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REVIEW: VELAZQUEZ AT THE GRAND PALAIS

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 28 MAY 2015 — The Spanish painter, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, born in Seville in 1599, is one of the world’s most important figures in the history of art, but, as surprising as it may seem, the retrospective of his work currently being shown at the Grand Palais is the first to be shown in France.  Referred to as "the painter of painters" by Edouard Manet who considered him the greatest artist of all time, Velazquez’ works, barely one hundred in all, have a timelessness equaled only by Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Rembrandt.  Presenting fifty of his canvases, the Paris exhibition seeks to show Velazquez’ work from his early beginnings to his later, more mature style when he became the leading figure of the Spanish School, and the official artist to King Philip IV.

He began to study with Francisco Pacheco at the age of 11 when he first learned how to mix colours before he was allowed to paint. At 17 he won recognition for his religious subjects but gradually discarded them to paint the workmen and people he saw around him in his kitchen and in taverns. In his paintings, he played with contrasts, with light and with shade, giving life to his subjects.  Encouraged to try his luck at the Spanish court, he was appointed painter to the king in 1623. He was just 24 years old. At the invitation of Philip IV, he made two decisive trips to Italy, on the first of which he completed two masterpieces, Joseph’s bloodstained coat brought to Jacob from the Real Monasterio des Escorial in Madrid, and Vulcan’s Forge, on loan from the Prado Museum also in Madrid.


Diego Velázquez: Vulcan's Forge, 1630
Oil on canvas, 222 x 290 cm
 © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The latter, probably painted in Rome in 1630,  takes as its subject the mythical encounter between the sun god, Apollo, and Vulcan, the god of fire who is at work in his forge with his assistants, the cyclopes. Apollo, draped in an orange toga, half Greek statue/ half Roman orator, is telling Vulcan of the infidelity of his wife, Venus, with Mars the god of war. The scene is both tragic and humiliating. The painting is centred on the reaction of Vulcan, who, horrified, has come to an abrupt halt in his work, and the spectator is left wondering whether he is already preparing his vengeance. Apollo is surrounded by an aura of light, in stark contrast to the dirt and darkness around Vulcan, but despite the celestial theme, Velasquez has nonetheless included material objects, the coat of armour in the foreground and the tools used by the blacksmiths.

On his return from Rome, his career was subsequently marked by the birth and death of successive heirs to the throne.  Being recognized as an exceptional portraitist, he was commissioned by the king to complete portraits of the newly born prince, Baltasar Carlos and his canvases show the young prince at each stage of his life, culminating in the masterly Portrait of the Child  Baltasar Carlos on his Pony, the most famous of his numerous portraits. Aged six and wearing a sword at his side, the boy holds the reins with one hand, the other proudly raised carrying the commander’s baton. The boy carries all the hopes and future of the Habsburg dynasty. In the background of the painting one can see the outskirts of Madrid in a magnificent demonstration of his rendering of nature, a little-known aspect of his work.


Diego Velázquez: Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback, circa 1635
Oil on canvas, 211,5 cm x 177 cm

© Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The death of the Queen of Spain, followed two years later by that of the crown prince, brought about a dynastic crisis in the country. It was resolved by King Philip’s second marriage to Marie-Anne of Austria, who gave him 5 children, including the Infanta Marguerite in 1659. Velasquez, now at the height of his powers, completed several portraits of her, including the sumptuous Portrait of the Infanta Marguerite in Blue when she was 8 years old. The portrait was sent to the court of Vienna, to the heir of the Habsburg throne, as she was destined to marry her cousin, the future emperor, Leopold Ist.
 
She’s richly attired, blue being an unusual colour for Velazquez to use, and holds a muff in her hand, possibly a present from the Viennese court, while in the room behind her, one sees a mirror or picture encircling her face, while there is a bronze lion and a clock on the table in front of her, symbols of both the importance of the princess and the place where she is depicted. Interestingly, other portraits of her in the exhibition in the same pose by Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo, seem stiff and stilted, lacking the lightness and harmony of the Velazquez masterpiece.

However, one of the most spectacular exhibits drawing the crowds is the outstanding abstract masterpiece, The Toilet of Venus on loan from London’s National Gallery. Perhaps inspired by Titian or Rubens, the painting shows Venus, the goddess of love, naked, but represented from the back lying on her side. She is looking into a mirror held by her son, Cupidon. Paintings of nudes remain extremely rare in the works of 17th century Spain, and it is not known whether this was completed in Madrid or Italy, the model perhaps being his Italian mistress with whom he had an illegitimate son,  Antonio.


Diego Velázquez: The Toilet of Venus  circa 1647-1651
Oil on canvas, 122,5 x 177 cm
London, © The National Gallery

Interestingly, the goddess is a brunette rather than the more usual blonde, and to create an aura of mystery the reflection of her face in the mirror at the centre of the work is blurred. Be that as it may, the work is recognized as being the most beautiful nape in the history of painting. In 1906, confronted with so much sheer beauty, a suffragette, a Miss Richardson, took a knife and repeatedly slashed the painting. Asked why, she replied that she wanted to destroy the image of such a beautiful woman.

Fortunately in France, women now have the right to vote!

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the French artist Pierre Bonnard.

Headline image: Diego Velázquez: María Teresa (1638–1683), Infanta of Spain, 1651–54
Oil on canvas, 34.3 x 40 cm)
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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