Velázquez? Think of him as creator of the Facebook pages of his day

The Spanish master’s portraits of royal children were dispatched to European capitals to curry marriage possibilities. But the ‘painter of painters’ also recorded the fading world of the Habsburgs with startling realism

 

It was rotten being a royal in 17th-century Spain. The populace were decimated by plague and endless war. The Dutch and French coveted one’s territory. Children often died in infancy – all the more so the offspring of the inbred Habsburgs. It was difficult to find suitable matches for epileptic, imbecile heirs. The Inquisition would not die out for another 200 years, and inquisitors discouraged decollete dresses at court. Nude paintings were out of the question. No wonder they all look so unhappy.

Diego Velázquez, whom many considered the greatest Spanish painter, entered this joyless world at the age of 24, as a court painter to King Philip IV. Until his death, in 1660, at the age of 61, Velázquez would record the fading world of the Spanish Habsburgs with startling realism.

For the first time France has dedicated a major exhibition to Velázquez, at the Grand Palais, in Paris. The show follows every step of the painter’s career, from his early, naturalistic tavern scenes in Seville to the stiff court portraits, including the landscapes and history paintings Velázquez completed during journeys to Italy.

The exhibition is a feat on several counts. Guillaume Kientz, head of Spanish painting at the Louvre, has assembled 54 Velázquez paintings, nearly half of the artist’s total production. There was, however, no question of the Prado, in Madrid, lending Velázquez’s best-known masterpiece, Las Meninas.

To its embarrassment the Louvre owns not a single Velázquez. There is only one Velázquez in France, a portrait of Philip IV in hunting dress, at the Goya Museum in Castres. But Velázquez almost never signed his paintings, so its authorship is uncertain.

Britain, on the other hand, has a wealth of Velázquez masterpieces. Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte looted the royal collection when he fled in 1813, after ruling Spain for five years. The first duke of Wellington seized 83 paintings at the Battle of Vitoria, including four by Velázquez. When Wellington offered to return them the restored King Ferdinand VII declined, saying they were a gift of gratitude to Britain for liberating Spain.

 

Sensuous back

The National Gallery in London has lent Velázquez’s Toilet of Venus for the Paris show. It is the only surviving nude by Velázquez, and may have been painted in Rome, to circumvent the ban by the Inquisition. With her milky white skin and sensuous back, Velázquez’s Venus recalls Giorgione and Titian, and looks forward to Ingres. Her son, Cupid, gazes adoringly at his mother, whose face is blurred in the mirror.

Velázquez painted more frightening characters than beauties – Mother Jerónima before she set off to found convents in the Philippines, for example. The ageing mother superior wields a crucifix like an axe. Legend has it that she never washed, and cut into her own flesh, so that when she removed her black robe scabs and vermin fell from her body.

There’s a sombre poet in halflight, and an inquisitor with a merciless stare. But the eyes that leave one sprawling on a pin are those of Pope Innocent X. Francis Bacon would be fascinated by Velázquez’s menacing pontiff, whom he portrayed blown apart and screaming.

When Velázquez completed Innocent’s portrait, in 1650, the pope is said to have exclaimed, “Troppo vero!” – “too real!” A servant allegedly genuflected before the likeness. The pope’s cruel gaze embodies a temporal power having little to do with faith or goodness.

Velázquez was a conformist who adapted his style to fulfill his ambitions, for example embracing the doctrine of Immaculate Conception when it was hotly debated. The legacy of Titian is obvious in Venus and Innocent X. Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan and Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, story paintings he brought back from Rome, bear a strong resemblance to Poussin. The Spaniard’s work also shows the influence of his friend Peter Paul Rubens.

Velázquez eventually obtained the knighthood he sought, with a reference from Pope Innocent urging the council in Madrid to overlook his common origins. He spent much of the last decade of his life decorating palaces, buying artwork and organising ceremonies for the king, to the detriment of his painting.

Unlike his contemporary Rembrandt, Velázquez did not develop a strong personal style. His work is not immediately distinguishable from that of 18 Spanish painters exhibited alongside him. His paintings are similar to theirs, only better.

In portraits of court jesters, dwarfs and actors, Velázquez could take liberties not allowed when painting royals. Pablo de Valladolid, the actor, seems to step off the canvas. More than 200 years later Edouard Manet would use the same stance, with shadows falling behind the legs, for his Tragic Actor. Manet’s Fife Player, with its empty background projecting the subject towards the viewer, was clearly modelled on the Velázquez portrait.

Manet called Velázquez “the painter of painters”. But another Manet saying, that a painter “must be of his time”, describes Velázquez most aptly.

 

Best pupil

Velázquez had married Juana, the daughter of his teacher Francisco Pacheco. Fifteen years later his own daughter, Francisca, married Velázquez’s best pupil, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo. Until now art historians habitually attributed work that appeared substandard to del Mazo. The Paris exhibition shows the son-in-law to have been a fine painter in his own right. His Portrait of a Woman in a Mantilla reminds one of Goya’s later Portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate, in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

Velázquez chronicled the reign of Philip IV in much the same way that Titian, his idol, had recorded the life of Charles V a century earlier. With his thick waist, large lips and chin, lank blond hair and droopy, sad eyes, Philip was not a handsome monarch.

Philip took his 14-year-old niece, Mariana, as his second wife. She had been destined to marry his first son, Baltasar Carlos, who died at the age of 16. As I stood before Mariana’s portrait a French woman behind me exclaimed, with a gasp, “Elle est horrible”. Velázquez’s honesty was to his credit.

Portraits of royal children were the Facebook pages of their day, dispatched regularly to European capitals to curry marriage possibilities. Velázquez painted the Infanta María Teresa, the only surviving child from Philip IV’s first marriage, with white butterflies in her wig.

 

Secure peace

Had Philip not remarried and fathered more sons María Teresa would have succeeded him. Instead she was married to Louis XIV, to secure peace between France and Spain. Velázquez organised the wedding and acted as her witness in the ceremony, in the Pyrenees.

Margarita Teresa, the daughter of Philip’s second marriage, appears in a blue paniered dress in the ravishing portrait lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, in Vienna. The dress and its silver-ribbon trim are a series of imprecise brushstrokes, an impressionist technique 200 years before impressionism. Margarita would marry Leopold I of Austria.

The stories of the male heirs – fragile blond boys in Velázquez’s portraits – are saddest. Felipe Próspero died, like his half-brother Baltasar Carlos before him. Queen Mariana gave birth to another son, Charles II, who succeeded Philip IV. Crippled and mentally deficient, Charles II died at the age of 39 without an heir, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs.

Velázquez is at the Grand Palais, in Paris, until July 13th, 2015; more details here

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