The Importance Of Velasquez In The History Of Painting
( Originally Published 1912 )
WHEN one speaks of Velasquez, it must be remembered that his influence upon art is still young. His genius slumbered for two hundred years, till the sympathy of one or two great artists broke the spell and showed us the true enchanter of realism, shaping himself from a cloud of misapprehension. The importance and the comparative novelty of the subject may excuse these few notes, taken during a visit to Madrid. For it will be allowed that Italy still draws the mass of picture-lovers. Hundreds of writers, sitting at home, direct the pilgrimages of thousands of travellers amidst the nicest details of Italian galleries. Every day sees some new book or paper on the Raphaelites, pre-Raphaelites, or Venetians. You enter the Uffizi of Florence or the Academy of Venice with a crowd who look at their books no less than at the pictures. The Prado of Madrid is almost your own ; a few students are there, and a stray traveller or two like yourself, but you may wander half a morning and see no other Englishman. The great gallery has not yet been described and criticised in English more than it deserves. Now people like to attach a ready-made sentiment to a picture ; they hate to form their own judgment, and to wait till a canvas speaks to them in its own language. The true effect of art is slow. A picture is a quiet companion of your leisure, whose mood you learn to accept without heated controversy ; one of those quiet figures, in fact, who sit and smoke opposite you, till you seem to exchange thoughts with them by something like mental transference. If you must rush this intimacy in a public gallery, you should look at a picture as you would at a mesmeriser, with your head empty and all your life in your eyes. But the hurried visitor sins from over-eagerness. He is fluttered by anticipation of the many things to come, and will not abandon himself to what is actually before his eyes. He will not wait ; he prefers to bustle up his acquaintance with a canvas by means of the formal introduction of some one whom he regards as an habitué of picture-galleries.
The energy and eloquence of a Ruskin and the sympathetic comprehension of a Whistler or a Carolus-Duran are needed for Madrid. I do not pretend to have settled my own opinions about Velasquez, much less to set myself up as a guide, or to utter a final word upon such a subject. Some one with time and opportunity, I hope, may take my notes into account, in a thorough investigation of Velasquez, from the point of view of modern art. As yet few but painters enjoy Velasquez, or rightly estimate his true position in the history of art. Not much is known about him. Contempt, not to say oblivion, fell on the man who preconceived the spirit of our own day. Amongst notable prophets of the new and true Rubens, Rembrandt, Claude—he was the newest, and certainly the truest, from our point of view ; so new and so true, indeed, that two hundred years after he had shown the mystery of light as God made it, we still hear that Velasquez was a sordid soul who never saw beauty, a mere master of technique, wholly lacking in imagination. So say those whose necks are stiff with looking at Italy and Raphael. Delacroix 1 complains of them. in his Letters, that they see beauty only in lines, and therefore refuse to believe that others may receive a different kind of impression. The opinion of these people is not to be controverted by words alone, and, as nature is a hard teacher, a student may save himself trouble by studying Velasquez at Madrid. A man of genius learns from a mere hint, it is true, and such an one without going farther than Paris or London may understand how Velasquez saw the world : a more ordinary eye, however, must take the Spaniard's greatness half on trust, if he has not seen Madrid. But with the best will in the world some eyes really cannot see the side of nature that Velasquez saw ; while others are so bandaged by Italian prejudice that they may save themselves the trouble of a journey.