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Velasquez In The Prado

( Originally Published 1925 )

Fearful that your eye has lost its innocence after hearing so much of the picture, you enter the tiny room at the museum on the Prado in which is hung Las Meninas — The Maids of Honour, painted by Velasquez in 1656. My ex-experience was a typical one. I went hastily through the larger Velasquez gallery in not only a challenging but an irritable mood. The holy of holies I was enraged to find, seemingly, crowded. There was the picture, but a big easel stood in the foreground blotting out the left side; some selfish artist copying, some fellow thrusting himself between us and the floating illusion of art. In despair I looked into the mirror that reflects the picture. I suspected trickery. Surely that little princess with her wilful, distrait expression, surely the kneeling maid, the dwarfs, the sprawling dog, the painter Velasquez — with his wig - the heads of the king and queen in the oblong mirror, the figure of Senor Nieto in the door-way, the Iight framing his silhouette surely they are all real. Here are the eternal simplicities. You realise that no one is in the room but these painted effigies of the court and family of Philip IV; that the canvas whose bare ribs deceived is in the picture, not on the floor; that Velasquez and the others are eidolons, arrested in space by the white magic of his art. For the moment all other artists and their works are as forgotten as the secrets in the lost and sacred books of the Magi. There is but one painter and his name is Velasquez.

This mood of ecstatic absorption is never outlived; the miracle operates whenever a visit is made to the shrine. But you soon note that the canvas has been deprived of its delicate glaze. There are patches ominously eloquent of the years that have passed since the birth of this magisterial composition. The tonal key is said to be higher because of restorations; yet to the worshipper these shortcomings are of minor importance. Even Giordano's exclamation: "Sire, this is the theology of painting," falls fiat. Essence of painting, would have been a truer statement. There is no other-worldliness here, but something more normal, a suggestion of solid reality, a vision of life. The various figures breathe; so potent is their vitality that my prime impression in entering the room was a sense of the presence of others. Perhaps this is not as consummate art as the voluptuous colour-symphonies of Titian, the golden exuberance of Rubens, the abstract spacing of Raphael, the mystic opium of Rembrandt; but it is an art more akin to nature, an art that is a lens through which you may spy upon life. You recall Ibsen and his "fourth wall." Velasquez has Iet us into the secret of human existence. Not, however, in the realistic order of inanimate objects copied. so faithfully as to fool the eye. Presentation, not representation, is the heart of this coloured imagery, and so moving, so redolent of life is it that if the world were shattered and Las Meninas shot to the coast of Mars, its inhabitants would be able to reconstruct an idea of the creatures that once inhabited old Mother Earth; men, women, children, their shapes, attitudes, gestures, and attributes. The mystery of sentient beings lurks in this canvas, the illusion of atmosphere has never been so contrived. In the upper part of the picture space is indicated in a manner that recalls both Rembrandt and Raphael. Velasquez, too, was a space-composer. Velasquez, too, plucked at the heart of darkness. But his air is luminous, the logic of his proportion faultless, his synthesis absolute. Where other painters juxtapose he composes. Despite the countless nuances of his thin, slippery brush strokes, the picture is always a finely spun whole.

When Fragonard was starting for Rome, Boucher said to him: "If you take those people over there seriously you are done for." Luckily Frago did not, and, despite his two Italian journeys, Velasquez was not seduced into taking, "those people" seriously. His recorded opinion of Raphael is corroborative of his attitude toward,

Italian art. Titian was his sole god. For nearly a year he was in daily intercourse with Rubens, but of Rubens's influence upon him there is little trace. Las Meninas is the perfect flowering of the genius of the Spaniard. It has been called impressionistic; Velasquez has been claimed as the father of impressionism as Stendhal was hailed by Zola as the literary progenitor of natural-ism. But Velasquez is too universal to be labelled in the interests of any school. His themes are of this earth, his religious paintings are the least credible of his efforts. They are Italianate as if the artist dared not desert the familiar religious stencil. His art is not correlated to the other arts. One does not dream of music or poetry or sculpture or drama in front of his pictures. One thinks of life and then of the beauty of the paint. Velasquez is never rhetorical, nor does he paint for the sake of making beautiful surfaces as often does Titian. His practice is not art for art as much as art for life. As a portraitist, Titian's is the only name to be coupled with that of Velasquez. He neither flattered his sitters, as did Van Dyck, nor mocked them like Goya. And consider the mediocrities, the dull, ugly, royal persons he was forced to paint! He has wrung the neck of banal eloquence, and his prose, sober, rich, noble, sonorous, rhythmic, is to my taste preferable to the exalted, versatile volubility and lofty poetic tumblings in the azure of any school of painting. His palette is ever cool and fastidiously restricted. It has been said that he lacks imagination, as if creation or evocation of character is not the loftiest attribute of imagination, even though it deals not with the stuff of which mythologies are made.

We admire the enthusiasm of Mr. Ricketts for Velasquez, and his analysis is second to none save R. A. M. Stevenson's. Yet we do protest the painter was not the bundle of negations Mr. Ricketts has made of him in his evident anxiety that some homage may be diverted from Titian. Titian is incomparable. Velasquez is unique. But to describe him as an artist who cautiously studied the work of other men, and then avoided by a series of masterly omissions and evasions their faults as well as their excellences, is a statement that robs Velasquez of his originality. He is not an eclectic. He is a man of affirmations, Velasquez. A student to his death, he worked slowly, revised painfully, above all, made heroic sacrifices. Each new canvas was a discovery. The things he left out of his pictures would fill a second Prado Museum. And the things he painted in are the glories of the world. Because of his simplicity, absence of fussiness, avoidance of the mock-heroic, of the inflated "grand manner," critics have pressed too heavily upon this same simplicity. There is nothing as subtle as his simplicity, for it is a simplicity that conceals subtlety. No matter the time of day or season of the year you visit Velasquez, you never find him off his guard. Aristocratic in his ease, he disarms you first. You may change your love, your politics, your religion, but once a Velasquez worshipper, always one.

Mr. Ricketts, over-anxious at precisely placing him, writes of his "distinction." He is the most "distinguished" painter in history. But we con-tend that this phrase eludes precise definition. "Distinguished" in what? we ask. Style, character, paint quality, vision of the beautiful? Why not come out plumply with the truth: Velasquez is the supreme harmonist in art. No one ever approached him in his handling save Hals, and Halg hardly boasts the artistic inches of Velasquez. Both possessed a daylight vision of the world. Reality came to them in the sharpest guise; but the vision of Velasquez came in a more beautiful envelope. And his psychology is profounder. He painted the sparkle of the eyes and also the look in them, the challenging glance that asks: "Are we, too, not humans?" Titian saw colour as a poet, Velasquez as a charmer and a reflective temperament. Hals doesn't think at all. He slashes out a figure for you and then he is done. The graver, deeper Spaniard is not satisfied until he has kept his pact with nature. So his vision of her is more rounded, concrete, and truthful than the vision of other painters. The balance in his work of the most disparate and complex relations of form, space, colour, and rhythm has the unpremeditated quality of life; yet the massive harmonic grandeurs of Las Meninas have been placed by certain critics in the category of glorified genre.

Some prefer Las Hilanderas in the outer gallery. After the stately equestrian series, the Philip, the Olivares, the Baltasar Carlos; after the bust portraits of Philip in the Prado and in the National Gallery, the hunting series, after the Crucifixion and its sombre background, you return to The Spinners and wonder anew. Its subtitle might be: Variations on the Theme of Sun-shine. In it the painter pursues the coloured adventures of a ray of light. Rhythmically more involved and contrapuntal than The Maids, this canvas, with its brilliant broken lights, its air that circulates, its tender yet potent conducting of the eye from the rounded arm of the seductive girl at the loom to the arched area with its leaning, old-time bass-viol,, its human figures melting dream-like into the tapestried background, arouses within the spectator much more complicated états d'âme than does Las Meninas. The silvery sorceries of that picture soothe the spirit and pose no riddles; The Spinners is a cathedral crammed with implications. Is it not the last word of the art of Velasquez— though it preceded The Maids ? Will the eye ever tire of its glorious gloom, its core of tonal richness, its virile exaltation of everyday existence? Is it only a trick of the wrist, a deft blending of colours by this artist, who has been called, wrongfully — the "Shakespeare of the brush"? Is all this nothing more than "distinguished"?

Mr. Ricketts justly calls Las Lanzas the unique historic picture. Painted at the very flush of his genius, painted with sympathy for the conquered and the :conqueror Velasquez accompanied the Marquis of Spinola to Italy this Surrender of Breda has received the homage of many generations. Sir Joshua Reynolds asserted that the greatest picture at Rome was the Velasquez head of Pope Innocent X in the Doria Palace (a variant is in the Hermitage Gallery, St. Peters-burg). What would he have said in the presence of this captivating evocation of a historic event? The battle pieces of Michael Angelo, Da Vinci, and Titian are destroyed; Las Lanzas remains a testimony to the powers of imaginative reconstruction and architectonic of Velasquez. It is the most complete, the most natural picture in the world. The rhythms of the bristling lances are syncopated by a simple device; they are transposed to another plane of perspective, there in company with a lowered battle standard. The acute rhythms of these spears has given to the picture its title of The Lances, and never was title more appropriate. The picture is at once a decorative arabesque, an ensemble of tones, and a slice of history. Spinola receives from the conquered Justin of Nassau the keys of the beleagured Breda. Velasquez creates two armies out of eight figures, a horse and fourteen heads here is the recipe of Degas for making a multitude carried to the height of the incredible. His own portrait, that of a grave, handsome man, may be seen to the right of the big horse.

The first period of his art found Velasquez a realist heavy in colour and brush-work, and with-out much hint of the transcendental realism to be noted in his later style. The dwarfs, buffoons, the sop and the Menippus are the result of an effortless art. In the last manner the secret of the earth mingles with the mystery of the stars, as Dostoievsky would put it. The Topers, The Forge of Vulcan, are pictures that enthrall be-cause of their robust simplicity and vast technical sweep though they do not possess the creative invention of the Mercury and Argus or The Anchorites. This latter is an amazing performance. Two hermits — St. Antony the Abbot visiting St. Paul the Hermit - are shown. A flying raven, bread in beak, nears them. You could swear that the wafer of flour is pasted on the canvas. This picture breathes peace and sweetness. The Christ of the Spaniard is a man, not a god, crucified. His Madonnas, masterly as they are, do not reach out hands across the frame as do his flower-like royal children and delicate monsters.

The crinolined princess, Margarita, with her spangles and furbelows, is a companion to the Margarita at the Louvre and the one in Vienna. She is the exquisite and lyric Velasquez. On his key-board of imbricated tones there are grays that felicitously sing across alien strawberry tints, thence modulate into fretworks of dim golden fire. As a landscapist Velasquez is at his best in the Prado. The various backgrounds and those two views painted at Rome in the garden of the Villa Medici — a liquid comminglement of Corot and Constable, as has been pointed out — prove this man of protean gifts to have anticipated modern discoveries in vibrating atmospheric effects and colour-values. But, then, Velasquez will always be "modern." And when time has obliterated his work he may become the legendary Parrhasius of a vanished epoch. To see him in the Prado is to stand eye to eye with the most enchanting realities-of art.


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