Composition Of Velasquez
( Originally Published 1912 )
WHEN he composed a picture Velasquez no longer relied altogether upon the arrangement by line or by colour blocks of the older masters; and when he drew anything it was not according to rule of thumb, canon of proportion, or even according to the later acquired knowledge of anatomy. He drew, as modern painters draw, almost entirely by eye, so that one thing was not more difficult to him to see rightly than another, and no receipts for representing thumbs, nails, curls, or other whole objects can be detected in his work. He wished any scene that he looked at in nature to be so treated in art as to express the quality and the distribution of the attention it had received from him in real life. Only thus could he hope to record the personal, impressions which were his chief interest in the world. For this reason he did not look upon himself so much as an embroiderer of given spaces as a trimmer of spaces to fit given impressions. Perhaps the two ideas are comparable to the European and Japanese notions of dressing. Hence Velasquez when he painted nature held to no superstition concerning the accepted places for strong points in a canvas. Here was a scene which had imposed on him a certain impression of its character, and this view he felt bound to express by a shape of canvas that would compose the scene as he had felt it. If, for instance, the emotion of the scene had come from distributing the attention over a vertical direction, he must have an upright canvas, even in a figure group like " Las Meninas." This was because to render the group as it had struck him it was necessary to surround it with a certain sense of aerial gloomy space, comparatively empty of incident, but not of tone.
That same intention is manifested in Rembrandt's "Supper at Emmaus" in the Louvre. The towering canopy of the darkened vaults which overhangs the dimly - lit flickering table and the wavering figures completes the impressional unity of the composition and heightens the solemnity of the sentiment. I have often looked at " The Marriage at Cana in Galilee," by Veronese, in the Louvre, but could never feel that the big space above the figures was connected with them in any but the most formal manner. These pillared galleries of marble, opening to the blue sky, although they are incidents in the composition of the "Marriage at Cana," scarcely seem to effect the mood in which the artist regards his figure group. They add no meaning to the general aspect of the group, they cause no exaltation or depression of sentiment, they affect the breadth of treatment not one whit, they operate in no way upon the value of colours or the comparative strength of definition. Therefore they are a mere literary or explanatory note telling us that the scene took place in certain surroundings, but not affecting the internal treatment or sentiment of the figure group. On the other hand, the vast gloomy top of "Las Meninas," the empty foreground of a Whistlerian etching, or the darkness of a mysterious Rembrandt forms an essential part of a picture and controls the force of colours and definitions, explains the lighting and emphasises the character of the sentiment which invests the figures. In fact, the surroundings of such pictures are as much part of the impression as the figures themselves ; whereas it is impossible to say that the figures in the Veronese have been painted any differently owing to the presence of their surroundings or that they have been conceived as they would be seen in such a field of sight.
Modern painters have become quite accustomed to cutting and composing a scene in the interests of an impression rather than for the sake of mere decorative consistency. Yet each time that this necessity has led them out of the path of custom, especially when it led also outside of established decorative conventions, the public have wondered and have cried out at the eccentricity. It was so when Manet used a high horizon above the picture. It was so when Whistler left more than half his canvas, this time the lower half, bare and un-peopled by incident. Most people failed to perceive that it is sometimes impossible otherwise to show the difference between an object far off subtending a small angle of sight and the same object near at hand subtending a large angle. For the sake of dignity Corot at times consented to let this distinction remain doubtful, but his compliance has caused many to question the truth of his pictures. It will be found that Velasquez, while he revealed new truths about nature, scarcely ever forgot that a picture must be a dignified piece of decoration. But he certainly sought to attain beauty by methods somewhat unlike those employed by his predecessors.
Velasquez decorates a space by the use of tone more than any painter before him. Had Titian seen " Las Meninas" he might have found the space filled inaptly, as far as line goes, by a row of heads crushed down into the bottom of an empty canvas. And truly if you made a drawing in line after the picture for Mr Blackburn it would appear a poor composition. Even in a photograph " Las Meninas" loses its rank among pictures, while on the contrary the illustrated catalogues of modern exhibitions frequently exalt a canvas to a position which its real execution cannot maintain. Such pictures are often the work of illustrators—that is, of men who conceive a composition in black and white, and, in painting, lose or bury their original idea in new and irrelevant detail. " Las Meninas " was imagined altogether as it exists in tone and colour ; it was seen in fact by the tache, to use a word of the early Impressionists, and the vision of it was not translated into those lines which, if you remember, Delacroix neither saw in nature nor wished to consider the sole source of beauty in art.
An old master made all his space alive with a swirl of flowing lines or built it compact like a monument with blocks of balanced colour. Immense chunks of red, blue, orange white, brown, etc., are fitted into each other as if they were the separate pieces of a puzzle. On this system each area of colour may require a different and separate process of working to secure the quality of its tint or to engage it in a semblance of chiaroscuro and effect. Such preoccupations hamper the attainment of any unity except of line, of artificial harmony between darks and lights, of decorative contrast between colours. Indeed, of the mysteries and beauties of true tone which Velasquez explored in the heart of nature, and deemed proper to touch man's emotional habits, these old men were comparatively ignorant, or, if they had an inkling of such things, they thought them altogether beside the question of art. The old masters' drawings, their numerous and careful cartoons, their very few notes of general effect, show their inborn love of space-filling by lines and definitely woven patterns. Their problem always being to fit the given space, they seldom sew pieces on to their canvases as Velasquez has done in many of his best pictures.
The life-size portrait of Philip IV. in armour and on horseback (Prado, 1066) is a notable example of this practice. To each side of the canvas a strip three or four inches wide has been sewn, while, on the canvas itself, the pushing up of older contours reveals much correction and change of outline. This increase of the canvas by strips sewn on, common enough in the pictures of Velasquez, makes one think that he differed from his contemporaries in the way he set to work. You rarely meet with this habit amongst the men of the older decorative schools. They planned their picture beforehand, and approached it from a previous composition carefully calculated to occupy and decorate the given space. It seems possible that Velasquez began a picture in quite another spirit ; that he conceived of it rather as an ensemble of tone than as a pattern of lines and tints. Unlike the older decorative artists, Velasquez has left few drawings. Probably he dashed in the main centre of the impression, and upon filling and darkening the rest of the canvas found sometimes that the centre required more elbow-room. In the Equestrian Philip the strips are not added to introduce any new feature or in any way to induce a change of place in the figure to one side or the other. They seem added simply to let the figure play in the centre of a larger field. The dignity, the quality, the sense of artistry in the presentation of a thing depends very much upon its proportion to surroundings. So much around it, no more and no less, seems necessary to secure that it be seen under the conditions of sight which produced an impression on the painter, and which therefore must be reproduced to justify his treatment of the picture. It might be worth someone's time to inquire into the sewing together of these canvases, to hunt out some reason in each case, to unearth any half-buried tradition bearing on the question. The main point seems to be that while unusual amongst the older men this habit is common enough amongst the moderns of whom Velasquez was a forerunner.
If you walk outside of Madrid upon the bare slopes facing the Sierras, you may see the reality which underlies the Equestrian Portraits. Sit low down on the ground and you will have this same bare burnt foreground ; should a figure pass, you will see the heavy blue of the distant hills low down behind its legs, while its head towers up into a cloudy sky. What he saw was endeared to Velasquez, and the arrangement of any one of his pictures carries with it the recollection of some actual occasion of sight. It is so with his portraits and with his subject-pictures. The two Philosophers, Aesop and Moenippus, stand as they might have stood scores of times in any room. Just so much space surrounds them as naturally falls under the eye ; it is of the shape that best befits their shape, and it is furnished with accessory of no busier or more defined complication than the character of the impression demands. The canvases in these two portraits are remarkably tall and narrow, the heads in them almost touch the top of the frame, the colour is dark grey and atmospheric, while the general tone seems to bathe everything in a nuanced depth of distance and air. The aspect of the pictures in style and composition recalls many of Mr Whistler's tall dark portraits wrapped in the mystery of gloomy interiors. Truth is the introducer that bids these two men shake hands across several centuries.
Velasquez you may say was never wantonly unusual ; and, astonishing as his compositions may have looked to conventionalists, they appear to us to-day no more unnatural than nature, and much more natural than many modern experiments in art. In the arrangement of a picture by Velasquez there is always some intention to give the flavour of a particular impression, but at the same time a great effort to preserve the sane every-day aspect of nature. The fitting of a figure to its space always corresponds to the way it is supposed to be looked at, to the distance at which it is supposed to be seen, and to the number and complication of the accessories which share the dominion of the canvas. True, in his early work, such as " The Adoration of the Kings" (Prado, 1054), or even in the later "Topers" and "The Forge of Vulcan," Velasquez appears to compel things into unreasoned relation to each other, but this is the result of that realism which overlooks the general aspect of a view and studies the appearances of its separate parts. Composition in such a case cannot be said to influence the whole treatment of a canvas, but only its formal outlines. Drawing, modelling, definition of detail, balance of emptiness and fulness are determined in their character by successive study of pieces of the picture instead of by a comprehensive view of the whole subject. The faults induced by such technique are hardness, con-fusion, spottiness, and the sacrifice of the mystery of enveloping air and light to petty markings and exaggerated spots of local colouring. It will be seen that hardness, confusion, and spottiness can be corrected by the sole influence of a noble decorative ideal, and that the unrealistic combinations of Veronese, Titian, Rubens and others are free from these defects. Yet their pictures cannot pretend to express fully the more subtle mysteries of real light or to render an impression of the whole aspect of an actual scene upon a painter's eye.
When we are absorbed in the work of any great man whose art happens to express our own feelings, a natural and not unseemly enthusiasm leads us to set him high above all other artists ; but in calmer moments we admit no comparison between men who use technique to express quite different moods, sentiments, and perceptions. You may as well compare Milton and Praxiteles as Beethoven and Palestrina. Tonality is not more potent and far-reaching in its effect upon modern music than real lighting upon the arrangement of a picture. Both can steep the common-place in mystery, can flash a new meaning into old forms, can supersede worn-out conventions, can electrify a dead passage, can sustain and bind together a whole composition. Tone in a picture and tone in music may not be better than the older methods of composition, but they awake quite different feelings in the mind, and so it is difficult to like the clarity of Palestrina and the rich emotional tempest of Beethoven on the same evening, or to equally appreciate in the same gallery the close solemn tissue of a Velasquez and the arbitrary loosely-hung harmonies of the older schools. The Prado contains some noble canvases by Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Tintoretto and others, but to an eye that has dwelt long on the subtle nuances of a Velasquez, they seem to fall to pieces or to be held together only by the most palpable harmonic artifice. Yet there is art enough stowed away in " Las Meninas," as becomes evident when an engraver stumbles over the hidden pitfalls that lie concealed beneath its suave surface. Touch one of these many straight lines too firmly, miss the nuancing of its accents, or tighten a detail of face or costume, and some shrieking definition jumps at you like a jack-in-the-box.
When you fail to grasp the ensemble of a Velasquez, when you miss its profound and touching truth, you can fall back on little else save a few disjointed facts of common realism. The art of the thing escapes you as the art of a Beethoven symphony escapes the man who only catches hold of occasional tag-ends of tunes hanging out of a preposterous and tangled coil of sound.
Compared with those of Rubens, for instance, the pictures of Velasquez may seem grey, gloomy, and empty, especially if one should be in that sensuous mood which pardons everything for the sake of sumptuous decoration. Let us think of a Rubens in the National Gallery, " The Rape of the Sabines," that flush-tide of the richest colour, which positively seems to boil up in swirling eddies of harmonious form. Its whole surface is swept by lines which rush each other on like the rapid successive entrances of an excited stretto, till the violent movement seems to undulate the entire pattern of the picture. Certainly examination proves the feeling due rather to decorative repetitions of line than to really striking actions in the separate figures, yet the mind that has been possessed by this miracle of agitation may well find " Las Meninas " cold, empty, and stiffly arranged. The colour of Velasquez we must leave alone for the present, but the exquisite precision and the eloquent breadth of the figures in " Las Meninas " surely weigh against the attractions of a decorative consistency in the flow of lines. The breathing of these young figures in their stiff clothes, the quality of their flesh, the gait and bearing of them, the admirable adjustment of the right lines of this grave chamber in the old palace, legitimately appeal to the eye by an interest of true pictorial art. The arrangement of this group, which extends into depth and darkness, shows exactly how it was felt in relation to its surroundings. These fields of vibrating space, this vast shadowed top, wonderfully modelled as it recedes from the eye, are no more empty and useless around the figures than landscape itself, which was so long withheld as uninteresting wasted space. The rule was and still is that every space must co-operate in the effect, but not necessarily by lines, agitated colours, and defined forms. True, it may take one some time to understand the part played by the top half of "Las Meninas," but when one knows its gradations it appears as grand a setting as the Alps.
When you are penetrated by the solemn statement of " Las Meninas," even "The Surrender of Breda" seems full of a rhetorical if noble chattering, and to pass from a fine Velasquez to any of the Italian pictures at the Prado is to see them at great disadvantage. Not even " The Assumption," by Titian (Academy, Venice), or "The Transfiguration," by Raphael (Vatican, Rome), will quite content those who want an art that fits the eye, who prefer a natural and organic composition to a grand assemblage of poses, draperies, wagging beards, contorted limbs, and sweeping decorative lines. Few are the pictures that show a unity embracing colour, definition, modelling, and tone as well as line—the unity of purpose that we find in " The Last Supper" of Leonardo, in "Las Hilanderas," " The Venus," and "Las Meninas," in some Rembrandts, and in one or two works of recent and living painters. "The Transfiguration" of Raphael could well bear translation into line, but no one will pretend that its chiaroscuro is affecting and mysterious, or its colour bound together by any principle beyond juxtaposition, repetition, and the compulsion of harmonious line. Its upper part, moreover, has no connection with its lower, except through symbolism. "The Assumption," by Titian, although glorious in the power of its colour and the magnitude of its execution, scarcely answers to the finest ideal of picture-making. As a composition it is too patently broken into three parts. The upper group of the Father and Angels seems quite divided from the rest of the canvas, and in itself too dark, too distinctly cut out, too poorly enwrapped, and altogether too unmysterious. The picture, indeed, pleases one better when the upper part is shaded out by the hand, and the top of the canvas is imagined to die out in mystery. As I was looking at it, I heard a lady say that it was a fine picture, but worldly, and that she did not like that great red figure in the front. This sounds ridiculous, as, if one dislikes the red drapery, one cannot like the picture, of which it is the very heart and vitals, yet without doubt her statement had some meaning. Probably the sense of worldliness came from the. hard definition of the top part, and the dislike of the gorgeous red and black harmony from the sacrifice of all subtleties of tone which such an explosion of colour demands.
To put all this in as few words as possible, it may be said that Velasquez uses tone as an important element in his composition ; that, in fact, he utilises the ex-pression of space as well as the expression of form to give character to his picture. This is seen in the modelled depths of space that encase and permeate " Las Meninas," " The Spinners," Mr Morritt's " Venus," the " Aesop," the " Moenippus," and the so - called "Maria Teresa" (Prado, I084). These we may call impressionistic compositions, while the earlier works, "Adoration of the Kings," " The Topers," " The Forge of Vulcan," and others, we may call, in contradistinction, realistic. " The Adoration of the Kings" is opaque and dark, without a sense of space, either in the quality of the colour or in the arrangement of the picture. There is no room in its crowded composition, and there is no aerial suppleness in its tight lines and its comparatively small and hard modelling of surfaces. The pictures of Velasquez's middle life, as I have said, are decorative in aim, and the equestrian portraits of Philip IV., Olivares, and Don Balthasar resemble " The Surrender of Breda." The composition of these is very much freer and broader than that of the early pictures. Indeed, the canvases of this time are the only pictures which show anything of that scarcely definable air of pose and make-up which one expects in the true " Old Master." The hard, clumsy, over-detailed patterns of the dresses in the large equestrian portraits of Philip III. and his wife Queen Margaret (Prado, 1064 and 1065) which might seem exceptions, are not the work of Velasquez. He found these portraits already executed, and merely touched them up in his own broader and more vigorous style. The pattern of the queen's dress is plastered in with little regard to the perspective of folds or the changing value of lights. It is interesting to compare its awkwardness in the composition with the beautiful ease of patterns worked by Velasquez himself, as, for instance, those in "Maria Teresa" (1084), or in the Dwarf with a large dog. The queen's dress is worked in the mechanically detailed style of work, which can be seen in pictures by Sanchez Coello and other predecessors of Velasquez.
From what has been already said, backed by a glance at the illustrations to this book, it may be seen that Velasquez relied very seldom upon parallelism of lines, whirlpools of curves leading the eye to a centre, or, indeed, upon any other of the many traditional resources of composition. But it would be narrow-minded to blame either the composers by line or the composers by spot Different ends justify different means in each case, and, moreover, composers, like cooks, although they have principles, apply them ultimately in practice at the dictation of taste. You cannot easily convert people on matters of real taste —decide how much sugar they can absorb without cloying their palates, or how much balance and symmetry of arrangement they can stand in a picture without feeling sick at its artificiality. The work of Claude affords an example of formal, rhythmic composition which has proved distasteful of late days to many who still admire its colour. What is stranger still, some lovers of Wagner now find the melody of Mozart too formal, too simple, too evident. But while radical and physiological differences of taste unquestionably exist, we must not be too ready to accept blame due to partial blindness, or mere unfamiliarity with new conditions, as the result of an unconquerable physical aversion. When impressionists have depicted figures looked at from above they have been told that their pictures were unnatural by those accustomed to see people painted on a studio throne. But when it was first introduced did even perspective look natural, or did it require custom to familiarise the eye with its curious forms ? Artists should not be censured for their admitted carelessness of public opinion, as the most natural view looks unfamiliar to creatures of habit, just as to a conventional society a realistic representation of human passions appears madness. In such a matter of taste as the point at which a canvas becomes over-spotty can one pronounce with certainty? There is a boiling point on the thermometer ; is there a cutting-up point which determines the ratio to the area in which you may subdivide a picture? Here are two reasons why no one can lay down the law with assurance. First, the point of spottiness greatly depends on whether the eye habitually takes heed consciously of a large or a small field of vision. Second, a dangerous complexity of detail and matter in a picture may be rendered comprehensible and orderly by rhythm in the design, but then the spectator must be able to embrace the extent and meaning of this harmonious arrangement.
Velasquez relies on tone, on the magic of true light, on delicate adjustments of proportion between masses to unite the many figures of " The Spinners " and " Las Meninas." As to harmonious lines, he trusts to them in composing a picture as little as he trusts to defined lines in his rendering of form. He never cuts up a figure or face by lines drawn round the eyes, lips, or other features ; he gives a sense of intimacy by gradations of tone rather than by fixed contours. Thus, while a painted Holbein differs very little in method and aim from a Holbein drawing on white paper, a picture by Velasquez belongs altogether to another branch of art.
Harmonious line may often cover bad composition of tone, colour, or mass, just as the wonderful tone of Velasquez may at times dignify very ordinary line. For instance, the line weavers constantly run two or three pictures into one frame, so that if you neglect their lines their composition-masses of tone appear meaningless and spotty. If a painter looks at one corner of the canvas exclusively he is apt to put a smaller frame round it mentally, and so make a fresh set of composition masses out of what was only the subordinate detail of the original motif. Of this fault Velasquez, at least in his later work, is never guilty.
Within the scope of Velasquez's own work, and even of his later work, the difference between Italian traditional composition and the new impressionistic composition may be easily illustrated. The "Coronation of the Virgin" (Prado, 1056) is arranged upon the system of balanced blocks of colour and harmonious play of lines. But I have no doubt that even in this picture a purist in old mastery would object to the direction of the cherub's wings, which point out of the picture and downwards, instead of in and up-wards. A man who composes best by tone abandons nature at some peril, when, as here, he undertakes to show purely ideal circumstances.
In the case of "Las Meninas" and " The Spinners," Velasquez unquestionably worked from Nature. In-deed, there is in this country a large study of "Las Meninas," four feet wide. It belongs to Mr. Ralph Bankes of Kingston Lacy, and only differs from the larger picture in that the king and queen are not reflected in the mirror at the end of the room, beside the open door. It is generally said that Velasquez was painting the king, who sat in the spot from which the spectator is supposed to see the picture of "Las Meninas." During a moment's rest the "Infanta" came in with her attendants, and the king was struck with the group which fell together before his eyes. Near him he saw the princess, her maids, her dog, and her dwarfs ; a little farther on the left, Velasquez, who had stepped back to look at his picture ; farther still on the right a duenna and courtier talking ; while at the distant end of the gallery the king saw his queen and himself reflected in a mirror, and, through the open door, Don Joseph Nieto drawing back a curtain. The canvas shown in the picture would naturally be the one on which Velasquez was painting the king's portrait. Some, however, will have it to be the very canvas of "Las Meninas," which Velasquez was painting from a reflection in a mirror placed near to where the king had been sitting. The perspective in the picture hardly seems to agree with this view, but rather makes Velasquez to have been working on the king's right hand. It is not a matter of importance, and the story of the conception of the picture may easily have got mixed in the telling. It is just possible that Velasquez was painting, or was about to paint, a portrait of the Infanta only, when the idea of the large picture suddenly occurred to him or to the king. The canvas of " Las Meninas " is made of separate pieces sewn together, and one of these just contains the Infanta, with room for accessories or a subordinate figure. Another tradition says that the red cross of Santiago, which you can see on the painter's breast, was painted there by the king's own hand, as a promise of the honour that was to be conferred on him afterwards.
"Las Hilanderas" (Prado, 1061), or the spinners in the royal manufactory of tapestry, was painted later than "Las Meninas," which it resembles in one or two points. In both pictures the top runs up into gloom, though the vaulted chamber of " The Spinners " does not tower up and dominate the composition so much as the upper part of "Las Meninas." Both pictures are conceived in tone and steeped in the mystery of light, and " The Spinners," in a higher degree, is cheered, in the midst of its deepest gloom, by a vista opening at the back into a brilliantly-lighted space. But in "The Spinners" the texture of illuminated and shadowed air is richer and more varied, it clothes a greater variety of forms, it fuses a wider variety of tints, a range of stronger local colours. In keeping with its more lively colour scheme, the composition lines of "The Spinners" flow more sinuously and harmoniously than the rigid forms of "Las Meninas," and the masses twine and interweave in a more rhythmic and balanced pattern. " Las Meninas" is graver, nobler, and more imposing, also less expected, less formal, and less aided by artificial elegancies of arrangement. "Las Hilanderas" is more supple and insinuating in its grace of pattern, more enchanting and varied in its treatment of colour and detail.
In both pictures Velasquez is shown at his best. He copes with the most difficult problems of modern impressionism ; he works them out on a large scale, and he pushes the rendering of his conception in each case to the furthest possible completion. One or two smaller pictures, single figures or heads, may perhaps compare in modelling, in expression of light, or in quality of colour, with these two great masterpieces just mentioned, but on the score of composition not even Mr Morritt's supple and flowing "Venus," the "Christ at the Pillar" of our National Gallery, or " Aesop," " Moenippus," "Maria Teresa," and others in the Prado, can rival the importance of "Las Meninas" and "The Spinners." It will be well, therefore, to speak of smaller pictures after dealing with colour and modelling, and at present to pass on to the landscape art of Velasquez.
In this branch of painting the large upright " Avenue of the Queen," at Aranjuez (Prado, 1110), is enough to make us proclaim Velasquez a modern and an impressionist, when we think of the con-temporary Claude and Poussin. The view is seen from a height outside the avenue so that the horizon is half way up the canvas, and the avenue occupies only the right hand side of the picture. On the left you see the Tagus bounded by a hedge of distant trees, surmounted by an evening sky. This scarcely promises much dignity of arrangement, and yet the picture is fuller of grandeur and immensity than any I can remember. The trees in two tall towers of gloom, rise into a blue sky streaked with floating filaments of cloud, while on the dusty road below, coaches and cavaliers, like a string of insects, cross the brown empty foreground and plunge into the deep recesses of the avenue. The canvas is a large one for landscape, and it is treated throughout with a breadth of style proportionate to the size of the composition, and suitable to the implied distance of the spectator from the frame. The manner of seeing recalls the work of both Corot and Whistler, though neither of these painters ever saw it. In this picture, as in his other open-air works, Velasquez has cut the scene out of nature in a personal manner, so as to fit his sentiment about the place. He has insured the harmony of smaller details, both in tone and line, by swamping accidental or contradictory forms such as the saw-like edges of trees, or accidental and distracting holes of light in the darker depths of shades. This picture and the "Fountain of the Tritons " (Prado, I109), another view at Aranjuez, belong to the latest period of Velasquez's life. The fountain is notable for the soft, feathery handling of the trees which veil the sky ; the figures seem out of scale, and Carl Justi considers them additions by J. B. del Mazo, son-in-law and pupil of Velasquez. Other landscapes, such as the two finely-handled sketches of scenes in the " Villa Medici," belong to the first visit to Rome in 1630.
In landscapes, as in his figure-subjects, Velasquez does not seek ideal beauties or acceptably grand, poetic, religious, and picturesque motifs. He takes a chunk of nature and can do without Florentine trees, rocky hills, flowers and castles ; he frames a slice of life and foregoes hoods, halos, and the paraphernalia of ecclesiastical sentiment. The thing that he paints has a flavour of its own ; owing to a hazard of nature, owing to an accident of the way he himself looks, the scene charms him by the play of light on colours, or by some subtle relation among proportions which gives grandeur, delicacy, or an air of captivating greatness.
Of many qualities possible to painting and useful in composition, proportion is at once the most enduring in its effect, and the most unobtrusive in its compulsion on the eye. Some qualities exact a strained and conscious effort of appreciation ; their full expression in a picture demands a full attention from the spectator. Now a work of art should charm us both when we examine it and when we dream over it half-consciously. Certain efforts of draughtsmanship, for instance, require study, and appeal to an intelligent, wide-awake interest in action, anatomy, and things beyond the immediate presence of the canvas. The subordination by harmony of complicated elements can only be fairly enjoyed by an intellectual combined with an intuitive operation. Mere contrast of colour sets the nerves on the qui vive ; it challenges criticism, it awakes the caprices of the individual taste. Balance asks to be weighed ; gčometrical relations set the spectator measuring. Proportion, like a fine day, puts us into a pleasurable frame of mind without conscious effort on our part. An unlearned man may look at a Greek temple and be pleased without recognising it to be a work of art. He may not feel any interest in it or any wish to examine or inquire, but his nerves are cheered or soothed as by woods, seas, or mountains. Fine proportion always seems to have grown up naturally, it shows none of the difficulties that have been painfully overcome, none of the snares of annoyance that have been skilfully avoided. Proportion cannot be done by rule ; it is experimental and intuitive, and its effect, however potent, is unintellectual. To make it by law is to copy mechanically. The proportions of the Parthenon are for the Parthenon, and must be changed for another building. Of course, space-fillers use proportion, but oftener a more or less imitable harmony of lines; Velasquez oftener proportion. Hence his art is less evident, less exciting at first, and less fatiguing afterwards. The more you know his work the more you see in it, and what appeared the most wonderful effort of artless realism becomes the most consummate finesse of art.