Velasquez – The Three Stages Of His Art

TRUSTING to report, and to the evidence of reproductions, I expected to find “The Surrender of Breda” (1060) the finest Velasquez in the Prado. So I might have thought, if the painter’s natural gift had been less explicitly set forth, if he had never lived to paint ” Las Meninas,” “The Spinners,” “Moenippus,” and “Maria Teresa” (1084, Prado). To some minds it is easier, and it is always quicker, to excel on the lines of older decorative conventions, than to start a new one on the expression of a personal view of beauty. From his early standpoint of the realistic painter, Velasquez first mounted’ to the position of great artist by excelling in the traditional cult of beauty ; and it was only towards the end of his life that he divined a new art in the practice of personal impressionism. “The Surrender of Breda” challenges the greatest masters on their own ground ; it is unworthy neither of them nor of Velasquez, but for that very reason it is not the complete expression of the Velasquez eyesight. It was painted when he was scarce forty, and as an ornamental panel intended to cooperate with other historical works in the decoration of the Salon de los Reines of the Buen Retiro. Decoration hardly demands or permits of quick evolution or sudden novelty, and though the irrepressible originality of the man still appears, it is evident that Velasquez wisely attempted to follow the lead of his favourite Venetian masters in the execution of this task. And certainly he has succeeded, for the picture might be hung in the Ducal Palace at Venice. But to realise such an ambition was by-play, and not the work of Velasquez’s life.

If you would compare a realism, ennobled though somewhat chastened by grand decorative treatment, with a realism not only exalted but intensified by the artistic principles of impressionism, you have a fine opportunity at the Prado. When you enter the long gallery from the street, walk down it some way ; on the right, before you reach the Octagon Room, you will see “The Surrender of Breda,” and facing it ” Las Meninas,” a work of the painter’s later life. ” The Surrender of Breda” you may admire according to your nature ; you may even consider it the better picture, but by no means, as is ” Las Meninas,” an absolutely unique thing in the history of art.

As one views from a central standpoint the start and finish of a race, so, from ” The Surrender of Breda,” the masterpiece of his middle life, you may look backwards and forwards, upon the early and upon the late Velasquez. It will not be forgotten that “The Surrender of Breda” was painted between the two voyages to Italy. As might be expected, it agrees in many points with other canvases painted during that period in which Velasquez was so much occupied with palatial decoration. By its size, by its freedom of touch, by the variety and warmth of its colours, by the complexity of its pattern, by its dark foreground browns, by the quality of its blue distances, it is allied to the large equestrian portraits, the hunting scenes and hunting portraits of this period. Nor in its vigour of brushing, and its force of positive colour, is it altogether unlike the ” Admiral Pulido ” of our National Gallery and “The Sculptor Montanés” of the Prado (1091). The Admiral indeed is so unlike any portrait by Velasquez that some have doubted its authenticity, but it is very like the figures in ” The Surrender of Breda.”

It is difficult to conceive that this great subject could be treated less conventionally without some loss of interest and dignity. No more than Veronese or Rubens, could Velasquez combine decorative splendour and historical clearness with the subtle mysteries of real tone and the impressionistic unity that lift truth into poetry. In other words, this kind of subject was unfitted to bring out the more original and characteristic qualities of Velasquez’s genius. Subjects, however grand in title and dignified in historical association, are valuable to the painter in proportion as they give him a pretext for making the most of what is beautiful in his own art. No subject in itself can make or mar art ; subject is indifferent except for its favourable or unfavourable effect on the artist. Even the record of a seen thing produces a noble or ignoble effect according as it records a grand or a trivial manner of using the eyesight, according as it shows a mean anxiety about details, petty circumstance and wiry pattern, or reveals sympathy with large shapes, subtle nuancing, or lovely qualities of paint. Let a bad painter call a figure by the name of what God he will, and carefully accompany it with sacred symbols, yet, if the forms are poor or ill-disposed, the figure remains a mean one, and less grand than the study of some street porter that is fuller of the mystery of fine seeing and the emotions of a higher view of form. Remember, too, that what we call subject in painting imports still less than what we call subject in literature. This figure of the God and that of the street porter differ in title rather than in subject, for after all, the same model or true pictorial subject may have sat for both, and it is surely the grandeur of treatment, not the mere addition of symbols, accessories, and titles, that should make an essential difference between the two works.

It was perhaps, then, rather the purpose than the subject of “The Surrender of Breda” which modified the art of Velasquez, and made it akin to the work of a Venetian. The canvas was to serve as a decorative panel, a thing to be looked at. as one looks at a piece of tapestry hence, doubtless, its decorative flatness, its variety of colours, its blue foundation, its brown fore-ground, and its block-like pattern of huge chunks of black and white and orange. It was scarcely the business of Velasquez to compact this broad but arbitrary illustration, explanatory of crowds and costumes in a given situation, to adjust all this coloured accessory, to plant this hedge of pikes and lances against the distant landscape, to engineer the foreground so that the legs and their enclosed spaces might appear neither too distracting nor too utterly unlike the truth, to give some sense of space and distance but to give it gingerly, so as to bridge the great gulf between the main group and its background.

Yet how admirably it is done. Compare its stately figures with the coarse, dumpy men in “The Repulse of the English at Cadiz,” by Eugenio Caxesi. Caxesi follows his colleague Velasquez in his idea of colour, and in his view of the contending claims of open-air effect, decorative unity and historical fulness. But his reliefs are hard and even, his blocks of colour unfused, his drawing clumsy, and his whole picture duller, more spotty, and less arranged than “The Surrender of Breda.” In colouring, in suavity of effect, that great Velasquez compares with any Titian. Its principal figures stand with as noble a bearing as any in painting. Spinola and Justin meet each other with gestures so poignant in expression, that they almost compel the nerves to involuntary imitation. Something of this dramatic aptness of gesture enlivens the series of large decorative panels which Rubens painted for the Luxembourg Palace. But the figures in the ” Reception of Marie de Medicis” abound in courtliness and pomp, while the conqueror and the conquered of Breda, with a more human though a decently ceremonious stateliness, act out two of the most trying circumstances of life. The figures form the knot of an admirable composition, but this central interest is rather prepared by studied artifice than made important by the effect of a focussed impression. Hence one is able to look at “The Surrender of Breda” and imagine the centre cut out, and yet the chief sentiments of the picture preserved. The dignity of the two figures would be scarcely impaired by the omission of surroundings which, however well put in, yet exist for the purposes of illustrative and decorative arrangement.

Turn now to ” Las Meninas,” on the opposite wall. What a rounded vision swims in upon your eye, and occupies all the nervous force of the brain, all the effort of sight upon a single complete visual impression. One may look long before it crosses one’s mind to think of any colour scheme, of tints arbitrarily contrasted or harmonised, of masses balanced, of lines opposed or cunningly interwoven, of any of the tricks of the métier, however high and masterlike. The art of this thing,—for it is full of art,—is done for the first time, and so neither formal nor traditional. The admiration this picture raises is akin to the excitement caused by natural beauty ; thought is suspended by something alike yet different from the enchantment of reality. This is not the reality obtained by the pre-Raphaelite exploration of nature, which builds up a scene bit by bit, like the map of a new continent. The pre-Raphaelite painter realises the result of his separate observations no more than a geographer engaged on the survey of an unknown coast. He will not conceive of his picture as a big pattern which produces detail ; he compiles a great many separate details, and accepts, though he has not designed, the ensemble which they happen to produce. Now the ensemble of “Las Meninas” has been perceived in some high mood of impressionability, and has been imaginatively kept in view during the course of after-study. The realism of this picture is a revelation of the way the race has felt a scene of the kind during thousands of years. The unconscious habit of the eye, in estimating the relative importance of colours, forms, definitions, masses, sparkles, is revealed to us by the unequalled sensitiveness of this man’s eyesight.

From our present point of view ” The Topers” is even less real than “The Surrender of Breda.” It belongs to a lower order of generalisation. The mind that conceived it failed to grasp it except by successive acts of imagination. Its parts obey a purely formal instead of an impressional unity. The composition was, of course, designed to make a single pattern as to lines and masses, but the scene, with its modelling, colouring, atmosphere, and definitions, was never beheld as a whole vision in the mind’s eye. Velasquez rose, I think, in ” The Surrender of Breda,” to a higher art than he had dreamed of before he went to Italy. He reached at least a decorative unity, though doubtless in so doing he sacrificed the poignancy of ” The Topers,” which is due to a succession of climaxes. Each head is as strong as the best pair of eyes in the world could make it. If you can call it the highest art to take a number of powerfully – studied heads and sew them together to make a group, then ” The Topers” is as fine a picture as you want. But the unity of a work of art should be organic and pervasive, like the blood in a man’s veins, which is carried down to his very toes.

As an art grows, everything that enters it becomes absorbed more and more into its constitution, and becomes a feature in a living organic unity. With the growth of music, composers felt the need of a more logical principle of unity, than a mere succession of separate phrases and climaxes ; and as painting developed, painters began to comprehend other and more vital means of picture-making than the use of compelling lines and a formal composition. They had learnt that strong points in a picture kill each other, and that force in art is an affair of relation. They were to learn that there is a realistic as well as a decorative meaning in different breadths of treatment. The relative space and finish which a nose might arrogate to itself in a single head, must suffice for a whole face in a figure group, if due proportion and a reasonable width of view are to be preserved. A can-vas should express a human outlook upon the world, and so it should represent an area possible to the attention ; that is, it should subtend an angle of vision confined to certain natural limits of expansion. Now, to group two or more studies of figures in order to fill a larger canvas, either commits the painter to a wider angle of vision, and consequently a more distributed attention, or else it compels him to paint his group as if it were removed from him far enough to subtend only the same angle as the single figure of one of his previous studies. Let him choose either alternative, and either way a difference of treatment is forced upon him. This is a point which demands serious study on the realistic grounds of perspective, modelling, colour, and definition ; but for the present it is sufficient to settle it upon the merely decorative ground of complexity of pattern. If a certain proportion of cutting up recommends itself as beautiful and effective in any one sketch or study, then unquestionably a compilation of such studies must be a false method of composing a large canvas. The large canvas should not express a larger angle of sight than the small one. In a word, the cutting up of a canvas bears a ratio to the size of the canvas, and not to the square foot of space. So that you may enlarge a one-foot sketch, but you may not compile nine one-foot studies to make a three-foot picture. Whether you compile actual separate sketches on one canvas, or merely paint parts of that canvas under different impressions, the fault is the same.

If there is anything in this unity of impression, ” The Topers” is not the best picture in the world. We may point to its prevailing tone of chocolate, and its hard, staring, too equal force of definition, both faults the result of compiled observations. Certainly, each head is a marvel of handling, of modelling, of character, but has this handling or this modelling any beautiful dependence on a great impression, or, as in ” Las Meninas,” any relation to the whole view em-braced by the eye? On the contrary, one of those family arrangements in which several heads are separated by beadings, almost equally deserves the name of a picture. A Dutch portrait group, at any rate, claims quite an equal rank in the hierarchy of art. Rembrandt’s ” Anatomy Lesson,” Hals’s and Van der Heist’s figure groups, are on the same plane of realism, although some of them may be less powerfully executed than ” The Topers.”

Only a large mind ‘takes a large view of a subject, and not without effort, too, whether the matter in question concerns art, philosophy, or practical life. For instance, the ordinary amateur of music likes short phrasing and a jerky emphasis, which makes the most of every accent, while the ordinary connoisseur comprehends and relishes the cheaper realism of the Dutch masters, but cannot easily grasp the broader truths of Velasquez. Small facts, shown by hard detail and strong, frequent contrast, are more easily perceived than the action of a principle which governs a whole scene. To many the finesse of Velasquez seems weakness, his atmosphere poor colour, his sense of natural arrangement, bad composition. These admirers of the Dutch realists would doubly admire Velasquez, if they could learn to see that he was not only cleverer but more sincere than Terburg, Metzu, Gerard Dow, Nicolas Maas, or Van Ostade. These connoisseurs may not question the beauty of reality or the dignity of technique, but the first they assimilate only in little pieces, while they perceive only the immediate issues of the second. Quite another objector to Velasquez is the man who says, ” What greatness is there in portraiture, and in the painting of common life, what can there be beyond `mere technique’?” For the moment we may bid him look again at the exquisite human feeling of ” Las Meninas.” Could the gracious attitudes of these bending maids, the calm born pride of the Infanta, the solemn gravity of the environment, speak more eloquently to us if this were an Adoration of some-body by an early and religious Italian? No, truly ; but the mind of the literary objector, which will not obey the suggestion of paint, would then find itself, under the more familiar impulsion of words, running in an accustomed rut. Indeed, there is nothing lost in ” Las Meninas ” of the natural forms, profound ex-pression, and beautiful human sentiment of the Italian pre-Raphaelites, while everything is gained in the way of a natural mystery of light, a true impressional unity of aspect, and a splendid perfection of technical resources. Nothing that art has ever won is wanting here unless it be composition by line, the charm of the nude figure, and the rhythmic swirl of Raphael’s drawing. No great man is separable from his tech-nique, and the difference between two great men lies largely in a difference of technique, for technique is truly the language of the eye. So that it may not be amiss now to speak of the technique of Velasquez—that is to say, of his composition, modelling, colour, and handling. We have already compared three of his pictures, “The Topers,” a work of youth ; “The Sur-render of Breda,” a work of middle age ; and ” Las Meninas,” painted near the end of his life. In examining the technique of Velasquez we shall refer to these works, and shall describe others as occasion may arise.