Spanish Painters, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
I am now going to point out to you some of the pictures of the Spanish school, of whom Velazquez was not only the chief, but one of the greatest painters of all time.
His influence in art is as strong now as it ever was. He has been called the master of modern painting, and to him have gone for inspiration some of our most remarkable artists of the present day. He was born at Seville in 1599 the same year as Van Dyck, and was about the age of the King of Spain, Philip IV, who became his most powerful patron. It is said of him, as of many another artist in his boyhood, that he preferred drawing on the edges of his lesson books to reading them. One would almost suspect the genius of a painter who had not had this anecdote told of him in some form or other. He was the great realist painter, he painted the things as he saw them, the things as they are. Some painters idealize their sitters. Could we see the original of one of Sir Joshua Reynolds's most exquitite portraits we might be disappointed.
If Velazquez's sitters came to life again we should say : ' Oh how very like the portrait.' Velazquez made it a rule always to have the thing he was painting in front of him—he did not fill in from memory. He kept a peasant boy as an apprentice, and used to study him in all his attitudes and motions, used to watch him at his play. The great painter was unaffected in his style, not trying for the gorgeous colouring of his friend Rubens, or the serene beauty of Raphael. He was a man of fine character, capable, Philip IV said of him after his death, ' though he had lived at court, of gratitude and generosity.' No petty jealousy troubled him ; he loved to praise the good work of other artists. We read over and over again of his intellectual ability and his sweet temper.
Let us glance first at ` Don Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School' (6). Philip IV, his father, was said to be the greatest horseman in all Spain, and the son seems to know no fear on the restive animal which has been described as ` a little devil, which, before being mounted, was to be carefully bridled, and to receive half-a-dozen lashes, after which he would go like a little dog.' It seems rather harsh treatment, and one hopes that as the horse and his rider grew older they understood each other so well that there were no more beatings.
We have Don Baltasar Carlos again as a child (12). He is in a gorgeous dress ; a very elaborate costume for three years old. His left hand is on a sword, as becomes a future king, his right hand grasps a baton, across his grey frock is tied a scarf of royal purple. I do not think it can have been a very happy destiny to have been born a prince of the house of Spain in those days, where the etiquette was so severe that there is a legend of a baby prince, who had fallen into the fire, being allowed to burn to death, because there was no one of sufficient rank near at the time to pull him out. Don Baltasar Carlos did not live to sit on the throne, for he died when he was sixteen.
Another portrait, a Spanish lady with a fan (88), I want you especially to look at. Velazquez scarcely ever painted any but royal and noble women. This lady belongs to the middle classes. She has a draped mantilla of black lace over her head, her rosary is over one arm, while in her hand she carries a black fan. You should notice the shape of her hands encased by her gloves. The mantilla was supposed to make women look too fascinating, so the wearing of it was forbidden except on special occasions.
Don Carlos's sister, the Infanta Margarita Maria (100) is here. Her portrait is only ascribed to Velazquez. The little princess stands there in her beautifully brocaded dress holding out her tiny skirts, her hair tied with a bow on one side.
There are two other portraits, not by Velazquez himself, but in his manner. They are by an artist, who, immensely admiring him, so fully absorbed his spirit that it is difficult to tell, without much study, that they are not originals. Here is Philip IV on horseback (106). One sees that he is a good horseman, able to control his spirited animal. There is fine breeding in the horse as well as in its rider. The second portrait is of Count Oliváres (109), Philip IV's powerful minister, who was dismissed in disgrace by his royal master for his share in the separation of the crown of Spain from that of Portugal. He helped Velazquez very much in his early and struggling days. We see Count Oliváres here on horseback, clad in armour, a coloured scarf tied across it : he is a typical Spaniard in his noble bearing.
There is one picture here by Velazquez's friend, Alfonso Cano, who was painter, sculptor, and architect. Oliváres was his patron. Cano's qualities of strength and delicacy are seen in this rendering of ` The Vision of St. John ` (15). St. John, with a rapt expression, is looking upward to the skies where he sees the new Jerusalem. The little city lieth four-square there in the skies, with its twelve gates ever open, and its river of the water of life. This neat little town in the clouds seems rather a curious conception of that city of wonderful vision.
With Murillo we come to a very tender conception of the beauty of holiness. He was born in Seville in 1618, nineteen years after Velazquez. His parents were poor people, and in order to keep himself he sold his first pictures at fairs. When he was a young man he came to Madrid, and there he met Velazquez, who was always interested in and generous to other painters. He recognised Murillo's genius and helped him, and advised him to go on the usual tour and study the great masters in Italy. Perhaps Murillo would have been a nobler artist had he been able to follow this advice. There is beauty in his figures of the Virgin and the Saints, but at times we find in them an exaggerated sweetness and tenderness. His success was so great that he never found time to go abroad : in his native country he lived and worked. His art was greatly admired by his countrymen. He was a man of real piety, and it was fitting that he should die while stilt painting the saints whom he loved. He was at work on a picture of St. Catharine for the Church of the Capuchins at Cadiz, when he fell from the scaffold on which he was standing, and was mortally injured. ` The Virgin and Child' (13) is a sweet and tender picture. The little St. John is there, and St. Elisabeth too--St. John's face is particularly charming as he gazes up at the divine child standing on the Virgin's knee.
Before we leave Murillo you should look at ` Joseph and his Brethren' (46), an impressive picture. There is the deep pit into which Joseph is to be put, one of the brothers is pointing to it, another has hold of Joseph. Jealousy and envy are in their faces, they have stripped off his coat of many colours, they will dye it in the blood of a goat to deceive their father, and make him think that Joseph has been killed. The picture is fine in colouring and full of dramatic interest.