Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez (1599-1660) was one helluva painter.
The exhibition of his paintings at the National Gallery that I went to yesterday tracks him from humble beginnings in Seville to his long career at court with King Philip VI and his time in Rome.
Once Caravaggio (1571 -1610) had exploded like an exocet missile into the world of art, painters looked to express ordinary subjects with drama and pathos. Velazquez chose market traders, servants and cooks, painting them with such ease and flair it got him noticed. It wasn’t long before he was he hired as court painter. Pretty much everyone knows the story from there, I guess.
There are lots of reasons to be impressed by Velazquez’s pictures: the expressions, the humanity, the honesty, the grandeur, the clarity and ease all spring to mind. But I’m with Edouard Manet when he calls Velazquez ‘the painter’s painter’. The simplicity and economy with which he lays down paint knocks me sideways.
The exhibition was heaving with people. But I did manage, through sheer force in a couple of cases, to get up close to the pictures to examine them. All the paintings shown were fantastic, from the nauseating, sweet stench of the Immaculate Conception of 1618 to the tear-jerking fragility of the Infante Felipe Prospero of 1659. But among my highlights were these:
Painted when he was still only 20, this brilliant piece of meticulous observation shows the glass tinkling with clear, cold water and drops falling down the porous side of the pottery flagon. Even the finger marks made by the potter are visible, for gawds’ sakes!
The canvas was smaller than I had imagined which is testament to the importance of this painting in my mind.
I can’t tell you how gob-smacking this picture is.
Prince Baltasar Carlos on horseback
Ha! To train a horse – and a rider – to make this difficult dressage movement takes years. Longer than the prince is old, in fact.
So showing him doing this proves to the world what an exceptional dude the young prince is. An amazing composition, but get a load of that paint application!
How does he do it? Genius!
Velazquez’s formal portraits are some of the finest ever made. I once wrote an extended essay on ‘The Silver Philip’ which had me intrigued for months. But his informal portraits are even more powerful. To paint a fellow courtier, in this case a dwarf employed as a playmate for the infant prince, with such dignity and humanity is astonishing and beautiful.
Don’t let the fact that his best known painting, Las Meninas, is not at this exhibition put you off. It remains hanging in Madrid and always will. Go to the exhibition anyway and be thrilled by Velazquez’s wizardry!
…scuttles off to check out prices of flights to Madrid…