Velasquez – His Relation To Older Art

To the eye of the historian, Velasquez may seem to grow out of the main stem of art ; he may appear to have his place in the orderly development of the history of painting. To the eye of the sympathetic modern painter, he seems an explosion of personality as disconnected with the art that immediately followed him as with that which preceded him. I believe that the expert in mannerisms has tried to fix his measuring apparatus upon the pictures of Velasquez, but to no good purpose. The counting of curls, the measuring of thumbs, the tracing of poses, may reveal something when applied to men who learnt to draw and paint formulas by rote, but must break down in the case of a man with whom drawing is not a habit but an art. Velasquez taught himself to picture the impression made by any sight upon his brain. This system of training, which aims at improving the sight, at cultivating a mood, at gaining a general faculty, has banished the other system of learning a set of proportions, a stock of patterns, a host of tips for drawing separate limbs and other natural objects. Nothing astonishes a modern painter more than to see a historian ransack every gallery to find a precedent for the style of a hand in a picture, rather than admit the possibility that an artist could choose one for himself in the vast magazine of nature. Personal preference, artistic impressionability, the counsel of a passing mood, the testimony of a sensitive eye, are not these sufficient reasons for the appearance of some given form in a picture? Moreover, a picture cannot be the efficient, the first cause of a picture ; all true art originates in the personal predilections of an individual mind, and in personal sensitiveness to external nature. The rest is disguised copying, artistic or inartistic mannerism. Now, of all painters, Velasquez was the one who tampered least with the integrity of his impression of the world. Every one of his pictures was a fresh effort, less at finding a new and striking subject than at realising more absolutely a way of seeing things in general that was personal to him. Hence he never tired of repetition, for the good reason that it was no repetition to him in the sense that successive Madonnas and saints were to the early Italians, who cooked them out of receipts for thumbs, hair, draperies, ovals of faces, noses and poses.

This makes the study of his work at Madrid as trying as the study of some dozen old Italian masters.

Although during a too short visit to the Prado I looked at the rest of the gallery only as a background to the pictures of Velasquez, I cannot speak of him without feeling a want of fuller knowledge and, above all, of the advantage of having made one or two copies. It was some consolation, after leaving Madrid, to hear from the Scotch painter, Mr John Lavery, that he had not found six months of study and careful copying sufficient to settle his opinions on the pictures of Velasquez. Upon his return in a following year, he found unexpected beauties in some canvases, he looked at others as if he had never seen them before, while the copy that in Scotland had been to him and to other painters the very interpretation of Velasquez, now seemed lacking the essential spirit of the master. Thus, whether one gives a week or a year to the Prado, one comes back convinced that one cannot have sounded all the depths of a man who never did anything as a skilled automaton or a learned pedant.

Of course it is in the later canvases, in the works of the last dozen years of his life, that Velasquez makes the most marvellous use of paint. But the marvel is not of the kind one looks for. In the large impressionistic canvases of his later life, one might expect to see the bold, dexterous brusher surpassing even Ribera, Hals, or the mature Rembrandt in the bravura of his handiwork. On the contrary, as I have said, the paint at first sight scarcely appears to be intentionally handled ; it seems put on, I might say, without art, if that did not give a false view ; for in truth it is put on with consummate art in the interest of the whole canvas, and not for the style of the passage itself. Without flourish, for the most part without even an appearance of brush strokes, the paint is smeared in thin filmy scales which vary in size, looseness, and breadth, with the necessities of the subject and the composition. It is a style founded on the pursuit of more than usually just and subtle model-ling, a modelling which changes character with the size of the canvas, with the width or narrowness of the field of view, and with the position near or far from the focus of impression of an object to be modelled. It is a style compatible with revision and correction, for it in no way depends upon the integrity of some arbitrary pattern of touch, square, sweeping, or interwoven. This apparent artlessness surprises one at first, but becomes in the end a chief charm of the later Velasquez, who was too great, too earnest, too far-seeing, to care for small affectations of manner. In these pictures nothing seems to inter-pose between you and the mind of Velasquez. You seem to be behind his eye, able to judge and to feel, with all the power and sensitiveness of that unrivalled organ. In a word, his work resembles the fine writing in which style is so docile a servant of matter, that it never draws attention to itself ; you read as you might eat a meal in the Arabian Nights, served by invisible hands.

In spite of the example of Velasquez, some modern painters fear a close study of drawing, values, or model-ling ; and through their timidity they leave an impression in a vague state, half-true, half-realised, a state of fever or of sleepiness. Not nature, but the man’s impression of nature, should be complete and definite. Their fear of drawing and modelling is unfounded ; in the hands of Velasquez these accomplishments never became mechanical, never degenerated from inspired seeing to trained labour. Need we fear to advance towards truth and accuracy, when he who adventured farthest seems to encourage us by the grandeur and surpassing sentiment that rewarded his devotion to the métier ?

Whilst looking at his pictures, one may remember amongst his predecessors and the painters of his choice, Caravaggio, Greco, Ribera, Sanchez Coello, and notably Titian and Tintoretto. The spirit that animated Caravaggio and Ribera may be seen in the solidity, real form, and fine handling of “The Forge of Vulcan” and ” The Topers.” In Greco you may see something of the simplicity and sober colouring of his single portraits, and in Coello a prophecy of his flesh colours of grey ash quality and of his early accuracy in the accessories of dress.

Greco is often spoken of as a man to whom Velasquez was directly indebted for his style. While Greco certainly adopted a Spanish gravity of colouring, neither that nor his modelling was ever subtle or thoroughly natural. Yet in such portraits as Prado 243, 245, there is more suppleness and breadth than Velasquez had ever displayed up to the date of Greco’s death at Toledo in 1625. One of these examples of Greco’s work (No. 243) hangs just above the early Velasquez, “Philip IV.” (1071), and while one admits Greco’s superior freedom and ease of style, one perhaps admires still more the inborn power of seeing shown by the modelling of the mouth of this early Velasquez. While Velasquez ripened with age and practice, Greco was rather inclined to get rotten with facility.

Velasquez had opportunities of studying other painters than Greco as soon as he became Court painter, and it is known that his admiration was early turned to the work of Venice. He often praised Titian’s execution as well as Tintoretto’s rendering of light and the just depth of space. On the authority of Boschini, Carl Justi records a conversation between Salvator Rosa and Velasquez, which throws some light on the Spaniard’s natural tastes. Salvator had asked whether after all he had seen in Italy he did not think Raphael the best, to which Velasquez replied, ” Raphael, to be plain with you, for I like to be candid and outspoken, does not please me at all.” Then Salvator said, ” In that case, there can apparently be nobody to your taste in Italy, for to him we yield the crown.” And Velasquez answered, “In Venice are found the good and the beautiful ; to their brush I give the first place ; it is Titian that bears the banner.” Velasquez, indeed, must have admired the breadth and envelopment of the pictures of Titian, Tintoretto, Correggio, Veronese, and certainly the style of such a portrait as the ” Andrea Odoni” by Lotto, which was exhibited in the New Gallery, January 1895. On the other hand, he could scarcely be expected to sympathise with the art of Raphael ; and his outspokenness has been amply repaid in all ages by the frank dislike of all Raphaelites for his own work. We could not wish artists other-wise; were they tepid to the beauties they see in the world, they could arouse in us but a feeble response to their works. Art without personal prejudice would become an affair of science in which truth depends on argument and not on personal convictions. Painting, in that case, would be abandoned by artistic minds for some field of enterprise which was unattainable by mathematical processes, and which still offered free elbow-room for the sport of the emotions and the play of personality.

But before Velasquez saw Italy he must have seen the superb portrait ” Mary Tudor ” (Prado, 1484), by Antonio More. The lesson of a picture which is absolutely sincere to the principle of sight of its author cannot have been lost upon Velasquez. This portrait stops everyone and communicates the shock of contact with a real person. I say ” shock ” advisedly, for it is over-modelled after the manner of those who have fine eyes and are not impressionists. It betrays invincible perseverance, care, and close perception, but it reveals nothing magically like a late portrait by Velasquez. Having seen it, you are done with it, and cannot hope to find fresh beauties dawning on you each time you return. The thing is too set, too tightly frozen into definite lines in the features. Mary Tudor would never have so looked to any one in her life. This determined hunting down of every separate feature has ended in something more rigid than flesh, something more like a caricature than an impression, something more like a diagram than the changeable reality of nature. It is a record, perhaps, for the historian, not a revelation for the poet. Yet beyond this ideal I scarcely think Velasquez travelled until he was over thirty. It will be remembered that the ” Mary Tudor” hangs on the same wall with the “Sculptor Montanés,” “The Spinners,” and “Maria Teresa,” by Velasquez. The comparison here offered is worth making by any one who goes to Madrid.

The power of seizing a speaking resemblance such as we see in “Mary Tudor” has been always accorded to Velasquez. It is a merit which cannot be denied him as it was denied Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, and other great painters who often executed a fantasia on the motif of the person painted. Titian’s “François Premier” is shrewdly doubted on the score of likeness in the present day, and Dutch burghers in the past preferred Van der Helst to Rembrandt. It was in the cause of beauty that these great artists sacrificed the accurate map of the features that pleases family friends and the profusion of hard accessories that ministers to family pride.

A painter may not with impunity take the free generous style of Titian and Rembrandt and correct it with a dose of the patient accuracy of tamer spirits. Grandeur and carefulness will usually quarrel like a medicine of ill-mixed ingredients in a patient’s stomach. Men who have been as conscientiously truthful as Velasquez have painted worse than he has and have not attained the same kind of truth. The intimacy which is so much admired in Velasquez was not arrived at by deliberate eclecticism, but by the inspiration of a genius for seeing things freshly. He learnt to see differently from Antonio More, to care for larger truths ; and it was this fine imaginative seeing that gave a charm to the world in his eyes and prompted his brush to nobler fashions of expression. For what great thing can be done in art with only patience, method, and accuracy of eye? Those who have tried and failed, but who take heart to understand the success of great men, know that mere trouble only ends in elaboration of the part and disorganisation of the whole ; at best in the dull topographical chart of the features which misses the divine enchantment of the finest art. Yet one may search through the Prado in vain to find any portrait, outside of the work of Velasquez, more thoroughly studied than ” Mary Tudor,” more evidently the report of a trustworthy eye. “L’homme au gant,” or the still finer ” Young Man unknown” by Titian in the Louvre, not to speak of “Titian’s Mistress,” are incomparably more beautiful art than ” Mary Tudor”; they are less intimate, however. It is only Velasquez who is as penetrating as More, as poetical and artistic as Titian. “Titian’s Mistress,” it is not possible to imagine even Velasquez able to better, but one feels that he, and perhaps he alone, could have corrected a certain hardness in the modelling of ” L’homme au gant,” and an unwise precision in certain lines of the glove, hair, etc.