The painter of dignity

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is your ticket to transcendent pleasure

Portrait of Juan de Pareja, Diego Velásquez, painted circa 1650 (Source: Wikipedia)

“So who is your favorite artist?” people ask. I’m tempted to reply maybe Manet, Poussin or Picasso for their inventive intellectualism. Maybe Bernini or Caravaggio for their Roman sensuality. There are many. But I always come back to who I think is the greatest.

Diego Velásquez is the virtuoso, a “painter’s painter”, the master of economy who could convey so much in so few brush stokes. Hundreds of years before impressionism, Velásquez’s broken surfaces of thickly applied paint, where the swivel or slash of the brush renders the lip or the jaw without any discord, seemed to pull life into the canvas out of nothingness.

When you step up close to a Velásquez you get a keen sense of the materiality of the paint. This detail shows the costume of King Philip IV of Spain, Velásquez’s patron. When you step back from the painting, this mess of brushstrokes becomes a shimmering surface of embroidered silk. (Source: Wikipedia)

Step toward a portrait a portrait of King Philip IV of Spain — Velásquez’s patron — and breaks into a chaotic mosaic of textured paint, step back and you see the King resplendent in his finery.

See the portrait of Juan de Pareja at the top of this article. Velásquez toured Rome with both painting and subject, the latter holding the former, to show off his astonishing prowess with the brush.

It was supposedly presented as an example to show Innocent X to secure a portrait commission: a portrait which had to be quickly painted from life. Despite the muted palette and the wash of a background, the painting feels vibrant with the self-assured presence of Pareja.

There’s life in the sheen of light around the eyes, light that puts Pereja there in the room with his painter, and the perfect modelling of the face emerging from the mottled black halo of his ‘morisco’ hair, the flesh on those cheekbones that taper into those plump lips.

Pereja was effectively a slave (though was granted freeman status by Velásquez and became an accomplished painter himself) but you’d never tell from his upright poise and those wise eyes.

The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, 1645 (Source: Wikipedia)

Velásquez depicted the poor, the marginalised and the mocked as the upstanding human beings they were. He recognised in all his subjects a profound dignity. His painting of the court jester Don Diego de Acedo (above) who because of his dwarfism was a figure of entertainment for the Spanish Court, shows an intelligent and worldly man — a reader and writer — whose gaze challenges you to respect him.

Velásquez also depicted the rich and powerful of course, but always put a piece of himself in those images as if making a subtle point about those who serve and are served. Innocent X’s heavy right arm rests on the assurance of the chair arm while the left hand pinches a paper bearing Velásquez’s signature.

Up close, the pool of light collected on his silk red robe is a mess of creamy white brushstrokes. There’s life in the ruddy texture of the face and those famously searching eyes of the politically shrewd pope. I can imagine those painted eyes now, as I type at night, intently staring into the darkness of the gallery while Innocent X himself is a pile of dust in a tomb in Rome.

Innocent X, circa 1650 (Source: Wikipedia)

Las Meninas, voted the world’s greatest painting by art historians, is a chasm of reflective art, a hall of mirrors, in which the painter himself, the infanta child, and those who tend to her needs assemble for the royal couple. Velásquez is himself and every person in that image: the attentive maids, the court dwarf, the mysterious onlooker climbing the stairs, the child princess, and the King and Queen themselves — masters of what they survey.

Reflected in the mirror at the back of the room, the royal couple stand before both the scene and the painting itself; both subjects in and viewers of an exquisite tribute. Their world assembles for them, but Velásquez reminds them that he’s the one who has made it happen.

Las Meninas, an extraordinary painting-as-snapshot in the court of Philip IV, painted in 1656. The “meninas” — Maids of Honour — attend to the infanta. The picture is painted as if from the viewpoint of the royal couple, reflected in a mirror at the back of the room, but Velásquez is himself in the picture, working at the canvas we are looking at. It’s an enigma that art historians and philosophers have speculated over since the paint on the canvas dried.

On seeing the portrait of Juan de Pareja, the Pope is said to have exclaimed ‘troppo vero!’ — ‘too true!’, meaning the image had too much truth, an excess of truth. Unwittingly it is perhaps a great compliment, it’s the excessive truthfulness of these paintings that shreds the viewer’s jaded preconceptions about 17th century painting and portraiture to ribbons.

In his broken brushstrokes Velásquez manages to render subjects as mere vesture. Up close they break apart into the matter that constitutes them: the swatches and swathes of pigment in oil. But when you step back they form before your eyes, integrated into a whole: faces, hands, the texture of sumptuous dresses, gilded frames and clouds, all be-ing.

In his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote:

“ Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”

Velásquez’s paintings are those starry heavens and that moral law both at the same time. We are stardust, so the cliche goes.

It’s our proximity to matter that blinds us to the miracle that makes it comprehensible to us, that makes it self-evident. It is contemplating paintings like those described above that allows us to take that step back to the breathing space of reflective thought without the urgency of drama, or the distraction of frippery or seduction. This is the highest pleasure.

Velásquez’s naturalism pulls us to the cusp of our own comprehension of reality and, even if momentarily, it is in this place that we are fully human.

Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.

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