Art In History Art Blog
My most recent blog featured the work of Caravaggio, an artist whose inventions were remarkable and whose influence was enormous, way out of proportion to his brief working life. At that time I mentioned that my next blog would be about another artist whose work was influenced by Caravaggio: the spanish master Diego Velazquez. I am leading off with an image which is not typical of his best know work, but which shows how strongly he was influenced by Caravaggio, and how much farther he was able to carry his realism.
The "Watercarrier of Seville" is one of my favorite works. It has the presence of a caravaggio - massive figures close to the front - but with a subtlety which Caravaggio never acheived in his tumultuous career. It is seen with a level of detail reminiscent of northern art, but a harmony of form and light that is clearly mediterranean.
Another work which clearly shows the influence of Caravaggio is "Los Boracchos" (the drunkards) which shows Bacchus as a contemporary wastrel, much as Caravaggio had done in his self-portrait as Bucchus. This is a poor image, but I hope you can see the same combination of Caravaggian down-to-earth realism with Velazquez' greater sensitivity to detail.
Velazquez himself broke new ground in his work, but isn't to be measured by his influence, but by his accomplishment. He has been called the greatest pure painter who ever lifted a brush. If we focus on the handling of the paint, rather than on the depth of human understanding, then we will find him surpassing Rembrandt, though the latter was the greater artist. Velazquez has also been called the first impressionist, and it is very useful to understand what that means.
Impressionism in its broadest sense means painting with the eye; responding to the visual surface of things, rather than what we "know" about them. In this sense Velasquez was definitely an impressionist, as was Frans Hals in Holland. The fact that he constructs for us a totally believable reality from surface facts is a tribute to his genius.
Velazquez best known work consists of his royal portraits; he was official painter to the court of Phillip of Spain, who had a seemingly endless appetite for images of himself and his family. Like Goya several generations later, Velazquez does nothing to idealize his subjects, showing the clear signs of Hapsburg inbreeding with chilling clarity. But the magnificence of his rendition of costumes overwhelms the study of humanity in the works; we have to feel that the king was enamoured of surface glamour, and was totally satisfied.
Velazquez most famous painting is undoubtedly "Las Meninas" (the maids in waiting), a work that is in his court portrait tradition, but radical and innovative in its goals. We see the Infanta Margarita paying a visit to the artists' studio, where her royal parents are sitting for a portrait. At first we may believe that the subject being painted is the Infanta herself; she and her entourage are certainly the center of attention. It is only gradually that we see that the Infanta's attention is on the artist - Velazquez himself - and that he in turn is staring intently out at us. We are the subject. Perhaps last of all we notice the distant mirror in which "we" are reflected: the King and Queen of Spain.
I would like to finish with another kind of portrait - my favorite - of Juan de Parejas, a Moor with standing at the court. The portrait shows the brilliance of surface of his other work, but showing a figure in sober dress. This is clearly a person Velazquez knows and respects, and his humanity comes through strongly. It may not be Rembrandt, but it is definitely more than just the visual surface.