WHILE El Greco gave expression to the soul of Spanish chivalry and religion, Velasquez embodied in its highest form the racial love of naturalism. More than this, he stands above all other naturalistic painters in truth of representation.
He is usually called a realist. But modern thought is investing this term with a meaning that differentiates it from naturalism. Its use of the word is akin to the philosophic meaning of realism, which recognises the reality not only of the species or individual but also of the genus, and considers the individual as a phase of the universal process which causes it. Modern thought, in fact, applies the word realist to one who views the particular in relation to the horizon at the back of it, to the universal process of which it is a temporary manifestation. Thus it calls Ibsen a realist, because, for example, in “A Doll’s House,” he treats Nora and her husband as phases of the universal problem of marital relations. On the contrary, the playwright who presents merely a cross-section of life, characters and incidents that are true to life but are not treated in relation to the large horizon of ideas, governing our principles of living, it calls a naturalist. The distinction is a vital one and so clarifying to thought and understanding, that to have once comprehended it should be to adopt it.
In the light of this distinction is Velasquez a naturalist or a realist? In his portraits, which represent his supreme achievement, is one conscious of anything but the absorbing realisation of an individual personality? Do we think of them as typical of their time and country, as are the subjects of El Greco’s portraits? Most certainly there is a great exception in the marvelous Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Behind his grim face extends a wide horizon of correlated ideas. The psychological revelation and universal suggestion of this portrait seem to declare that Velasquez was in mind a realist, but compelled by the circumstances of his life to be a naturalist. Tethered to the Court, he was chiefly occupied with painting the royal personages and their immediate entourage. His was a scene, closed in, like a stage-scene by the artificial routine of ceremony and punctiliousness, in which the puppets, from Philip down to his dwarf play-things, posed. How could a realist portray them in relation to the horizon of ideas involved except by making them contemptible or ridiculous? But his duty as a Court painter compelled Velasquez to close out the horizon, and to represent these individuals with as much of dignity as possible. It is a noteworthy fact that the Innocent X was painted during the artist’s second visit to Italy; while he was for a brief space quit of the cramped conditions of his life, able to look out on men and things and study them in relation to large issues. Also, the fact of it being his second visit and that he was in the full maturity of his powers, implies much. He was less preoccupied with individual impressions, more capable and disposed to view even the Pope himself in relation to the political and spiritual conditions of Rome and of the World.
But though Velasquez was compelled to be habitually a naturalist, he not only avoided the commonplace which so frequently attaches to naturalism, but proved himself the greatest naturalist in the whole story of painting. He lifted naturalism to its highest pitch of expression. His representations of life are characterised not only by living actuality, but by consummate justness, high distinction and extraordinary. beauty. There is in all a union of mental supremacy and of supreme technical artistry. Perhaps only Rembrandt, Hals and Raeburn give one so realising a sense of being in the presence of a living personality, as we experience before nearly all the portraits of Velasquez. With Rembrandt we are usually conscious of an inseeing eye which penetrates the soul of his subject and views it in relation to a wide horizon; for Rembrandt is the great realist. Velasquez, on the other hand, shares with Hals and the Scottish artist their restricted vision; but his is the finer, suggesting his own finer quality of mind. Their minds were incapable of the high seriousness, the noble aloofness of his. Hals, seen at his best in the Haarlem groups, is one of the jolly fellows he is depicting; Raeburn, an honest, sturdy gentleman among the gentry who sit to him. Velasquez is always the aristocrat, looking out upon his subject from the elevation of a superior mental dignity. It was because of this that his portraits have the supreme cachet of all great art : aloofness. The separateness of his own mental personality from the ordinary thing around him is communicated to the personages which he creates. They are alone with themselves; whether monarch, dwarf or beg-gar, separated from the common touch by virtue of their author’s art. In their remoteness they are akin to Jan Van Eyck’s portrait of Jean Arnolfini and his Wife and Holbein’s George Gyze and Erasmus; but these have not the insistent suggestion of being actually alive. We recognise in them an extraordinary illusion of life; but in front of Philip IV in the National Gallery, of Moenippus and Las Meninas in the Prado, not to mention other examples, the consciousness of illusion does not enter our thoughts. We are face to face with truth; “verdad, no pintura,” as Velasquez himself used to say was his ideal”truth, not painting.” On the other hand, the truth is saved from being merely life-like, obvious, by the rarifying quality of Velasquez’s own aloofness. His portraits quiver on the razor-edge of truth and abstraction.
We have spoken of their consummate justness. This represents another result of the high-bred nature of Velasquez’s mind; revealed in a tact of selection, exposition and arrangement. He had an unerring feeling for essentials, his most characteristic works being singularly sparing of detail; a cultivated instinct for the salient gesture and expression, and a rarely economical method of achieving them. His ability to plant a figure on the floor, so that it bears down with its own weight and grows up in its own strength ; to give it characteristic action, at once unified and rhythmic; to invest its contour lines with firmness and precision as well as subtlety; to give to the smallest details, such as the modeling of a glove, an individual character and, finally, to adjust all these several qualities into an organized unity and place the ensemble in perfect relation to the open space it occupieshis ability to do all this is the measure of his justness.
To the high distinction of the result we have already alluded in speaking of its dignity and aloofness. It is the product, alike, of elevated mentality and of supreme technical accomplishment. The latter brings us in touch with the cause of its extraordinary beauty.
What does beauty mean to us? If it is beauty of face and formthe easy way to artistic beauty and to lay appreciation thereofwe shall seldom find it in Velasquez’s pictures. The people whom it was his lot to paint were mostly plain-featured, to use no harsher terms ; their costumes outrageously extravagant and not in the direction of elegance ; the coloring was sombre, only sparingly relieved with gaiety of color. Nor, for the most part, were they people of force of character or with suggestion of experience imprinted on their faces, so that in the interest aroused thereby, one could forget their homeliness. To be frank, they are mostly stupid persons, or at least apathetic. Whence, then, the beauty? Its source is twofold: in the artist’s vision of his subject and in his technical rendering of what he found.
The secret of an artist’s vision, when it is truly artistic, is that it is inspired by a feeling for beauty and is looking for beauty. He is not searching for some-thing to represent, but for a means of expressing what he feels of beauty. To such a one as Velasquez it matters little what he is called upon to paint. He is not aware of those limitations which the ordinary man calls ugliness. To him the subject is a manifestation of life and life to him is beauty in every one of its aspects, and to render that beauty is sufficient. And you may say that he finds life and the beauty of life not only in the face and figure, action and gesture, of his subjects, but in the clothes they wear and the accessories that surround them. All are contributory to the sense of life with which the subject inspires him, so that he ex-tracts from fabrics and objects of still-life a raciness of character or subtlety of expression that lifts them above the ordinary and gives them the distinction of beauty.
But, after all, it is not so much a question of extracting beauty from the subject as of putting beauty into it. The final achievement is one of technique. There are hundreds of pictures which a layman can admire without thought of technique. Interest of subject pre-dominates, or at least is sufficient to establish interest; charm of sentiment attracts, or splendor of color or composition. But Velasquez’s compositions for the most part are studiously reserved ; his color sober ; scarcely the quiver of sentiment disturbs the equanimity of his subjects, and the latter, in the ordinary sense of the term, have no human interest. Such attractiveness, therefore, as they have, is almost completely what has been put into them by his technique.
Take, for example, the bust-portrait (p. 92) of Philip IV in the National Gallery, assuredly one of Velasquez’s most notable achievements. How languid the pale hair; the face, how foolishly prolonged, flabby and expressionless! Imagine it painted by a second-rate artist, and you would pass it by. But before this portrait you pause and linger long. Why? neither you nor I can tell; except simply that we are in the presence of the mystery of life, so that even this sallow, puffed face attracts and rivets our admiration. Even a painter cannot tell you how it was painted. Its technique eludes him. Yet it is the technique which holds him to the spot. He feels that here the mystery of living structure and tissue has been compassed by the mystery of the artist’s creativeness. Something of the same suggestion of spontaneously created plasticity is to be found in the beautiful child-portrait of Don Baltasar Carlos in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Usually, however, the means by which the effect is obtained may be discovered. You note the character expressed in some detail of the canvas ; and then approach until you see the brush strokes that produced it, no less magical because patently apparent. In fact, you find your-self let in behind the scenes of the artist’s dramatic representation of facts and in a measure share the joy of creating the illusion.
It is a hopeful theory that out of one’s limitations may grow one’s greatest strength. And it is true of Velasquez. The very narrowness of his scope of actual vision encouraged a closer scrutiny. He discovered beauty in things which had escaped the notice of artists to whom larger liberty of choice was allowed. This is particularly revealed in his attitude toward color and light. The range of color-hues involved in the costumes of his royal sitters was restricted; blacks and greys prevailed, with occasional notes of rose or blue. Debarred from a variety of hues, Velasquez learned to see the variety of nuances which any one hue presents under the action of light. His blacks ceased to be merely the negation of color; they took on silvery hues, and some-times brown ones. Even the bare drab wall of his studio became a field for the play of light. He grew to be an intimate student of the identity of the effects of light and color; noting how the “local hue” of an object varies in color-value according to the quantity, direction and quality of the light upon the various planes of its surface. Some artists before his time had noted this principle, but none until Velasquez and Halsfor it is a strange coincidence that the Dutch artist also was following this trackhad given a practical application to it. Others had treated the local color, as if it were separate from chiaroscuro. They would model the form in monochrome and then spread their local hue over the whole in a thin transparent glaze which permitted the underpainting of shaded, half-shaded, and light parts to be seen through it. Velasquez actually modeled in the local color, by representing the differences of color-values that it assumed, according as the rise or depression of its surface caught more or less of light.
This, of course, is what other artists had done, notably Leonardo da Vinci in his Monna Lisa, Jan Van Eyck and Holbein in their portraits; but with a difference. They imitated each color-value as exactly as they could, modeling their surfaces with innumerable facets. Velasquez, like Hals, discovered for himself the principle of Impressionism ; so far, at least, as this term is applicable to technical processes. For its meaning has become extended to include the artist’s mental standpoint, so that today, when we speak of an impressionist;, we mean one who in literature, or drama, or painting or sculpture colors his impressions according to the moods of his temperament. But in Velasquez there is nothing of the temperamentalist. He is the cool, impartial observer of objective facts. But, instead of seeing them, as Holbein did, in the multiplicity of their detailed variations, he saw them in the large. Primarily, that is to say, he aimed, not at perfection of parts, but at a unity of ensemble. To secure this he sacrificed the less important to the more important; eliminated the unessential and emphasised the salient. His mental process was one of keen analysis, directed to the question of what was and what was not essential, and also to the study of the relative degrees of importance which the essentials bore one to another and the whole. The end in view was to make the ensemble, not only organically simple, but an organic unit.
No doubt Velasquez was led to these results by his study of color and light. He not only discovered but made technical use of the fact that light tends to unify the colors and forms of objects; that it encompasses them and affects their contour lines, causing some to be sharp and others more elusive, and also, as we have noted, changes the values of their hues. Further, he became aware that under the action of light colors act and react on one another; that, for instance, the value of the flesh of a face will be affected by the color-light of the costume or of other objects near it. Thus, we ourselves may have observed how the white gown and face of a woman, seated on the grass, will assume values of reflected green. Or, if we are acquainted with the Lumiere process of color-photography, we are familiar with the surprises of unexpected reflections which the camera records.
All of these results of his study Velasquez employed to render the truth of sight and to unify the impressions. For it was the sum of the impressions he had received that he learned to render. He, in fact, formed in his mind a net impression of the whole scene, then translated each part into its proper share in the total of impression. It is a process which in the case of so great an artist as Velasquez is an act of high imagination, giving birth to an act of real creativeness. The result, then, is not an imitation of nature’s truth but the new creation of an equivalent artistic truth ; yet, with such an illusion of natural truth that it still meets his own ideal”truth, not painting.” Hence the stimulus which the spectator feels in the presence of his finest works. He is urged to be an active participator; to retranslate the equivalent of truth into the natural truth; to read from the shorthand of the brush strokes the full text of the longhand; to adjust his own eyes and mind to the reception of the impression and that a unified one. He becomes, in fact, a part-creator in the picture; somewhat as an intelligent spectator of a good play finds himself a part-actor in the dramatic situations.
The story of Velasquez’s life is little else than an enumeration of incidents in his career as an artist. He was born June 6, 1599, in Seville, where his father, Juan Rodriquez de Silva, a lawyer of an old Portuguese family, had settled. The mother was Geronima Velasquez. Hence the son’s full name, Don Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velasquez, was shortened according to Andalusian custom into the family name of his mother. His parents dedicated him to the study of letters and philosophy, but yielded to his desire to become an artist. After a short period in the studio of Francisco Herrera, he was placed under the care of Francisco Pacheco, an academic painter of no great merit, but a man of considerable learning, whose house was a resort of the most cultivated society of the city. The young Velasquez profited so well by these surroundings, that Pacheco accepted him as a son-in-law. He was married to Juana Pacheco in 1618, the result of the union being two daughters, Francisca and Ignacia, the former of whom subsequently married Velasquez’s own pupil, Juan Bautista del Mazo. At this time, the School of Andalusia, under the influence of Ribera’s pictures, was abandoning Italianate mannerisms in favor of the naturalistic motive. When the young king, Philip IV, ascended the throne in 1621, Pacheco began to scheme that his most promising pupil should be brought to the royal notice. A visit to Madrid was planned in 1622, and on this occasion Velasquez gained the notice of the Count-Duke de Olivares, the king’s prime minister and favorite, who in the following year summoned him back to Madrid. Under the Count’s direction and aided by his purse, Velasquez produced an equestrian portrait (which has disappeared) of the king, who was so well pleased with it that he took the young artist into his service. Thus, in 1623 began that mutual friendship of monarch and painter, which resulted in a close companionship of nearly thirty-seven years. It was interrupted only by the king’s occasional journeys of state and by Velasquez’s two visits to Italy.
In 1628 Rubens arrived as an ambassador extraordinary from the King of England. His visit was pro-longed for nine months, during which he painted several pictures for the King. Velasquez was deputed to act as his escort in the visits which he paid to the Escorial and to the royal picture galleries. He was thus brought into touch with the most renowned painter of the day at the period of his most splendid achievement. The association must have broadened the young man, but it did not cause him to falter in his own attitude toward nature and art. Rubens urged him to go to Italy and study the great masters, and the King endorsed the advice.
The first visit was made in 1629 under circumstances of importance. For Velasquez started in the train of the Marquis Spinola, the most renowned Captain-General of the age, whom he was to immortalize in the Surrender of Breda, and on his arrival in Italy presented letters from the Count-Duke de Olivares which procured him admission to the most famous galleries. He copied some of the works of Michelangelo, Raphael and Tintoretto, and brought back five original canvases : The Forge of Vulcan, Joseph’s Coat, two views of the Villa Medici and a Portrait of Dona Maria. The first, not- withstanding its classic subject, is naturalistic. Velasquez has taken advantage of the story of Apollo announcing the infidelity of Venus to her husband, while he is at work with his assistants, in order to make a study of the nude form, as a vehicle for the expression of action and emotion. But the composition has nothing of the method of Italian idealism, while it abounds with charming passages of still-life painting, thoroughly Spanish. The Villa Medici studies are particularly interesting evidence of Velasquez’s preoccupation with nature, even among the masters in Rome, and his serious regard for landscape, which forms an important feature in many of his portraits. His return to Madrid in 1631 marks the end of what is regarded as the first period of his career. The remainder is similarly divided into two parts.
The chief works of the first period beside those already mentioned are the early Adoration of the Shepherds (National Gallery), The Lady with the Fan (Wallace Collection), The Adoration of the Kings, Los Borrachos or The Topers, and Philip IV. Young, all of which are in the Prado.
Philip welcomed his artist back with new favors, appointing him to the post of Aposentador Mayor, whose duty it was to superintend the arrangements for the King’s lodging during his excursions to the country. It was a means of keeping his friend with him, though it must have seriously interfered with the work of the artist.
An influence of the first Italian visit may be traced in the large decorative canvases which characterise the middle period. Olivares had presented his palace of Buen Retiro to the King, and the latter employed Velasquez and other painters to embellish it. Hence followed the equestrian portraits of Don Baltasar Carlos, Olivares and Philip himself, and the historical picture, The Surrender of Breda. In addition, this period produced the Christ at the Pillar (National Gallery) and the Prado portraits of Philip IV as a Sports-man, Don Baltasar Carlos as a Sportsman, Don Fernando de Austria as a Sportsman, The Sculptor Montana, and the portraits of dwarfs and actors, among the latter the so-called Don Juan de Austria (p. 100).
Velasquez started on his second visit to Italy in June 1649, and returned to Madrid in the summer of 1651. It was on this occasion that he painted the portrait of Innocent X, which is now in the Doria Gallery in Rome. On his return home the King made him Marshal of the Palace, which entailed upon him the onerous duties of arranging court festivities. These, too, had encreased in frequency and pomp owing to the King’s second marriage; this time with his niece, Mariana of Austria, a girl of fourteen. Notwithstanding such interruptions Velasquez produced during these last nine years of his life some of his finest works and his master-piece, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor). Among the other canvases are S. Anthony Visiting S. Paul; Las Hilanderas (The Weavers); Portrait of Queen Mariana (p. 119) ; Portrait of Dona Maria Teresa (or Margarita Maria) ; La Infanta Dona Margarita Maria, of the Louvre; Philip IV Old (p. 92) and the Venus (National Gallery) ; AEsopus, Moenippus, The God Mars, The Dwarf called Antonio El Inglese, and the actor Cristobal *de Pernia, called Barbarroja. All the above, except those otherwise specified, are in the Prado.
In June, 1660, the marriage, which had been arranged by Cardinal Mazarin between the young Louis XIV and Philip’s daughter, Maria Teresa, was celebrated upon the Isle of Pheasants, in the little river which separates Spain and France on the West of the Pyrenees. The weight of the burden of preparation and super-vision fell upon the Marshal of the Palace, and proved more than Velasquez could sustain. He broke down at the end of the ceremony and, returning to Madrid, died a few weeks later, August 6, 1660. His wife survived him only seven days.
In a work of this scope it is impossible to go into the questions which have arisen over the authenticity of many of the pictures ascribed to Velasquez. For in-formation on this head the reader is referred to the latest critical work on the subject”Velasquez” by Senor A. de Beruete y Moret, and to the continuation of the subject by his son in his recent book, “The School of Madrid.” Both are published in English. The net result of their study is that many of the pictures ascribed to Velasquez are either copies of Velasquez’s work, made by his son-in-law and pupil, Mazo, or original works of the latter, who from constant companionship with Velasquez had learned to imitate his style so closely Here, I will satisfy the curiosity of the reader only by saying that these critics pronounce the Philip IV in Hunting Costume, of the Louvre, to be a copy, and the Admiral Pulido-Pareja, of the National Gallery, an original, by Mazo.
By reference to a few examples, let us trace the evolution of Velasquez’s way of seeing and rendering his subject. The earliest picture in the Prado is The Ado-ration of the Magi. This is assigned to about the year 1619, the probable date also of The Adoration of the Shepherds (National Gallery). Both, therefore, be-long to the Seville period. Perhaps in the Magi we can detect something of the sophistication of the learned Pacheco, as well as the influence of the new naturalistic movement. The figures are naturalistic; while the grouping and lighting are artificial, academical. The light is arbitrarily centered on the Mother and Child; the shadows which envelop the other figures are also arbitrary; neither shade nor light is naturally distributed; the whole is a studio convention.
Velasquez finished Los Borrachos, (The Topers) in 1629, the year he sailed for Italy. It represents the climax of his development during the previous ten years, and what progress it exhibits! The distressing murkiness of the older picture has disappeared; the chiaroscuro in this is luminous; the flesh parts brilliantly lighted, the shadows warm and transparent. But it still presents the studio chiaroscuro, designed for the sake of the pattern and unity of the composition; the light and shade are not nature’s. Wonderfully naturalistic, however, are the heads of these peasants, brimming with character and life. The men are engaged in a mock scene, in which a youth, playing the part of Bacchus, is crowning a comrade with vine-leaves. As Senor Beruete says: “The Spanish `picaresca,’ or rogue comedy, which plays such a brilliant part in the literature of that day, has never been better rendered than it is in this astonishing picture.” But we note, in anticipation of the artist’s further advance, that the picture presents only a pictorial ensemble, not yet a natural unity. It is a mosaic of splendidly executed itemsfaces, nude forms, costumes and still-lifeeach of which merits and indeed demands individual study. As a pattern the composition holds together as a unit, but it does not present a unit of sight. One cannot see it as a whole; the eye travels from point to point, resting on each and enjoying it separately. The picture is a masterpiece of its kind; but it is not of the kind that Velasquez at length achieved in the single, unified vision of Las Meninas.
The Forge of Vulcan, which Velasquez executed in Italy (1630-1631), is remarkable, in the first place, for its freedom from the trace of Italian influence. Velasquez had come face to face with the giants, but had preserved completely his independence. Michelangelo and Tintoretto had shown him their capacity to express emotion and dramatic energy in the action of figures, particularly nude ones. Velasquez observes; but applies the principles to suit his own ideal of truth; no heroics, or pageantry of display; simply the natural expression of emotion, under natural circumstances. The work-shop, the articles of still-life, the action of the men, have been studied from observed facts. Their work having been suddenly interrupted, each man pauses for a moment. How extraordinarily the arrest of action is suggested! Remark particularly the gesture of the three, who have suddenly halted in the sequence of their several hammer strokes. It is the figure of the god only that seems out of place and touch with the rest. It is disagreeably prettified, stiff and formal in gesture, with affected disposition of the drapery. It seems to be an academic solecism amid the naturalness of the scene.
The second point of interest is that in this picture Velasquez shows the first marked feeling for tone. There is no brilliance here or richness of hues, such as make Los Borrachos glow like magnificent enamels. The color-scheme is very reserved; drab, relieved with white flesh, brownish black tools and armor and the golden-amber of Apollo’s drapery. It shows the artist already feeling toward color as light; multiplying values rather than hues; studying the local hues in the variety of the light upon them, instead of applying to them an arbitrary chiaroscuro ; even contriving to give to his whole scene a certain envelope of atmosphere. The figure, raised at the back, scarcely takes its proper place in the aerial perspective; otherwise the scene, bar-ring the artificial halo of the god, represents an immense step in naturalistic expression.
We pass to the superb equestrian portraits of the little Don Carlos, Olivares, and The King. I wish it had been possible to reproduce all three in these pages; for, while they are all superbly decorative, magnificently large in expression and thrilling with force, they rep-resent differences of psychological feeling. That of the Carlos, the darling of the Court, is sprightly and lovable; bravura distinguishes the ostentatious pleasure-loving courtier-favorite, while a kingly gravity, tinged with the artist’s affection, ennobles the Philip (p. 96) . The boy bounds forward from the landscape; Olivares caracoles toward it, pointing to imaginary exploits; the King is placed athwart it, his figure quietly dominating space. How carefully Velasquez calculated this last effect is clear from the fact that two strips of canvas have been stitched on to the sides of the original piece. The artist evidently felt the need of more space to secure for the figure the required ascendancy. It was a frequent practice of his to add a piece to the top or sides of his canvas, which, as R. A. M. Stevenson, himself an artist, has remarked, throws a light on Velasquez’s method of work. He does not appear to have made careful original studies of his subjects, a fact corroborated by the very few drawings that he left behind. He rather seems to have attacked his subject immediately on canvas, pushing it hotly forward to realise his mental picture, and then, if necessary, adjusting the size of his canvas to secure a final unity of feeling. For the same purpose also he sometimes changed the drawing, as he proceeded, painting over the original design which now frequently shows through. In this equestrian Philip IV, for instance, even the photograph will show how he has altered the disposition of the horse’s legs, bringing them nearer together, as if he had felt that the more scattered positions detached from the quietude and dignity of the ensemble.
The horse in this portrait as compared with that of the Olivares is deficient in splendor of muscular action.
It is more monumental, the brownish bay mass forming a magnificent support to the black armored figure, with its pale rose sash. Philip was justly regarded the finest horseman of his day. Observe the seat of the figure, how absolutely its action is adjusted to that of the horse. Note, also, that while the masses of the landscape support the horse’s mass, the king’s figure shows free against the spaces of dove-grey sky ; his black beaver with its white and plum-colored plume lifting proudly against the white cloud. Compare this setting of the hat upon the head, with the respectively different treatment of the same details in the other two portraits. Each is psychologically related to its subject. Compare also the scintillating liveliness of the child’s embroidered costume and fluttering scarfs, so birdlike in gaiety of plumage, with the sumptuous bravado of Olivares’ gold-fringed, wine-red damask-silk bow, and his gold-striped armorthe whole effect intentionally a trifle outre. What a contrast of grave dignity in the King’s damascened breast-plate, brown velvet, gold-embroidered breeches, greyish drab gloves, pale buff boots and deep plum-red sash that floats over the horse’s stern ! In the ensemble of concentrated, controlled stateliness the only flashes of accented energy are the horse’s white fetlock and his superbly animated nostril and eye.
In his first period Velasquez painted an historical subject, The Expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain; but the picture perished in the burning of the Alcazar in 1734. The Surrender of Breda is therefore the only example of his work in this genre. It was executed after his first visit to Italy, where he had seen how Titian and Tintoretto utilised such subjects for palace decorations. Velasquez, true to himself, has tried to represent the scene as it actually might have happened, yet with certain formalities of balanced masses, to meet its decorative purpose. The picture, in fact, presents a mixture and, if one may dare to say it of a picture so famed, a confusion, of motive. The result is neither frankly an historical picture, such as Velasquez would have imagined it and rendered it, if his intention had been single; nor is it satisfactory as a decoration. The pattern of the composition is handsome. So too its coloring, which includes a lovely blue sky, fleeced with white; fainter blue and bluish-green and warm drab distance; blue coated troops in the middle distance; and deep sapphire blue in the squares of the flag on the right and in the breeches of the man whose white shirt shows against a black horse on the left of the center, and lastly in the costume of the man with a gun over his shoulder on the extreme left. The coat of the ad-joining figure is brownish buff ; the horse on the right, dark reddish brown. Spinola is clad in black armor, studded with gold; Justin of Nassau in brown and gold. All this is highly decorative, but not of itself sufficient to produce a decoration. For the secret of a decoration lies in the treatment of the planes, so that a sense of flatness may be preserved. There is nothing of that here; the bulk and depth of the foreground masses contradict it. The front figures of the man on the left and the horse opposite are alone sufficient to prevent a mural feeling. On the other hand, from the point of view of an historical picture, the attempt to treat the groups as masses, seen against the background, has resulted in a certain confusion of their planes, and in a general lack of interesting suggestion in their details. Only the treatment of the two principal figures is entirely satisfying. Nothing could exceed the beautiful expressiveness of the conqueror’s noble condescension and the no less dignified humility of the conquered. To this, the heart and soul of the conception, the rest comes near to being but an ornamental and rather distracting surplusage.
Of the three sportsmen portraits, that of the King is again the finest. That of his youngest brother, Don Ferdinand of Austria, is a somewhat earlier work, painted, possibly, before the artist’s visit to Italy; and the little Don Carlos, charming as it is, has lost a portion of its canvas (it is suggested that it may have been cut from its frame to save it at the time of the fire), so that the composition has not the consummate propriety and dignity of the King’s portrait. The latter is also distinguished by the masterly discretion of its tonality, which is based on brown. The tree trunk is brown; the foliage brownish olive; the cap and doublet lighter tones of the same and the trunks and gaiters darker; the gun, light brown and the glove drab brown; the dog, orange-tawny. Thus the figures and tree count as one handsome mass, in which the predominant spot is the pale face, set off by the soft, blond chestnut hair. The sleeve of the undercoat is black and silver, forming a thread of minor emphasis to connect the head and the gloved hand, the latter so full of character and technical distinction. The background of landscape is composed of a stretch of tawny drab grass, sloping up to bluish trees, seen against a grey sky, curdled with cream.
A fine example of the numerous portraits of dwarfs and actors, is that of the buffoon, nicknamed Don Juan de Austria (p. 100). The figure is shown in a drab grey interior, from which a door opens on to a view of sea-shore and a burning ship. The costume is of black velvet and a peculiarly subtle pale claret-colored silk. The expression of the man is one of concentration, to the suggestion of which every part of the figure so curiously and completely contributes its share, uniting in a perfect ensemble of feeling. In the atmospheric envelope and extreme choiceness of color this canvas is a worthy prelude to the masterpieces of the final period.
To one of the latter allusion has already been made : the Philip IV of the National Gallery. How infallibly just is the placing of the black bust and head against the dark background! With what finesse have been calculated the accents of the chain and ornaments and collar, in order to secure and at the same time alleviate the emphasis of the empty, solemn head with its puffed, waxy features and soft, pallid hair! How absolutely a unit is the whole impression! while the brush work is the ne plus ultra of impressionistic technique.
A miracle of painting also is presented in the portrait of a child, identified variously as Dona Margarita or Dona Maria Teresa, and in that of the not much older Dona Mariana de Austria, Philip’s second wife (p. 119). The child’s “guarda-infante” is of cloth of silver, woven diagonally with pale rose silk, all ashimmer with veiled lustre. Vermilion bows adorn her waist, a jeweled rosette of the same color her corsage, while a small rosette under the left ear and a plume on the right of the head, both vermilion, set off the soft straw-colored hair and the fresh tender hues of her face. Curtain and carpet are a rosy crimson, thus completing a tonal scheme of exquisitely delicate vivacity. In the second portrait the Queen’s robe is of black velvet, shot with brown, decorated with silver bullion. Notes of poppy scarlet appear at her wrists, while a pale scarlet mingled with silver is the color of the plume and of the ribbon flowers in her hair. The curtain, in color pale rosy burgundy, frames a dark olive background, a con-cavity of atmosphere, in the half-light of which appears a dainty gold clock upon a table. These two canvases are marvels of technical achievement and surpassing loveliness. A head and bust-portrait of this Queen, apparently in the same costume, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
A broader method, in which one strongly feels the exhilaration of the brushstrokes, is represented in the AEsopus and Moenippus. The grizzled black hair and pallid features of the former show against a warm drab-olive background. In the lower right corner is a spot of black and creamy fabric; opposite to it a creamy colored bowl; otherwise the figure is a study in browns of peculiarly fine quality. The background of the Moenippus is somewhat colder than the AEsopus; in key with the black cloak. The cap, boots, and the table and pitcher are of tones of brown; the beard is grey and the flesh of the face ripely rubicund. Even in the photograph one can appreciate the masterful breadth of the draperies, and feel through the modulation of the values the bulk of the figure beneath.
The Venus of the National Gallery, if it is to be reckoned among the works of Velasquez, is his only example of a female nude. While it attracts at first, it subsequently proves disappointing. In the emptiness of the back it is hard to recognise the hand of the master, who in early days modeled so skilfully the man’s back in the Forge of Vulcan and whose modeling generally is so masterly and full of interest. Nor can we easily reconcile with his unerring truth of observation the drawing of the reflection in the mirror, which in-stead of being smaller than the real head is somewhat larger. Moreover the red of the curtain and general color scheme lack the choiceness and subtlety of the canvases of the latest period, to which the Venus is assigned.
We reach now the two celebrated masterpieces: Las Hilanderas, (The Weavers), (p. 109) and Las Meninas, (Maids of Honor) (p. 114). They are very different. Both are triumphs alike of science and of inspired vision; yet, by comparison, I should distinguish the Maids of Honor as a miracle of vision, the other as a marvel of science. For we may be conscious of the science in the one and lose thought of it entirely in the other. In Las Meninas the unity of the ensemble seems as artless as the scene depicted; in Las Hilanderas it is perhaps less complete, certainly less simple and seems to suggest the consummate knowledge needed to achieve it. The interest of the former pervades the whole chamber and centers in the little princess. That of Las Hilanderas, seems, at least at first, to be distributed into three parts, and the focus point for the eye-Where is it?
Studying the two pictures, as is possible in the Prado, since they hang upon the same wall, near enough for the eye to travel backward and forward from one to the other, one discovers, I believe, that the problem involved in each is the reverse of that of the other. Las Meninas shows a partially lighted interior, with the chief light on the little figure in the foreground; while the problem of the other picture is a dimly lighted, or rather darkened foreground, and a fully lighted background. In Las Hilanderas, in fact, the artist’s chief motive was the alcove, pervaded by a clear light that illumines the blues, greys and pale rose of the tapestry. Velasquez had seen it so and realised how the effect was heightened by the dimness of the spot in which he stood. Conscious of this, one begins to understand that the focus point of this picture is the shaded dull-red figure in the center of the middle distance. But it is a focus point of departure; not, as in Las Meninas, designed to draw our attention to it, but to direct it to the lighted space behind. When once we have recognised this, order be-gins to establish itself in what seemed to be the divided interest of the canvas. The beautiful figure, on the right, of the girl in a white chemise no longer holds our attention too exclusively. We see in her the artist’s twofold purpose of explaining the front plane of his scene, and pointing through the shaded figure to his main motive. We have discovered the proper view of sight; it is in front of this girl, looking diagonally toward the alcove, and the group on the left is introduced to balance the composition. Yet even now, after one thinks one has captured the secret of the unity of the ensemble, so cunningly achieved, the beautiful figure of the girl on the right of the foreground may arrest our interest and distract it from the whole. It is be-cause of this, that for my own part, there seems to be more of science than of inspiration in this vision.
Not so with Las Meninas. Here one forgets to analysethere is no need to do soone simply accepts the scene and feels its consummate truth. How consummate it is, only familiarity with the original can reveal. It is a truth that grows upon the consciousness, stimulating it to demand more and yet more difficult tests of its truthfulness, and satisfying every one. And the unity which is the secret of the truth has not been obtained by monotony of hue. The canvas is alive with color, strong notes of most vivacious hue. The Princess’s dress is creamy silver with a bunch of rose on her breast. This rosy note is echoed in varying tones: in the glass that is being presented to her; on the artist’s palette; in the curtain reflected in the mirror at the back where the King and Queen appear; in the bright cuff ribbons on the silvery grey dress of the maid-in-waiting on the right, and in the dull rose costume of the child on the extreme right. The dwarf next to him wears a dress of slaty blue, decorated with silver; the kneeling maid, a greenish grey upper dress over a skirt of deep greyish green, and Velasquez himself is in black. But the mere enumeration of the colors gives no idea of their positive vivacity, as they show out brilliantly in the light, and none of the marvellous realisation of the textures. Nothing has been evaded; nothing seems to have given the artist a moment’s pause or difficulty. Yet, when all is said, the greatest marvel is the concavity of the drab-grey room, filled with luminous atmosphere; clear, around the foreground figures, but with infinite nuances of clearness, melting into varieties of penetrable mystery in the receding perspective. In the whole scene not a trace of evasion or confusion! Everything is readily comprehended, because rendered with immediate precision, as if in a moment of infallible improvisation.
Las Meninas was not only the matured achievement of Velasquez’s long research into the effect of light upon color and upon their relations to one another in space ; it was a new kind of picture. It is composed, built up of light. According to older conventions of composition the large space above the figures would be considered empty. But here it is not empty; it is filled with tones of light, with luminous aerial perspective that balances the group of lighted forms below. Possibly the photograph may not convey this impression to one who has not seen the original. But in the presence of the latter there can be no doubt of it. The upper part is as full of material as the lower; we may even find it more beautiful, because so infinitely subtle and stimulating to the imagination. Never before or since has the truth of natural appearances been so marvellously rendered, or the beauty of every day truth been so heightened by the artist’s inspired imagination. Las Meninas is an apocalypse, the revelation of a supreme vision.
In the decline of Spanish art and the general interest of Europe in Italianate and rococo motives, Velasquez during the eighteenth century was forgotten. Toward the end of that century, however, Goya derived inspiration from his works, and nearly a hundred, years later Manet, Whistler and others rediscovered him. His ex-ample has been the chief influence in leading the world back to regard a painting as a work of art, and in teaching the painter himself the technique that will entitle it to be so considered. The duration of his influence has corresponded with the vogue of naturalism which has prevailed in Literature and the Fine Arts, a reflex action of the general scientific attitude of the time. The vogue is passing, and Velasquez’s immediate influence may grow less. But his reputation will endure, because it is founded upon the lasting foundation of “truth,, not painting.”