Velasquez – His Surroundings In Spain

TRAVELLING in Spain, after all, is not so bad as many would have it. Neither are the trains so slow and so dangerous, nor the food and wine so unpalatable, as they have been reported, while the approach to Madrid must take you through the scenery of Velasquez’s pictures. This provides a fitting overture to the long array of his works which awaits you in the Prado. But in itself no country offers a more beautiful landscape than Spain, and none that I have seen provides a more desirable setting for figures, horses, and other picturesque objects. No trivialities encumber the large structural features of this country. As in the fens, so here, a figure dominates. You see it on the dry, stony foregrounds of empty, rolling plains, which are ringed round with sharp, shapely sierras in the broad, blue distance. The landscape is unembarrassed with detail, but the one or two interesting forms with which it is furnished are at once simple and piquant. A clear, delicate atmosphere, penetrated with a flood of light, softens every definition, and fuses every local tint with-out blotting it, as in our own foggy island. No local hue appears as if gummed like a wafer against the universal grey paper of everything that is not quite close at hand ; nor do the masses of objects look like thin, unmodelled side scenes against an obliterated distance. Things of the liveliest tint sink into the coloured whole, owning, by their lit side as by their shadowed, the federating power of real light. Great parts of Spain resemble pictorially the plains and hills of the Maremma more than any other part of Italy. But the view, although as luminous and as coloured as in Italy, is usually less crowded and less excited, except for the active sport of clouds in this stormier region of Spain. Indeed, the country of Velasquez seems the very place in which to study values, in which to discover and to develop impressionism. On the way to Toledo I saw the sierras, just as Velasquez often painted them, of a powerful blue streaked with stretches of snow, and looking out from an agitated sky full of rifted clouds of a dirty white colour. For Spain is by no means always bright and gay, though always atmospheric and profound.

In this country external nature favoured the painter both by landscape and by picturesque figure ; but the inner condition of the people scarcely answered the demands of the historian, who makes art flourish only with freedom and public enterprise. Where was the growing commerce, the expanding institutions, or the religious liberty in the shrinking, priest-ridden Spain of the seventeenth century? As Mr Whistler says, the growth of art is sporadic, and to affect the mind of one man it is not necessary to postulate the conflict of nations and all the mighty epoch-making machinery of history. Genius is concocted by the momentary accidental commerce of a man and woman, and fostered by a voyage, a visit, or communion with a half-dozen of friends. Commercial demand may encourage trade painting, and princely patronage palatial decoration ; but who shall say what encourages genius—that compound of original seeing, intellectual courage, and some gift or other of expression?

Is it encouraging to be a portrait painter, to undergo the interested but ignorant criticism of the sitter, to disregard times and seasons, the disposition of the moment and the beckonings of the spirit, and to jump at no obstacle that you cannot clear in your habitual stride? Is it encouraging to live in a sinking country, and be the painter of a bigoted and fantastically ceremonious court? Yet, in spite of such poor encouragement, Velasquez became the boldest and most independent of painters. But is there no qualifying circumstance? May not the picture of this life be a transparency that changes when you hold it up to the light? Many old men, reared in the puritanical and hypocritical Edinburgh of the past, could tell you the private, reactionary effect of that life of repression and humbug upon a decent, genuine man. That you may not think at all, or act for yourself, is to add the very zest of piracy to experiment in life and originality in thought. Where public profession is manifestly a lie, and public manners a formal exaggeration, life becomes a chest with a false bottom, which opens into a refuge for the kindlier, wiser, and more ardent among human beings. As much as Spain, the court, and the priest, asked of man in those days, so much you may be sure did the courageous individual repay himself in the freedom of private life, and in the audacity of private thought. It is, perhaps, this instinct of reaction that causes the word licence to companion the word discipline in any historical account of an army.

Nothing, they say, was more intimate and freer than the private bearing of those nobles of the ancien régime, who, nevertheless, stood at arms, so to speak, beneath the eye of the king on any public occasion. Delaunay, I remember, brought out this distinction of manners, when he played the part of Richelieu in Alexandre Dumas’s ” Mademoiselle de Belle Isle.”

To be a king of Spain, to preside at religious executions, to have a wife whom no man, even to save her life, might touch on pain of death, was to be a creature sorely in need of private liberty, and the solace of confidential intercourse. Philip IV. seems to have been naturally kind, genial, and affable, and to have divided his leisure between the hunting-field and Velasquez’s studio, The two, artist and king, grew old together, with like interests in horses, dogs, and painting thawing when alone into that easy familiarity between master and old servant, freezing instantly in public into the stiff positions that their parts in life required. Fainter to the king when he was scarce twenty-five years old, Velasquez escaped most of the dangers and humiliations of professional portrait-painting, without losing its useful discipline of the eye, its rigorous test of the ever-present and exacting model.

Though remote from Italy, from its living jealousies, and its overwhelming past, Velasquez was able to copy Italian pictures in the palaces of Spain, while he was permitted by the king’s bounty to visit Rome and Venice as a person of some consequence. The situation favoured the growth of a genuinely personal way of looking at the world ; and, indeed, no one was more original in his art than Velasquez, and no one less afraid of dispensing with traditional receipts for truth and beauty. He sought more and more to express the essential quality of his own eyesight, and he grew less and less dependent on hints derived from other people’s practice. What he painted therefore concerned him less than how he painted. Like Rembrandt, who never ceased to paint his own portrait, Velasquez studied one model, from youth to age, with unalterable patience and an ever-fresh inspiration. He could look at the king’s well-known head with a renewed interest, as he went deeper into the mystery of eyesight, and became better informed as to the effects of real light. His slow transformation of this face, through a hard realism of feature and detail, to the suavity of impressional beauty, seems comparable to that tireless climb of the Greek sculptors, through so many stiffly-studied athletes, to the breadth of Phidias’s gods, or the suppleness of the serene Hermes of Praxiteles. Unrelaxing criticism of beauty distinguishes the highest order of artist alone ; it comes from that thirst after perfection which kept the Greeks satisfied, artistic, even enthusiastic, whilst polishing for three hundred years the details and pro-portions of what we should call the same stale old style of architecture. Curious about particular subjects, but incapable of conceiving a general ideal of sight itself, meaner artists sicken at the apparently ordinary, or the apparently stale ; and must be cockered up with the pride of lofty titles, and the conceit of novelty of motif, which they mistake for originality of view. On the other hand, those who constantly compare their work, not so much with decorative traditions, as with the beauty they see in reality, keep their senses active, and scent, even in the apparently commonplace subject, opportunity for the improvement which makes for perfection.

The details of Velasquez’s life, the dates, adventures, and disputed attributions of his pictures, can all be studied in the translation of Carl Justi’s book. It is perhaps more amusing to take a turn round the Prado before you have read about Velasquez, before you have heard what picture is doubtful, and when each canvas was painted. One is apt to see too readily in a canvas what one has previously learnt in a book. If one has guessed the dates of pictures, and roughly grouped them into periods, upon no other evidence than the style of the work or the testimony of the subject, one really understands the growth of the painter’s powers, and needs the historical document merely to correct trifling errors and to elucidate doubtful points. For this reason I passed two or three days in the galleries at Madrid without any book-knowledge of Velasquez, and without any catalogue. For those who have not much time the plan has its drawbacks. Knowing nothing of the painter’s life, they may well overlook matters that have given rise to serious question. It will be well, therefore, to mention one or two significant dates and events in the painter’s life, upon the authority of Carl Justi.