EARLY all that makes for the glory of Spanish history was compressed within the two hundred years between the late fifteenth and late seventeenth centuries. Spain was now at her height, in political supremacy, in commercial prosperity, and in the rise of literature and painting. The Emperor Charles V gave a strong impetus to art by his liberal patronage, both of religious and portrait subjects. How highly the valued the work of Titian, we have already seen.’ The splendid canvases of the Venetian which were brought to Madrid, were in themselves a school of art for native painters. About 1550, the emperor began to employ the Netherlandish painter, Anthony Moro. This artist was first sent to Lisbon to paint the betrothed wife of Philip, and afterwards to England to paint his second wife, Queen Mary. Returning later to Spain, he was here long enough to exercise a decided influence on contemporary artists. As we see in his celebrated portrait of Queen Mary, he had in remarkable degree the Netherlandish gift of expressive realism.’ His best Spanish pupil was Sanchez Coello, who painted the portraits of Philip II and Philip III, and various members of the house of Austria. Coello’s best pupil, in turn, was Pantoja de la Cruz, who was also employed by Philips II and III. With the seventeenth century we come to the new king, Philip IV, and the new painter Velasquez. While the earlier art had been shaped largely by foreign influences, especially the Italian, Velasquez was a bold and independent spirit. He has been called the most Spanish of Spanish painters.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velasquez was born in Seville in 1599. This Andalusian city was at that time the great commercial port of Spain. Sevillian merchants controlled the markets of the old Mediterranean ports, and even those of the north. The population was very cosmopolitan, but the general aspect was oriental. Houses were built with marble-paved courts, adorned with fountains, and furnished with objects of eastern workman-ship. The popular amusements were dances, feasts, masques, and processions of oriental nature. It was altogether a rich, prosperous, and pleasure-loving city. Such was the back-ground of the youth and early training of Velasquez, similar in many points to that of Rubens and Van Dyck in Antwerp, and of Titian in Venice. Such resemblances, however, count for nothing when one considers what widely different types of painting these several men represent. The character of a genius has never yet been explained by his environment.
Seville had its local school of painting, and when the boy, Velasquez, showed his bent for drawing, he was placed first under the instruction of Herrera, and later of Pacheco.
Five years of training under the latter gave him some command of his tools, and at the end of this time, marrying his master’s daughter, he set up for himself. This was in 1618. Three years later the accession of Philip IV aroused his ambition to try his fortune in Madrid. Armed with influential introductions, he was not long in coming to royal notice. His first order from the young king was for an equestrian portrait, an ambitious subject for an inexperienced young painter. The picture seems to have been a creditable performance, and gave the king much satisfaction. It was not long after that Velasquez received his appointment as court painter. A studio was assigned him on the ground floor of the palace, a regular salary was attached to the office, besides special payment for each work to be done. All the circumstances were favourable to the development of his art. It was the boast of Philip to maintain the piety of his father, the statesmanship of his grandfather, and the warlike spirit of his great-grandfather. To this he might have added the artistic tastes of his grandfather. Like Charles V, he was on easy terms of familiarity with his court painter, having access by a secret passage to the studio, where a special chair was reserved for his Majesty. He was not only an excellent connoisseur, but is said to have been something of a painter himself. The king’s interest in art was shared by his minister, Olivarez, and by many of the courtiers. Madrid contained at this time not a few valuable collections of paintings, and of other art objects, owned by genuine virtuosi.
It was a juvenile court to which Velasquez was called. The king himself was only eighteen years of age, and his wife, Isabella of Bourbon, but two years older. The king’s sister Mary was a year younger than himself, his brother Don Carlos a year younger than she, and the brother Ferdinand, a boy of four-teen. Of the queen we have unfortunately no portrait made in these youthful days. She seems to have had an aversion to sittings, and female portraiture was not sufficiently fashionable to induce her to overcome the prejudice. She passed many years in neglect and obscurity, and it was not till late in life that the king discovered her ability and goodness. Of the king and his brothers, the Prado gallery at Madrid contains full-length portraits by Velasquez, painted in their young manhood. One notes the strong family resemblance in the long, narrow face, the large nose, the heavy jaw, and thick lips. The costume is exceedingly simple for royalty, for the king took pride in making some radical changes in this matter as soon as he came to the throne. The large ruff previously worn was replaced by a wide, flat, saucer-like collar of Philip’s own invention, called the ” golila.” The plain black tunic and baggy knee-trousers complete the severity of the fashion. This serious scheme of colour Velasquez handled with great dignity, so placing his figures as to increase the impression of their height. Grave beyond their years, with the responsibilities of their position, these young princes show the blood royal, even in its decadence. The king’s pose is formal and official, but altogether graceful and elegant. The same boyish, unformed face is seen in the bust portrait in armour in the same gallery.
Don Carlos was the most promising of the three brothers, and his cleverness put the wary Olivarez on guard lest he win too much influence at the court. His untimely death at the age of twenty-five was the matter of some suspicion. Don Ferdinand left Spain in his early twenties, to take the regency of the Netherlands, after the death of Albert. His portrait here is in hunting costume, standing in a landscape, accompanied by his dog. With this group of pictures belongs the portrait of Philip IV in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, painted at about the same time, or perhaps a little earlier. The young king here wears a long gold chain, with the order of the Golden Fleece, the only ornament to relieve the severe simplicity of his dress. This picture was acquired by the Museum in 1904, and after exciting wide-spread discussion is ad-judged by the best authorities a fine and genuine work. From all these pictures one sees that Velasquez began his court life hampered by no spirit of flattery. The stamp of sincerity is on his work, and we are convinced of the resemblance of portrait to original.
An exciting episode of Velasquez’ early connection with the court was the visit of Prince Charles Stuart of England, as the suitor of Philip’s sister Dona Maria. The painter has shown us this young lady in her most pleasing aspect, in a portrait made a few years later. She could not dispense with the family mouth, but for the rest, her agreeable smile, and curling hair gave her a certain charm, while the big ruff relieved the narrowness of the face. She is described as of a lively temperament, a daring huntress, and very charitable and friendly. The Duke of Buckingham wrote to King James of England: ” Without flattery I believe there is no sweeter creature in the world.” The prince was an ardent lover, and an amusing story was told of his adventure in the garden of a summer-house whither he had followed his lady. Having climbed a high wall in the pursuit, he was making straight for the object of his affection, when she suddenly spied him, and with a piercing shriek, turned and fled. A court official then warned him to make his escape on pain of death, and the prince rue-fully took his leave. So strictly did the court etiquette prohibit any kind of love-making that it is no wonder that in spite of a formal betrothal, the match never came off. The lady became seven years later the wife of King Ferdinand of Hungary. It is on record that during the visit Velasquez made a portrait of the English prince which mysteriously disappeared.
Velasquez had been nearly seven years at court when the even tenor of his life was interrupted in 1629 by the appearance of Rubens in Madrid. The Flemish painter had come on a diplomatic mission from England, and remained nine months, as busy with his art as with diplomacy.’ He painted a number of pictures for the king, and made for himself many copies of Italian works in the royal collection. A great painter, an extensive traveller, and a genial gentleman, Rubens brought many new ideas to the Spanish court painter. Velasquez, with all his provincialism, was a courtier and a man of parts. He could hold his own, even with such a man of the world as Rubens. The two became great friends. Together they climbed the steep ascent of the Sierra to make a sketch of the view. This visit was a turning point in the life of Velasquez, whether directly or indirectly through the influence of Rubens. A journey into. Italy soon after brought to a close the first period of his career. The picture of the To-pers, painted just before his departure, sums up the qualities of his first method. ” Piece-meal realism ” is the phrase of a clever critic, describing this art. Every head in the group has equal care and characterization, as in the early military groups of Frans Hals. The technique is close, tight, and hard.
The Italian journey covered nearly two years and took Velasquez to Venice, where he copied assiduously Titian and Tintoretto, to Rome, where he had free access to the works of Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican, to Naples, where he painted the portrait of Philip’s sister Maria, now Queen of Hungary,’ and visited his countryman Ribera, thence home to Madrid in 1631. For a period of nearly twenty years Velasquez now continued at court, steadily developing his art. A new sense of decorative quality was one result of the visit in Venice. He had an opportunity to put this idea in practice in supervising the decorations of Philip’s new palace of Buen Retiro. For this place he painted the’ famous Surrender of Breda, the master-piece of his second period. In the centre Justin of Nassau presents the keys of the city to the victorious Marquis of Spinola in the presence of a number of attendants, while in the background a company of soldiers stand with lances erect. The fine decorative ensemble, which is a harmonious unity both in line and colour, is the setting for the noble study of individual portraiture. It was also in this period, with the freer and broader touch, that Velasquez painted some magnificent equestrian portraits. The painter seemed to understand horses and dogs no less than humans, and the splendid creatures of his portraits are alive in every muscle. The Spanish horses of this time were of a peculiar breed, rather small, but well-proportioned, and very swift and intelligent. An animal once ridden by the king could never be mounted by another, hence the royal steeds often grew heavy through idleness. In the portrait of Philip IV the cavalier is seen in profile riding across a landscape, on a spirited rearing horse. The king, who was the best horseman in Spain, sits as if born in the saddle: horse and rider are one. In his favourite exercise, the monarch is roused from his usual lethargic manner to real animation. The cocked hat and full armour give picturesque charm to the figure, and the whole composition is superbly decorative. It is conjectured that this picture was the one painted by Velasquez for the guidance of the Florentine sculptor Tacca in making the equestrian statue of the king. The equestrian portrait of Queen Isabella was its pendant at the en-trance to Buen Retiro. The queen rides a white palfrey which ambles to the left, but is so nearly covered by the sweeping robes of the rider that one sees only his fore quarters. The lady’s face is painted with extreme delicacy, showing her beautiful eyes and sweet expression as her chief charms.
The Count Duke Olivarez is the subject of another great equestrian portrait. This ambitious minister exercised almost complete control over the weak king until his downfall in 1643. Having first introduced Velasquez to the king, he regarded the painter as a protégé, and had several portraits made by him, this being the most striking. The figure of the horse fills the canvas diagonally as the animal, seen from the rear, is about to leap a narrow stream. The rider turns his head to look over his shoulder, and we read in the haughty and sinister face something of the character of this ” scarecrow of kings.” He is dressed in armour, with a rich sash, and the decorative character of the piece is above praise.
While Velasquez was absent in Italy, a prince had been born to the royal family, and in the years following this child became the painter’s most frequent subject. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts contains one of the earliest of this series. Don Balthasar Carlos is here a little toddler in skirts, playing with a dwarf. The child’s innocent gravity as he balances himself uncertainly on his feet, imitates to the life the mingled helplessness and dignity of the growing baby. The painter has also avoided the error of over-modelling the features – a common pitfall of child portraiture. In none of the portraits of the boy prince is the expression too mature for his years. Their charm is not in prettiness or in winsomeness, but in their perfect naïveté. The most interesting and beautiful are the hunting piece and the equestrian portrait, both painted at about the age of six. The subjects afforded splendid material for decorative composition, and Velasquez rose to the occasion. The youthful huntsman stands by a tree in the foreground of a mountain landscape, and a huge dog lies by his side. His high boots and large gauntlets, and the cap set jauntily aslant are the principal sporting items of his costume, and he grasps a gun firmly in the right hand as he looks out of the picture with imperturbable complacency. A companion picture of Philip IV in hunting costume was painted at about the same time, with similar decorative quality. As a horseman, the little prince sits gallantly in the saddle, as becomes his father’s son. His beautiful bay pony gal-lops forward with long mane and sweeping tail flying in the breeze. The picture is full of joyous life. Perhaps the last of the portrait series of the young prince is as a boy of fourteen standing in court dress. At sixteen years of age all the bright promises of his future were shattered by his death. Outside the royal household two striking portraits of this period are of the sculptor Montanez, and the Admiral Pulido.
In 1649 Velasquez again made an extended journey in Italy to buy works of art for his king. He revisited Venice, Naples, and Rome, lingering till 1651. In the Eternal City he was honoured by the patronage of the Pope Innocent X, for whom he made one of his most interesting portraits. With undeviating adherence to nature, he did nothing to soften the ugliness of a very unprepossessing face, or ennoble the expression of an ignoble character. The work is so strong in realism that a photograph from the painting produces the same effect as if directly from life. During his visit in Rome, Velasquez discussed with Salvator Rosa the merits of the Italian masters. Raphael, it appears, did not please him at all, but he gave first place to the Venetians. ” It is Titian,” he said, ” that bears the banner.”
Upon his return to Madrid Velasquez entered upon what is called his third manner of painting. This is to a certain extent a method of impressionism. With extraordinary facility for reproducing the relations of tones, he painted the object surrounded by light and air. The king, after several years of widower-hood, had now taken as his second wife, his niece, Mariana of Austria, who had been betrothed to the Prince Balthasar. The marriage was celebrated with great pomp and festivity. Triumphal arches were erected in the streets of Madrid through which passed the splendid procession of German, Flemish, and Spanish bodyguards, followed by heralds, grandees, and their pages, and ladies on horses and in coaches. The bride was a girl of fourteen, only three years older than her stepdaughter, Maria Theresa. Both girls sat to Velasquez for their portraits, wearing the absurd Spanish dress, which was the ugliest in Europe. High neck and long sleeves were de rigeur. A long-waisted corset as stiff as a coat of mail, and a hoop of monstrous circumference enveloped the figure. The hair was curled and built up with the addition of silk and wool into a huge structure resembling a cauliflower, and ornamented with ribbons and jewels. Rouge was plentifully bedaubed over cheeks, forehead, ears, and chin, shoulders, and hands. Madame d’Aulnay, a French countess visiting Madrid in 1679, wrote of the rouge custom that she ` never saw boiled crabs more highly coloured.” With such incumbrances the fairest of maidens could scarcely be made attractive, and neither Mariana nor Maria Theresa could be called a beauty. Yet such was the magic of Velasquez’ technique, that he has made a masterpiece even of the painting of a ridiculous costume. Mariana is said to have had somewhat boisterous spirits and found the restrictions of court etiquette quite irksome. In trying to assume a proper regal gravity in her portrait, she looks unhappy and ill-tempered. Maria Theresa, on the other hand, was of a lovely and gentle nature, pious and charitable. Velasquez has rendered the sweet gravity of her face with great delicacy. The little lady became in later years the wife of Louis XIV of France, and her portraits were then made by the French court painter, Mignard.
The first child of Philip IV and Mariana was the Princess Margaret, at whose christening Maria Theresa stood as sponsor. On the way to chapel a costly ring slipped from the hand of Maria Theresa, and as a poor woman was restoring it to her, the princess said graciously, ” Keep it, God has sent it to you.” The baby Margaret grew into a lovely child, and became the darling of the court as the Prince Balthasar had once been. Her portraits were now in demand, and again Velasquez caught on the canvas the essential spirit of childhood. The little girl, in a lace dress, . standing beside a table, is one of these pictures, and another is the half-length figure in the Louvre. The elusive charm of the technique is the despair of copyists, so light is the touch of the brush in securing this trans-parent effect. There is here no hardness of outline or modelling ; Velasquez had come to the height of his skill. The climax of his achievement was the portrait group of Las Meninas (Maids of Honour) , of which this little Margaret is the heroine. A plausible story is told explaining the origin of the unique composition. The king and queen were together one day in the studio giving Velasquez a portrait sitting. The painter stood at his easel, and on the wall behind him was a mirror in which the royal pair could see their own reflection. Presently the Princess Margaret came in, attended by her maids of honour and dwarfs. The king was struck with the picturesqueness of the group, and de-sired to have the scene transferred to canvas, as was accordingly done. We look into the room from the standpoint of the royal sitters. The setting reminds one of the Dutch interiors at which Peter de Hooch was so adept in this period. The illusion is so perfect that Gautier wrote, ” One is tempted to ask when standing before it, Where then is the picture? ” The figures are so alive that they fairly breathe. It is one of the few pictures in the world which express a perfect unity of colour, line, definition, modelling, and tone. Another child of Philip’s second marriage was the Prince Philip Prosper, a sickly boy who lived only four years. A single portrait by Velasquez has preserved the memory of the fragile little fellow, dressed in skirts, with his playthings strung on a girdle.
The royal child portraits of Velasquez suggest by contrast those which his contemporary, Van Dyck, painted at the court of Charles I. The outward prettiness of the Stuart princes makes them popular favourites, while the Spanish children have only their child nature to commend them, and this in some cases obscured by their dress. Everything in his environment tended to strengthen Van Dyck’s leaning towards the pretty and flattering, while Velasquez adhered sturdily to reality. Velasquez’s time seems to have been practically monopolized by the royal service, and he had no such opportunities as Van Dyck to paint other patrons. This is especially regrettable in the matter of women’s portraits. The royal family providing him only one such subject, and that an unwilling sitter (Queen Isabella) , we wish the more that some of the Spanish beauties might have been perpetuated on his canvases. Even had the king allowed him time for such work, it is improbable that orders would have come, as the Spanish husbands were notoriously jealous and guarded their wives in almost oriental seclusion. An English nobleman visiting in Madrid was attacked by a party of fifteen armed men for merely daring to look at a lady on a balcony. How dangerous then would it have been to admire a lady’s portrait. Nevertheless at least one Spanish beauty a nameless one – lives for us through the art of Velasquez. She is the Lady of the Fan in the Wallace Collection, with the wonderful eyes which only Spain brings forth. Velasquez also dared to paint his own wife. Certainly she was no beauty, even when we subtract the high coiffure from her face. She meets our gaze; however, with an intimacy of expression which has much charm.
Court dwarfs and buffoons figure in the pictures of Velasquez with an intense realism which exaggerates their grotesqueness. The idiot ” El Bobo,” the sad-eyed ” Sebastian,” the grave ” El Primo,” and the pompous ” Inglese,” gorgeously attired in court dress, are of this strange company. Don Juan de Austria, a haggard old man, pathetic in his forced jocoseness, and Pabillos de Valladolid, striking an oratorical attitude, are among others who in a different way served to amuse the jaded tastes of the court.
The last portraits of the king show the natural changes in the face which Velasquez had studied so faithfully over thirty years. Time has coarsened the features which were naturally so large. The neck has thickened, making the massive chin more prominent than ever. The moustaches have grown to a fierce length, and are turned up in military fashion. – The eyes have the weary droop of advancing years and disappointed hopes. One of these portraits is in Madrid and another in the National Gallery. Through all the changes of the years king and painter had continued on terms of harmonious intimacy. The crowning mark of the royal favour was the cross of Santiago which made Velasquez a knight. With peculiar fitness the usefulness of the two men ended almost simultaneously. Philip was stricken with paralysis in 1659, and Velasquez died in 1660. The king lived on a few years and even had his portrait painted again by another hand, but it is only through the art of Velasquez that he lives as a striking historic figure.
The qualities of Velasquez do not appeal to a large public. He is so simple that the uninitiated see nothing wonderful about him, little dreaming that such simplicity implies great knowledge. He taught art how to look at nature, in order to reproduce faithfully the impression of the natural object. He was absolutely- sincere, without evasion and with-out tricks. He never stooped to flattery, and he did not try to probe the secrets of the mind. The kind of subject set before him did not concern him, beautiful or ugly, noble or ignoble, man, woman, or child. He made the most of the slenderest resources. He was sparing of colour, using only the most severe and stately schemes. Of academic rules he was quite independent : he was a rule unto himself. He was the first of the moderns, and so far in advance of his times that he is only just coming into his own. Several pictures bear the painter’s name as self portraits, of which the most interesting is that of the Capitol, Rome. This is the face of the man as we like to imagine him, with high brow and fine eyes, courtly, dignified, and sincere.