Velasquez – His Influence Upon Recent Art

To see the Prado is to modify one’s opinion of the novelty of recent art. Landscape and landscape with figure may be more independent of the past, but figure painting certainly owes much to Velasquez. Whether directly or indirectly, whether consciously or unconsciously, artists have decided after half-a-century of exploration to follow the path of Velasquez. Not that they have plagiarised, but that in the natural growth of ideas, the seed of thought has been blown from Spain to every part of the world. The process, however, was a slow one. Writers on Velasquez have been few ; in the past Pacheco, the master and father-in-law of Velasquez, and Palomino, painter to Philip V. ; in the present century Sir W. Stirling Maxwell, Richard Ford, T. Thoré, Carl Justi, and one or two others. But writing can do nothing to help art, unless like a sign-post it makes painters aware of the road to a certain kind of art. They must walk it themselves, and we find that those who saw and spoke enthusiastically of Velasquez in the early portion of the century went little out of their way to understand him. Sir David Wilkie preferred ” The Topers ” to the later work, and John Philip, if he learnt anything from Velasquez, learnt from the early pictures certain receipts in colouring and in handling a brush, but not the courage to work entirely without receipts.

The return to nature of the French Romantics of 1815 to 1855 was guided rather by the example of Rubens, Rembrandt, Lawrence, and Constable, than by that of Velasquez. A Gros, a Gericault, a Delacroix, however vigorously painted, shows only a realism of subject, of textures, of detail, of drawing, but never a realism of general aspect that could approach the convincing truth of the later impressionism of Velasquez. It was in landscape with figure that France independently worked out the principles of a new art, and even Corot seems to hold one hand to the Romantics, and the other to the schools of 1865-95. The names of Courbet, Manet, Carolus-Duran, Whistler, Henner, will occur to everyone as characteristic of the departure of the present movement in art. Without doubt, Bonnat, E. Delaunay, A. Legros, and others have revived our interest in style, our assiduity in modelling, but after fashions less particular to our own age. I am more acquainted with M. Carolus-Duran’s views and system than with those of others, and I think that he differs from French Romantics much as Velasquez differed from Rubens and Rembrandt.

Duran set himself to teach art less on the venerable principles of outline drawing than on a method adapted to his own fashion of looking at nature—by masses and by constructive planes. Of course, Duran taught drawing, but likely enough his method was not suitable to every kind of talent, for he separated drawing from modelling with the brush as little as possible. According to him the whole art of expressing form should progress together and should consist in expressing it, as we see it, by light. He regarded drawing as the art of placing things rightly in depth as well as in length and breadth ; and for this purpose he would call attention to various aspects of form—the intersection and prolongation of imaginary lines, the shape of inclosed spaces, the interior contents of masses, the inclination of planes to light, and the expression or characteristic tendency of any visible markings.

Very far back in history there was probably a sort of folk-drawing as there was folk-music consisting of conventions for expressing individual objects to be learnt by rote as we learn the shapes of the countries from an atlas. Then came the stage of canons of proportion as we find them still discussed by Dürer and Leonardo in their attempts to formalise the vague traditions of the past. From this we pass in the books of that same Leonardo to the third stage based on the sciences of perspective and anatomy. Relics of the first two stages are still to be found amongst school-boys who hand down ” tips ” for drawing men and objects, and never dream of going to look at any object for themselves. “Show me how to draw a man,” or ” I haven’t learnt how one does a pig yet,” are phrases commonly heard amongst that kind of practitioner. This rule of thumb tradition grows from various sources, stray personal memories or observations, and fragmentary recollections of the work of such schools of first-hand study from nature as the Greek and Assyrian. The sciences in their turn were very useful to those who would group figures from chic, cultivate improvement of type, and introduce tumbled and floating figures into great ceiling decorations.

As in Greece, so in later Europe, it was portraiture that kept art sincere and vital. But in spite of that influence, figure subjects remained long in the conventional stage. Leonardo’s constant appeal to nature was not the mere commonplace saw that it is to-day. He found it necessary to enforce his view on every point ; on drawing, on perspective, on chiaroscuro, on the value of colours at various distances, on the art of modelling, which he describes as too often consisting of an arbitrary passage from dark to light by the use of two or three stock tones brushed together.

Is it wonderful that you can apply Morelli’s principles of criticism to the Pre-Raphaelite Italian schools : that you can point to the thumbs, fingers, poses of the head, ovals of the face, and schemes of colour that the painters learnt by heart, and can even say from whom they learnt? The later Venetians broke away, and when you come to Velasquez, the system holds good as little as it can in our own day. Velasquez taught his eye so to report sight that he could render the familiar or the unfamiliar, and could communicate directly with what was before him without the intervention of traditional rules or scientific study. His name was for ever in the mouth of Carolus-Duran, when he spoke of the past, but it was not to induce his students to copy even Velasquez. For instance, the influence of Corot was great at that time, and I have heard Duran say, “When you go into the fields you will not see a Corot ; paint what you see.” He wished to direct their education so that his pupils might attack nature from whatever side they pleased. The prerogative of grasping what is before you does not preclude you from afterwards learning to do without the model, and to paint what you imagine instead of what you see, but it provides you a perpetual stronghold in case of defeat, and a base of operations for future excursions into the unknown.

In his ” Manual of Oil Painting,” the Hon. John Collier says, ” To whatever use he may mean to put his art eventually, the one thing that he has to learn, as a student, is how to represent faithfully any object that he has before him,” and in another place, ” there is nothing so deadening to the imagination as to try to express it with inadequate means.” Velasquez, by the admission of all the artists in Rome, alone painted reality, the others, some decorative convention. When, in the present century, truth of impression became the governing ideal of art, Velasquez became the prophet of the new schools. At that time in France, any coterie of young painters hired a studio, and chose for themselves the master whose art promised them guidance in a sympathetic path. Having themselves chosen the direction, the students were all the more likely to bear with the weariness and the obstacles of the road. For those who had asked his aid, Carolus-Duran formulated the principles of his own art, and enforced them by an appeal to the practice of others and, before all, of Velasquez.

By his method of teaching, he hoped at least to give the student a knowledge of what he saw, and a logical grasp of the principles of sight. After a slight search of proportions with charcoal, the places of masses were indicated with a rigger dipped in flowing pigment. No preparation in colour or monochrome was allowed, but the main planes of the face must be laid directly on the unprepared canvas with a broad brush. These few surfaces—three or four in the forehead, as many in the nose, and so forth—must be studied in shape and place, and particularly in the relative value of light that their various inclinations produce. They were painted quite broadly in even tones of flesh tint, and stood side by side like pieces of a mosaic, without fusion of their adjacent edges. No brushing of the edge of the hair into the face was permitted, no conventional bounding of eyes and features with lines that might deceive the student by their expression into the belief that false structure was truthful. In the next stage you were bound to proceed in the same manner by laying planes upon the junctions of the larger ones or by breaking the larger planes into smaller subordinate surfaces. You were never allowed to brush one surface into another, you must make a tone for each step of a gradation. Thus, you might never attempt to realise a- tone or a passage by some hazardous uncontrollable process.

M. Carolus-Duran believed that if you do not approach tone by direct painting you will never know what you can do, and will never discover whether you really feel any given relation, or the values of any contrasting surfaces. The first stages of this work looked like portraits of wooden figures cut with a knife in sharp-edged, unsoftened facets. The effect on the Ruskinian of this hideous and pitiless logic was terrible. Most of them sickened at the strong medicine, and fled from the too heroic cure for the namby-pamby model-ling which trusts for expression to a red line between the lips, a contour line to the nose, and a careful rigger track round the eyes and eyebrows. I have felt the first spasms of this disgust, and I praise the master who stayed, not the pupil who fled. If Duran was not squeamish at criticising and touching these awful dolls, why should the pupil take pride in the weakness of his stomach. Duran had little patience with the æsthete and conventional sentimentalist, and nothing amused him more than the ” loss of my originality,” a plea often put forward by men still blind to the ordinary aspect of nature. He was pitiless to the transparent colour dodge, the badger-hair hypocrisy, and the hopeful haphazard glazings of the sentimentalist who cannot shape a nose, and would show all Browning’s works in a face.

This severe system, it must be remembered, served merely as the gymnastic of art, it was a means of education for the eye, not a trick of mannerism, or a ready-made style of painting. Had not Duran’s studio been already described, I believe in the Nineteenth Century, I should have said more of the teaching of a great painter whose only recognised master was Velasquez. There is, however, one point that I must mention, as it throws a light on the simplicity of Velasquez’s flesh tints and the surprising subtlety and clearness of his modelling of shape. Everyone knows that insubordination of the eye or that false estimation of comparative importances in nature which led some painters to exaggerate spots of local colour, definitions of detail, reflected lights, or, in fact, anything dangerous to the peace of the ensemble. They so treated the skin, as to embarrass modelling, which is the first quality in a face, for the sake of accidental spots, which are of little count in that most even and luminous of sub-stances, flesh.

If you will paint the trivial and the uncharacteristic, your picture must be commonplace ; for what affects us in a picture is that for which it was painted, the things, in fact, for which the aspect of the canvas was designed. It is not sufficient to put things into a work of art, it is necessary to see that they look out from it perspicuously and with the greatest possible effect. A certain pattern, a certain shape, may be somewhere on a canvas, but it may lie there as well hid as the secret of a puzzle picture. The person who never sees anything particular to look at in a scene, alone thinks he can show everything to equal advantage by a labour of addition. The man with only a sense of decoration is saved this last humiliation of mistaking trouble for feeling, counting for being impressed, and measuring for seeing. He knows that every extra marking on a canvas increases the danger that a design may be choked and modelling buried in a welter of dots or a labyrinth of subordinate pattern. The English stipple of colours, chiefly seen about the eyes, ears, and the edges of shadows, always drew from Duran his famous ” Pourquoi ces trente six mille couleurs.” We saw them, of course, not in nature, but in our memories of the cadmium, lake, green, and blue spots of the English pictures of that date. It was an easy task to seize on the excuse for these coloured spots, a difficult one to embrace the relations of the ensemble that reduced them to their true insignificance. The ornaments of an exaggerated colouring may be compared to the graces of rhyme in an accented language, such as English. Dignity stumbles over these recur-rent obstacles, and if the sense skips them cleverly, it is at the expense of earnestness and reality.

The sight of Velasquez at Madrid does not make us look upon the works of Regnault, Courbet, Manet, Carolus-Duran, Monet, Henner, Whistler, Degas, Sargent, and the rest, as plagiary. It rather gives the man of our century confidence that he is following a path not unlike that trod to such good purpose by the great Spaniard. To reach the goal of impressionism cost Velasquez thirty years of exploration, and then it was gained only for the expression of his own views. Velasquez, except in his few landscapes, never applied his principles to the thorough realisation of plein-air effects. Thus, the path pursued by men of the present century, though by no means identical, passes through similar stages and progressions. Decorative formulas, and the successive realism of various separate qualities—subject, form, colour, and atmosphere—bestrew the path from Gros to Manet, just as they mark the stages in the development of the solitary Velasquez.

Corot and Millet took his principles into the open air ; the first painting landscape with figures, the second figures with landscapes. Of these Corot was the purest impressionist, Millet hanging more evidently on the chain of Romantics from Michael Angelo and Rembrandt to his own Barbizonian school. Regnault, especially in the face of his ” Marshal Prim,” shows a fellow-feeling with Velasquez in his second period of the great equestrian portraits. Duran avoided bright coloured subjects less than Velasquez, and reduced his handling to a more formal and logical pattern. Henner, half a Classic and half a Romantic by nature, took up the nude and worked it on more distinctly decorative motifs of colour, and on a softer but less subtle principle of modelling. Whistler combined a morbid Japanese grace with the Spanish austerity of impression, and saw things with a raffine’s attraction to elegance, and the quintessence of modishness. In “The Nocturnes,” in “The Japaneseries,” in “Miss Alexander,” in the portrait of his mother, he breaks away into a game of his own. If not more original than others, Manet was perhaps the strongest and widest in his originality of all the revivers of impressionism. He is as various in his moods as daylight, and, except in one or two heads, such as “Le Bon Bock,” shows nothing of his long study of Velasquez, unless in the underlying convention common to ail impressionists.