the shelled eggs, the pestle and mortar in the young woman's hands, the spoon, and the onions that are memorable. In each case the people are merely clumsy caricatures. To see dignity in them is to be anachronistic, to impose a modern prejudice on them.

Why should it be otherwise? They are but actors for a street painter, not individuals waiting and inviting our attention; Velazquez only found and seized this opportunity when he went from his native Seville to the capital, Madrid. There he succeeded, much as Holbein had done in England, because there was a demand for what he turned out to be outstandingly good at--portraying a single individual or a family who want to be recorded by a talented artist. An inspiring visit to Italy followed where he learned new techniques of light and space.

As a court artist, much of his work was naturally to portray the royal Hapsburg family, King Philip IV of Spain and his successive wives and their children. In some respects it must have constrained him because their faces had to express calm power, an indication of a well-established major dynasty. And so his best portraits are informal ones of King Philip IV when relaxing in the countryside as in Philip IV as a Hunter (1636). The king's dog is as good as the King. It is worth contrasting it with the formal portayal of Philip Iv of Spain in Brown and Silver (1632), the very picture of impassive superiority in a magnificent costume which seems, when seen from close up, like squiggles but from further away sparkles as befits a king. Yet the most touching and insightful is Philip IV of Spain (1656-1657), when he is old and failing. His wife and his son have died before him and his empire is fraying. He is worn out; still a king, but a humanly afflicted one. It is here that Velazquez reveals his sense of human equality, not in the early genre paintings. Our equality lies not in our common dignity but in the suffering we all share--the true message of religion. A more confident power is displayed in the famous seated portrait of Pope Innocent x (1650), done on Velazquez's second visit to Italy. It displays all the political shrewdness and capacity to make others fear you for which he was known. The hard ruthless eyes of a pope named Innocent with his thin mouth set below a forehead held in a red hair-concealing cap now look out at London.

Many paintings by Velazquez came to England thanks to Napoleon. When Joseph Bonaparte, the brother whom Napoleon imposed as King of Spain, fled during the Spanish War of Independence from France, he took with him the best of the Spanish royal portrait collection, including many by Velazquez, as loot. Several French art galleries have been stocked in this way; they are as much a record of French military aggression as the Arc de Triomphe. The Duke of Wellington, the commander of a British army fighting alongside the Spaniards, intercepted Joseph's baggage train at Vitoria in 1813 and held the canvases for safekeeping. When he sought to return them to the now-restored King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1815, the King gave them to him in gratitude for his role in expelling the French monster. Military prowess and virtue were rewarded.

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez needed Pope Innocent x. Velazquez had risen in standing from mere craftsman of Seville to fulfil his teacher Francisco Pacheco's ambition of the artist as an intellectual. But he wanted to be a nobleman, to be admitted to the Order of Santiago. The King nominated Velazquez, but he was rejected. There was the little matter of his father Juan Rodriguez da Silva's Portuguese Jewish ancestry. There was a lot of it about in Portugal. When in the eighteenth century King Jose I of Portugal suggested to his principal minister the Marquis of Pombal that he should design a special hat to be worn by all those with Jewish ancestry to make them visible, Pombal agreed and came into court the next day with two of the new hats. "Why two?" asked the King. "One for you and one for me," Pombal replied. After the Jews had been expelled from Spain, those who were left had at least nominally to become Catholics--the conversos. Many intermarried. It set off a ludicrous and persisting Spanish obsession with ancestry. If Spaniards wanted to know whether someone was blue-blooded or not, they would look at their wrists. If they were light-skinned from the unconquered Asturias, it would be possible to see their blue veins. If they had Sephardic Jewish ancestors mingled with their Spanish ones, their wrists would be too dark for the blueness of the veins to be visible. Even a peasant such as Don Quixote's servant-follower Sancho Panza reminds us regularly that he is an "Old" Christian, i.e. without "New Christian" Jewish convert ancestry. If you wanted to get into the noble Order of Santiago, it was a problem to have Jewish ancestors. Even the King of Spain couldn't swing it for Velazquez; it needed a papal dispensation. The popes were not as bigoted about Jewish ancestry. To this we owe the care Velazquez took over the Holy Father's portrait.

Velazquez's many portraits of children, courtiers, and intellectuals are also masterpieces, but the historical and classical paintings here (the best are not present in the exhibition) are a disappointment, except in their details. In the painting Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan (1630), we see the sun-god Apollo tipping off the blacksmith Vulcan that his wife Venus, the goddess of love, is having an affair with Mars, the god of war. It is a piece of Victorian high kitsch, the clumsy telling of a clumsy story, one heavy with crass emotion. Nonetheless, Velazquez once again brings his mastery of objects to the picture. Forget Apollo and Vulcan--look at the pearl-white jug: a delight of curves on the gray shelf above the fire, set against a gray wall.

For a delight of human curves, there is, though, Velazquez's great classical nude, The Toilet of Venus, or the Rokeby Venus (1647-1651). It is his only surviving nude and is rumored to depict the mistress he had while in Italy who also bore his child. Who knows? It is a picture of a bottom, as Venus, lying on her couch, her knees tucked, and her shoulder away from us to emphasize her best feature for posterity. The face in the mirror (held up to her by Cupid and angled so that we too can see it from the front) is blurred, ugly, Boetian and does not match her elegant neck and profile that we can see directly from the side. Velazquez has done this deliberately. There is nothing spiritual about face or picture. The classical setting is an excuse for a very material aesthetic sexuality--not sex, as such, but an appreciation of the beauty that accompanies attraction

Its first real British owner, John Morritt, M.P. of Rokeby Hall (hence "the Rokeby Venus"), understood full well what Velazquez was saying and took great care in hanging it. He wrote to his friend the popular if ponderous Sir Walter Scott:
 I have been all morning pulling about my pictures
 and hanging them in new positions to
 make room for my fine picture of Venus's
 backside which I have at length exalted over
 my chimney-piece in the library. It is an admirable
 light for the painting and shows it to
 perfection, whilst raising the said backside to a
 considerable height.

Ladies and clergymen could now pretend it wasn't there, avert their eyes, and turn the other cheek. But it must have been a great distraction to the classical scholars working in the library on a hot Yorkshire day. In 1906, the Rokeby Venus was bought by the National Gallery in London to stop it being sold to Berlin. On March 10, 1914, a suffragette and feminist terrorist, Mary "Slasher" Richardson, attacked Venus's famous buttocks with a chopper, inflicting severe damage on the painting. It was an act of senseless fanatical destruction, comparable with the anarchist bomb attack on the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1894, immortalized by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent. Terrorists are criminals obsessed with a narrow ideology such as anarchism, feminism, or Islamism that enables them to destroy without compunction the highest productions of human civilization in the pursuit of what they call "justice." They are enemies of humanity who move easily from one fanaticism to another. Mary "Slasher" Richardson, who had been a drum major in the suffragettes' Fife and Drum Marching Band, later went on to be the head of the women's section of the British Union of Fascists in 1934. Any fanaticism, any drumbeat to march to, would have done.

Fortunately the painting was expertly restored by the National Gallery's Chief Restorer, Helmut Ruhemann. Today Venus' bottom is unscarred and we can see it as Velazquez did. Vita brevis est. Ars longa.

(1) "Velazquez" opened at the National Gallery, London, on October 18, 2006 and remains on view through January 21, 2007.
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Title Annotation:Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez
Author:Davies, Christie
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Spain & Picasso.
Next Article:Gallery chronicle.

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