Velasquez - Notes On Some Of His Pictures
( Originally Published 1912 )
A FEW pictures may be mentioned as examples of his differences of treatment at various times of his life and in the service of various kinds of impression. "Philip IV." (Prado, I080) may be noted for the sweet finesse of the modelling, the lovely black of the clothes, and a command of colour in close ranges so supreme that the local tints of the flesh are preserved, and cannot anywhere be confounded with the soft iridescence of the luminous envelope. I scarcely noticed this canvas at first, but its unobtrusive thoroughness gained ground every day, and at last its silvery light fascinated me even more than the more striking illuminations of " The Spinners," "AEsop," or "Moenippus." It is smoother and more polished in surface than these pictures, making, indeed, quite a contrast to the particularly rough ".sop " near it ; so that it has acquired a greener, mellower, and more varnished look, which adds to its appearance of extreme delicacy. One feels that this portrait of Philip goes beyond human powers in the intimacy of its modelling. It seems to challenge nature in finish, and one almost resents that art and nature should both triumph to this extent on the same canvas. Perhaps the more visionary modelling of the head in " Moenippus," the grand unashamed bravura of " Ăsop," the looser, broader execution of the faces in "Las Meninas," "The Spinners," and the " Maria Teresa," may be more impressively magisterial, because more artistic, or, if you will, more artificial. The modelling of these pictures challenges less arrogantly the test of absolute truth. But it must be remembered that in the larger canvases the modelling is modified in style to suit different impressions and the convention of a wider view. This Philip in the Prado, like that in the National Gallery, only with less accessory, is a mere bust shown against simple gloom. Its extreme precision, and the close accuracy with which every refinement of plane and every delicacy of flesh tint is rendered, are therefore justified, since the head, freed from distracting clamour of rival interests, alone occupies the eye and fixes the attention. , It is possible to keep a tighter grip on the definitions, and, as it were, to screw the eye closer down to the forms than would be comfortable or natural in a wider or more complex subject.
Velasquez looks at a full-length or a portrait with accessories in quite a different mood. " The Equestrian Philip " of his middle period he touches in summarily with fresh aerial colour, squarely spread by large brush-strokes. The eye glances over the head, taking in character as it would in the open air, without a too nice discrimination of varieties in flesh tint. " Martinez MontanÚs" reminds one of a Carolus-Duran, with its bold planes as firm as if sculptured ; while in " Maria Teresa," on the other hand, the face looks soft and smooth owing to concealed flat model-ling, and the head seems comparatively of small account, like that of a Greek statue. This quietude doubtless justifies itself by the exceeding brilliancy of the dress-painting, which captures so much of the attention.
The full lengths, " Ăsop " and " Moenippus," differ no less from each other in workmanship than from the foregoing. " Aesop," the most cleverly-handled of all Velasquez's heads, is the one that most supports the legend of his swaggering dexterity in flourishing a paintbrush. It is a rough impasto woven into a most marvellously expressive texture, which is un-fortunately quite unreproducible in illustrations. " Moenippus," again, is painted in large overlapping smears, very softly but very broadly, so that nothing specially arrests the eye, which floats over a face, figure, and accessories all bathed in liquid depths of air. In " Las Meninas " you take in a populous area, you embrace a vast field of vision, a wide view, in fact, which demands and certainly receives the highest art of impressionistic treatment. Velasquez has centred the vision instead of spreading it equally over the field as Corot has done in many of his canvases. Yet this is contrived with so much art, that the careless might not recognise " Las Meninas" as a work done on the same principle as some of those so-called eccentric pictures of recent impressionists.
Everyone will recall compositions in which a near figure, chair, table, or stretch of foreground, appears an enlarged and dislocated spectre, extravagantly membered of meaningless and accidental blotches. But these splashes obey a logical principle, although they may too often defeat their purpose by their infelicitous quaintness. The mind glides past these ghosts of objects unless they are made too strange ; hence they should not fix the eye, but should play loosely in a free medium, and should carry with them no sharpness of definition, no small varieties of patch, no modelled detail. In comparison with other parts of the picture, they should have no attractive power over the eye, and yet they should come forward and stand in their right place. Now, after some study you will find in " Las Meninas " this same art of distributing the attention. Wide as it is, one looks at it easily as a whole, and at every subdivision as an inseparable part of a scheme. The central Infanta, by the force of light, by the surrounding definitions, by the arrangement of the figures, by the strong opposition of the open door and by the character of the modelling, always holds the key of the situation. But this is not all, for the Dwarf closer to you on the right, as well as Velasquez farther off on the left, are by no means modelled in the same style as the Infanta. The Dwarf looks more diffused in definition and rather resembles the head of " Moenippus" in its large looseness and its floating vagueness. This head, which is well to the side of the canvas, yet nearer to you than the Infanta, is worked with greater amplitude of model-ling than the central figures, and with a less concentrated style and a more swimming touch. But there is no shocking distinction of brushwork in the picture, no perplexing splashes that detain a questioning mind even if they allow the eye to pass. At first sight all appears brushed with the same insidious naturalness of manner. Indeed, it is rather by subtlety of definition and the varying treatment of planes at their junctures, that the various interests of the picture are governed and subordinated. In the modern picture the trick is often too readily perceived and so appears unnatural. In "Las Meninas" the eye is gratified unconsciously by this artifice and the impression of unity is made almost overwhelming, although the means used in no way intrude themselves, and you would swear that all was executed in the same style and by no subtler magic than a reflection in a mirror.
In the busier, richer, and more accentuated canvas of " The Spinners," the shadowed left half acts as a foil to the right, and in its treatment we feel the master even more perhaps than in the lively right half which contains the heroic figure of the spinning girl. It is because this left half is complete and dignified yet not obtrusive that we admire the art with which it has been organised. True, it contains about as strong local colour as Velasquez ever painted, but the tints sleep in a rich, penumbra which serves to set off the highly-illuminated figure on the right. In this comparatively tranquil side of the picture, the spindle, the stool, the floor and the objects on it as well as the draped and shadowed figures, seem to quiver in a warm haze silvered with cool glints of light. Here Velasquez has reached the top point of telling suggestion, of choice touch, of nuanced softness, of comparative definition, and of courageous slashing force in the right place. But these two marvels do not quarrel ; this rich circumambiance of populous shadow and this dazzling creature emerging from shadowiness with the gesture of a goddess, set each other off and enhance each other's fascinations. Is not the magic of her exquisitely-turned head, and the magnificence of her sweeping gesture due, in part at least, to the natural mystery with which the stray curls, the shining arm, the modelled neck and body slide into the marvellous shadow in the angle of the room? The cool light, slightly greened now, which pervades " The Spinners," comes to its culmination on this figure, and one should not overlook the painter's nice discrimination between the force of definitions in the passages from light to dark of the girl's chemise. The immense breadth of the surroundings, the fluid looseness of the inferior markings in "The Spinners" helps to make the girl more really divine than the neighbouring Virgin by Murillo. In spite of her crescent moon, her cherubs, her pillowy clouds, and other religious paraphernalia, she is but a pretty ordinary girl whose hands, mouth, and hair are softly but cheaply modelled, in comparison to those of a figure by Velasquez.
In the octagon room close to " The Spinners" hangs the costume-picture "Maria Teresa," which Justi believes to be a portrait of the "Princess Margaret," the Infanta of "Las Meninas." She stands directly facing the light in a wonderfully elaborate balloon dress, embroidered with a complicated pattern of silver and pink and gleaming jewellery. In one hand she holds a rose, in the other a lace handkerchief, and on the left behind her in the shadow a red curtain droops in heavy folds. No pupil touched the smallest accessory of this extraordinary costume ; lace, ruffles, embroidery, every inch of the dress is painted by Velasquez, with a running slippery touch which appears careless near at hand, but which at the focus gives colour, pattern, sparkle, and underlying form with the utmost precision and completeness. The shadow behind the figure is aerial in quality, deep but not heavy, and silvered like the passages in light, so that black would tell upon it as a rude brutality of tone. Near "Maria Teresa," you may see work of many kinds ; the beginnings of paint in a Van Eyck, con-temporary art in the Murillo, and not far off A. Moro's "Mary Tudor," painted for Philip II. Then there is " David Rycksert," Van Dyck's dark portrait of a man in a fur-lined robe, very finely and frankly painted, although without the finesse of the " Maria Teresa." Rembrandt's " Artemisia " may not rank among his good paintings, and certainly its gloom is heavy and its transitions from shadow to light are harsh in comparison to similar passages in the work of Velasquez. Examination of these pictures and others will help to show the infinite delicacy which Velasquez attained in the art of modelling, for beside his "Maria Teresa" all other pictures seem to lack the subtlety of real light.
It is instructive to compare the treatment of the dresses in "Maria Teresa" and in "Las Meninas." The dress of the single portrait sparkles all over with vivacities of touch, but the broad, flatter treatment of the dress in the larger group better agrees with a rendering of attention spread over a wide view. Owing to this sensitive feeling for the whole impression, " Las Meninas," spread out as it is and full of strong points, never tires the eye and never appears uncomfortably crowded. Its detail nowhere intrudes unduly and nowhere suggests a rival impression to the main one. In fact, it is no more cut up proportionately than the single portrait, although it embraces many more figures. It was, however, this dashing, rippling execution of "Maria Teresa" that chiefly struck the pupils of Velasquez, and one can see very good imitations of it in the work of his son-in-law, J.' B. del Mazo. Perhaps solider, simpler work would have been more usefully studied. Many painters in the present century have been taken rather with the master's subordination of detail and his breadth of modelling, than with his dexterity in brushwork.
In all the best canvases of Velasquez, you will find the accessories vitalised by just degrees of force instead of being killed by an equal realisation all over the canvas. So it is in the " Moenippus," the " Aesop," and the Dwarf with a dog called "Antonio el Inglese." The workmanship of this last a little resembles that of "Maria Teresa" in its vivacious expression of detail with a flowing brush. The ornaments of the dress, the hat and feather, and the dog itself, are all given with a gusto that never seems to interfere with true drawing and broad modelling. The handling of " Aesop " is graver and more stately, but everything here is also in its right place and of the right force, down to the subdued finish and elegant accuracy of the light on the water on the bucket. One cannot help feeling that Manet, the painter of "Le bon Bock," and other magnificently painted heads, must have felt in close sympathy with the handling of the face in "Aesop." Again, when one looks at the "Sculptor MontanÚs," one thinks of Carolus-Duran ; of the Whistler of " Lady Archibald Campbell" when one sees " Moenippus " ; and of the Sargent who painted "Mrs Hammersley" and " El Jaleo," when one stands before " Maria Teresa " and " The Spinners."
In fact, when we look back upon the variety of all these pictures, we are convinced that Velasquez never used style for its own sake. Whether you look at a point of his composition, colouring, modelling, or handling, it appears always to have been decided by the aspect of each picture and not by preconceived principles. His composition is never a pattern forced upon nature, his drawing is not an effort to realise abstract contours, his colour is not the harmony of positive tints understood by a milliner, his brush changes with his impressions, as the tones of a man's voice with his emotions.
Thus in "Philip IV." (Prado, 1080), no brushwork is visible as befits an almost perfect attempt at the illusion of light. This smoothness, however, has no kinship with the polish of Raphael, which was a mannerism applied to everything. The earlier " Forge of Vulcan" shows a more evident workmanship, no-where rough or sweeping, though you may note several instances of brushing across the shape of the limb, for Velasquez was never pedantic in his use of principles. "The Spinners" may be quoted as an example of the painter's art of touching accessories broadly, and in this connection one should look also at the slashing lights on the horse in the "Equestrian Olivares." The " Sculptor Montanes," the best portrait of the middle period, forestalls modern logicality of treatment ; one may note the bold certainty with which Velasquez establishes the form of the eye socket, the planes of the nose and cheeks in this broad and stately portrait. No lines are wanted to bring out the shapes ; the painter's science of values is all-sufficient. Even in "Maria Teresa," which is a miracle of dexterous touch, the handling is obedient to fact and expresses matter before manner. The large, soft style of brushing used in " Moenippus," Las Meninas," etc., may be seen on a smaller scale in the "Philip IV. Old," of the National Gallery. Lastly, the management of trees by Velasquez, in his later period, as in "The Avenue" (Prado, 1110), may be compared in beauty, even to the work of Corot He has felt to the full the soft, bowery umbrageousness of trees, and has seen that for the most part they cut against the sky with a blurred, vaporous line. As a tree is deep as well as broad, it can seldom relieve as a jagged line against a background ; and as leaves are very small, and set one behind the other, the saw-edge of the contour of detachment becomes merely a line softened with such a burr as you see in dry-point.