Velasquez at the Grand Palais, Paris

Velázquez exhibition at the Grand Palais
from Wednesday 25 March 2015 to Monday 13 July 2015

I have been entranced by the work of Velasquez since I first saw his portrait of Phillip IV in brown and silver in the National Gallery in London. It was one of those moments. Even many years later I remember standing before it in awe, and I can only compare it to that vivid experience of memory that occurs as life-changing events unfold and people ask, ‘where were you when…’ such-and-such a thing happened. Struck by its veracity and aliveness, it always felt not true to life but truer than life.

“Paris’s overarching narrative, fascinating as art and social history, tells how Velázquez broke the rigid conventions of 17th-century portraiture to fashion a new image of the elite. Painting, as poet Rafael Alberti said, with “the fleeting touch of a transparent wing”, he established a symbolism of power that resonated because he fixed each transitory life, king or clown, child or dwarf, as individual and significant, creating from the extravagant artifice of the Habsburg court a panorama of human truth unequalled in paint.”

The Financial Times

Velasquez had god-like status at LARA but I never quite understood exactly what set him apart from other painters. His superiority was clear, but how and why was his work so much better than that of others?

The recent exhibition at the Grand Palais gave me the chance to see many more of his paintings and to begin to formulate some specific ideas about his work. The exhibition itself is an exemplar of the usual chronological model, moving through his training, early works and key periods to his followers and legacy. This format allows close comparison of his works with those of his teacher, whose skills he quickly exceeded, and with his followers, of whom only Del Mazo (also his son-in-law) seemed to grasp much of his technique.

The following paintings of the immaculate conception, by Pacheco in the left and Velasquez on the right, reveal much about the relation between master and pupil:

 

It is clear that Velasquez has, at this point, exceeded his master’s skill in paint. He must have been an attentive pupil as he takes much from Pacheco’s work and develops it further. His vision and ideas are a step-change from those of his master and offer us a surprisingly contemporary, almost filmic subject. At the same time it is a vision that has firm foundations in Pacheco’s teachings. At this level, Velasquez’s success is a great testament to Pacheco, his teachings and the environment he must have created.

Velasquez’s superior skill is much clearer seeing the paintings in reality, hanging next to each other in this exhibition. In case you aren’t in a position to visit a closer view on the faces of the Virgin Mary is very revealing:

From a technical point of view Velasquez has a much clearer separation of light and shadow with close control of reflected light values. His clarity, striking in it’s of organisation of the hierarchy of forms/values/hues, seems to give him a far greater range with which to work. It is deceptive, since it his close control and rigorous organisation which allow him a subtlety and nuance unavailable to others. This rigor also permits the expressive brushwork which is so distinctive achieving a palpable consistency to the flesh of his subjects.

Velasquez’s superiority as a painter has led many to dismiss or underplay the relation between master and pupil, perpetuating the isolated genius model that seems to be so entrenched in many discussions of great artists throughout history. That Velasquez married Pacheco’s daughter is another clear indication that this relationship was very significant. Art historian Gary Schwartz highlights just how important this relationship was to both Velasquez’s training and to his access to the Spanish court in his post ‘Francisco Pacheco’s son-in-law makes good’

Whilst it is edifying to learn more about the life of the artist, especially in so far as it colours his work, I have always been far more interested in what I can learn from him. That said, I am beginning to understand that there are broader lessons to be learnt from such histories; not just how to paint well but how to put oneself in a position to have the opportunity to paint well. A point which Schwartz’s article makes particularly well.

I’ll be digging deeper into the role of perception in the work of Velasquez in the future but if you would like to discover more about his life and work the following links are a great starting point:

List of works by Diego Velasquez

More on Velasquez from the National Gallery

Podcast on the National Gallery’s 2006 Velasquez Exhibition