Velasquez - His Colour
( Originally Published 1912 )
PERSONAL taste counts for much in the whole field of art, and nowhere so much as in colour. Whether we think of the painter or the onlooker, whether we think of making or admiring a picture, it is equally impossible to lay down hard and fast rules of practice, and to discriminate between good and bad with scientific certainty. A native tendency decides for us what kind of use we shall make of colour—a difference in eyes, early habits, instinctive preferences, causes one man to feel elation at the rich extravagance of Venetian colour, and another man to be touched by the natural poetry and sober dignity of a fine Velasquez. As this is so, I need scarcely apologise for speaking of my own feelings ; art is meaningless without personality and its action can only be studied in its effect upon oneself.
As a child I was fond of engravings after certain pictures, but when I saw some of the originals I was astonished that the painter should have spoilt the nobility of his work by staining it with unnaturally bright and spotty colouring. The breadth and solemnity of the black and white had disappeared, like the grandeur of a figure when it is tricked out in tinsel and motley. Yet I can remember that I was pleased with bright colour in the real world, and now I can put my finger on some of the reasons for these apparently inconsistent tastes. In nature a vivid tint appeared only as a rare splash, which set off by contrast the charm of the prevailing sheet of soft silvery iridescence, or impalpable umbery warmth that veils and reveals objects in the chiaroscuro of real light. To show strong colour thus governed by the tone of the ensemble is not the same thing as to play with strong colour in an artificial scheme of decorative harmonies,, and you may count on your fingers the men who have done it with success. The black and white medium and the Venetian glow, different as they are, agree in being quite arbitrary expressions of the combined effect of colour and light. As all art is convention, I merely mark the difference between such forms of art and naturalism without implying anything of praise or blame. The man who sees the world through tone, who feels the beauty of colour mainly in its relations to this prevailing principle of tone, cannot easily appreciate a use of colour which neither frankly abandons nature nor treats the mystery of real lighting with poetic insight. Brought up, as a boy, on Mr Holman Hunt, Sir. N. Paton, and the Scotch Academy, I soon concluded that I congenitally disliked paint. However, in later days at Fontainebleau, I became intimate with Auguste Ortmans, a painter to whom the emperor had given a studio in the château. When the empress was away he showed me her Corots ; he took me to see work at Barbizon ; he set me to paint in the forest, and I learnt that colour was not necessarily a blazing falsity. Then schools of art overwhelmed me, and face to face with the difficulties of nature I was led off my legs, and, as usual, forgot how the world really looked to me whilst I was prying into the drawing, modelling, and local colouring of its interesting corners. Being impressed does not imply the imagination to recreate, otherwise we might very much multiply the number of good artists.
There must be some who feel with me that many bright colours of extreme chromatic difference confound the perception of tone, and give the picture an air of insincerity, shallow pomp, and decorative flashiness. The solemn mystery of nature is lost for the sake of a costumier's taste for courtly splendour.
You cannot easily bridge over the difference of taste which leads one man to enjoy the subtle modification of colour by light, and another to revel in the bright untrammelled play of colour used decoratively. The decorative end may be attained gloriously and by a triumph of art as in the case of the Venetians, but to people of my sort it remains a triumph of artifice, not a great victory of the emotions. We are reconciled to it slowly and not until we have learnt enough to perceive and to be awestruck by a skill which at first escaped our ignorance. But the miracle does not repose on the basis of our own feelings nor conciliate the testimony of our eyes. It seems unphilosophic and without roots in the life we lead. It cannot touch the old associations of our race with reality, or pull upon nerves that have been fashioned by the emotions of a thousand generations. Now, great work to those who make it and to those who feel a vital sympathy with it never appears wholly decorative in aim. In proportion to our native blindness or aversion to the point of view taken, so the decorative aim seems to preponderate over the natural or realistic. To some men, Whistler seems to blot out nature in arbitrary fuliginousness when he meant to coax beauty out of the heart of what he saw. To some, Velasquez appears to be a decorator with an unaccountable taste for certain cold harmonies of a restrained kind, turning upon black and grey, which he manages to manipulate with some cleverness. To me, again, he is nothing of the sort, and now that he has shown me the way, I can see a Velasquez wherever I please.
To the unthinking, colour is absolute, and its quality in every case inherent to each particular tint. It is impossible here to argue against such a conviction, but one may point to the blue complementary shadows on white chalk, and to the effect of coloured clothes on people's complexions. I have observed that a piece of coarse green pastel which made a dark mark against the foreground grass of a freshly-painted landscape, relieved as a light spot against the apparently blue and ethereal sky of a Claude. Such is the power of the relations within the range of a key. When we call a single colour beautiful or ugly we unconsciously compare it with the general hue of nature as a back-ground.
It follows from the interdependence of colours and from the compelling power of key relations, that whether we look at imitative pictures, decorative patterns, or natural scenes, we shall see colours differently, according as it is our habit to embrace large or small fields of sight under one impression. You may choose a wallpaper in bed from a two-foot pattern close at hand, and experience some surprise when you see it hung on an empty thirty-foot wall. So, when the primitive realist tints small separate objects by a process as near matching as possible, we cannot wonder that his picture, which contains some hundreds of such matches, should look unnatural. A realist of broader perceptions compares the effect of colour againt colour, while the impressionist notes or imagines the general tone of the whole field which he paints, and then determines the quality and value of spots by their relation to this perceived ensemble. These ways of looking give rise to quite different sentiments about external nature.
In all kinds of really artistic work, whether decorative, realistic, or impressionist, one sees evidence of that liking for unity of some kind which pervades every art. In painting it may appear in line, chiaroscuro, colour, or in a combination of all the qualities. An inborn sense of decorative colour seems to recommend a unity of richness, in fact a kind of varnished glow, to the natural man. You see it in the love for reflections, particularly in rather dirty water, in the taste for Claude Lorraine glasses, in the passion for the old varnish that softens the hues of a picture and solves them in a warm and luscious juice. The world in general admires the harmonising effect of time upon the tints of a picture, and the artist of a decorative turn of mind has been greatly influenced by the beauty of old colour. Nevertheless, the lover of nature feels cheated of dear and familiar emotions when he sees some arbitrary decorative principle employed to effect this much-desired fusion of colours. It may become the decorator to conceive a scheme of colouring, but it behoves the naturalist to find in nature the bond that will unite and beautify colour.
In this case, of course, one means by nature the man's impression of the colour-effect of the whole field of vision about to be painted. In virtue of this impressionistic way of seeing, an artist gives his pictures a unity of colour which is significant as well as decorative in its beauty. Now, it is evident that much of the significance of such colour will be lost to eyes that habitually take in a smaller field of impression than is taken by the painter. Thus, there are many people to whom the colouring of a Velasquez looks cold, dry, and inexplicably grey. Velasquez aimed at the cool effect of silvery light, and if you look at the ensemble of his picture as he looked at nature, you will rarely see a poor passage of colour.
No pictures maintain such a close unity of key as those of Velasquez. But this close unity of key corresponds to a real perception of nature. When a lady in a brightly-coloured hat passes one of his canvases, it is true that you see the whole picture of one tone in contrast to the hat. Yet the key is so subtly varied, so delicately nuanced, that the picture, unless through such a contrast, appears to be a luminous tissue of air, not definitely red, green, black, or yellow. But "Las Meninas," even when subjected to this test of contrast with real people sitting on a bench before it, preserves its appearance of truth and natural vigour. Its colour relations continue to look as subtle and as naturally complex as before; and when you look at both nature and the picture, your eye only seems to pass from one room into another. The sense of space and roundness in the real room is not greater than in the painted room. On the other hand, contrast with the real world exposes no exaggerated reliefs, no over-trenchant definitions, no false lighting in " Las Meninas." It is, in fact, neither too tame nor too swaggering and theatrical in its treatment of natural appearances. When purely decorative, a close unity of key may sometimes result in the case of old pictures from age and varnish, and only sometimes from the painter's intention, while in the case of modern work it occasionally comes from a palpable disillusionising glaze of warm colour sloshed over crudity of value. The pictures of Velasquez, though a little duller than they were, have changed less than those of most painters, and they show no traces of glazing or saucing ; in-deed, they are among the few old pictures that have not gained by time.
The general principle which unites the colours of his later pictures was reached by Velasquez, neither through that feeling for decorative fitness which governed the work of his middle period nor entirely through the inborn Spanish love of dark hues that we see in Ribera. It comes from a broader and more imaginative outlook upon the values of colour as they are affected by juxtaposition, by atmospheric conditions, and, above all, by their inclination to the source of light. This view of the aspect of nature led him to study not only black and white but chromatic tone. A change of the plane on which a colour lies tends to make it not only lighter or darker, but to change its hue—to dose it with some proportions of blue, yellow or red. Velasquez recreates the aspect of a place and its conditions of lighting so convincingly that one feels able to imagine the value which any local tint would receive if introduced into any position in the picture.
True, he seldom chooses a subject from nature which contains many bright local tints, but he always treats those he admits with a perfect mastery of the resources of colour. He is as subtle a colourist as real light itself, which veils even a monochromatic subject in a dress of coloured tissue. Indeed, the delicate colourist is never better proved than when he would paint the chromatic nuances of light upon a motif whose chief local tints are black or white. By his treatment of blacks in such pictures as " Moenippus," " Philip IV. Old " (Prado, 1080), and "The Sculptor Montanés" (Prado, 1091), Velasquez amply demonstrates the amazing finesse of his eye.
The beggar Moenippus in his faded black cloak, towers up to the top of the narrow canvas which represents him standing, with a book and jar at his feet, against the bare grey wall of a dim and dusty garret. A great shadow wraps the feet ; but, above, the figure is tilted back on the hip somewhat after the manner of Mr Whistler's " Lady Archibald Campbell." Thus a discreet light skims the upper half of the man, gently silvering the rusty black and revealing the shape of the shoulder and the character of the pose. The beauty of this passage of colour becomes more patent if one notes the different quality of the black in " Portrait of a Man" (Prado, 243) by Greco (1548-1625), who painted portraits in Spain before the days of Velasquez. Greco opens a pit or hole of black asphalt ; Velasquez flushes the blacks of Moenippus with a hundred nuances of greenish light. Although he could see the finest shades of distinction in dark tones, Velasquez was no colourist in the eyes of those who see little difference between black, Van Dyke brown, or Prussian blue until they are plentifully diluted with white. These men are the drunkards of colour. We will not deny that they like it ; both the gourmet and the gourmand may be said to like food and yet we give them by no means an equal reputation for taste.
In the early full-length "Don Carlos" (Prado, 1073) by Velasquez, the blacks compared with those in the "Moenippus " look hard, unaerial, and scarcely obedient to the light. This comparison of the early and late treatment of local blacks by Velasquez may be paralleled by a comparison of his general colour in the first period and in the last. "The Forge of Vulcan" (Prado, 1059), dating from about 1630, the end of the first period, is, as it were, conveyed in a vehicle of brown, not at all luminous and aerial as the atmosphere of the later silvery works, "The Spinners," "Las Meninas," " The Venus," " Moenippus," " Philip IV." (Prado, 1080), and "Maria Teresa" (Prado, 1084). This brown of the " Vulcan" is an almost monochromatic tissue of tone which accompanies and unites the colour of the picture. It is almost as positive as the brown bituminous vehicle used some twenty years ago by persons supposed to have been educated at Munich. Few strong local tints are embedded in the brown tone of the "Vulcan"; you have nothing in the subject more chromatic than the flesh tints of the dark blacksmiths, and the lighter ones of Apollo, a yellow drapery, and, on the anvil, one spot of glowing iron. The rest of the picture consists of originally greyish colours, drowned in a brown vehicle. It is curious, by the way, that the angel in "Christ at the Pillar" (National Gallery, date 1639) is the same person or the same type of person as the Apollo in the "Vulcan" of 1630. The National Gallery picture is greyer and more silvery than the " Vulcan," but it still shows something of the dryness and hardness which was to be entirely abandoned in the last period.
Vivid colours occur now and again in the subjects chosen by Velasquez, as, for instance, the pink scarf in "The Equestrian Philip" (Prado, 1066), the draperies, etc., in " The Coronation of the Virgin " (Prado, 1056), the red cloth in " The Venus," the curtain and the tapestry in "The Spinners," and touches of rose and red in " Maria Teresa " (Prado, 1084), but they are certainly not frequent. The " Coronation of the Virgin," though painted in the third period, is of a conventional Italian style in its composition ; and it is not surprising that a picture with fluttering draperies, rounded clouds, cherub heads, and all the apparatus of a religious work, should be highly coloured in unrealistic blues, pinks, and purples. Of characteristic canvases by Velasquez, the one in which real atmosphere plays upon the widest range of colour is perhaps " Las Hilanderas," otherwise "The Spinners" (Prado, 1061).