Monday, 11 November 2013

Velazquez and the Family of Philip IV

One year before his death Velázquez created this portrait of the eight-year old Infanta as well as that of her little brother Philip Prosper (Inv.-No.
Picture: Kunsthistorisches Museum
Velazquez and the Family of Philip IV at the Prado until 9 February
Javier Portús (ed) Velázquez: Las Meninas and the Late Royal Portraits Thames & Hudson 2013 €40

Velázquez's late portraits are among the absolute highlights of European art and some of the pictures in this exhibition are breathtaking. There are just thirty pictures, which is enough to sate the appetite without overwhelming the senses. It opens with portraits from his stay in Italy 1649-51, including a version of Pope Innocent X from Apsley House. The prime version in the Doria-Pamphili in Rome is simply the greatest portrait ever painted (Mona Lisa? Pah!). These Italian portraits are surprisingly engaged and individual, reminding me of Rembrandt's late portraits of almost exactly the same date - his portrait of Jan Six was painted three years after Velázquez left Rome.
Picture: Alain Truong
The next section sets Velázquez's portraits of the royal family alongside versions by Juan Bautista Martínes de Mazo. Their doll-like visages and inbred identikit Habsburg features are more aloof than the earlier Roman portraits. Infanta Margarita in Blue (pictured top) is amazing, with a dazzling range of effects in the blue dress, which is animated throughout. His technique varies from liquid effects from applying dilute paint to the dress, to dry scumbling of white highlights in the brocade. Opposite is an almost identical version in green from Budapest by Mazo (above). The Mazo is an excellent picture, but it doesn't approach the brilliance of Velázquez's. Mazo animates certain areas by applying highlights whereas Velázquez makes the whole picture come alive. You get a great appreciation for their relative quality seeing them together in this show.

Velázquez's studio turned out many variants of his royal portraits, many of high quality. The exhibition includes two portraits of Philip IV, an undisputed masterpiece from the Prado and a contested attribution from London's National Gallery that is here given to Velázquez. Scholars agree that the London picture is of particularly high quality, but note that the torso is weak and the gold chain less well depicted than in Velázquez's best work. Given how little we know about how his studio operated and how well artists like Mazo could reproduce his work, I find it hard to take either side with much confidence, but I'm inclined to see it as a studio work, insofar as we can distinguish Velázquez on a bad day from his studio on a good day. 
La infanta Margarita de Austria
Picture: Prado
The picture above was celebrated as one of Velázquez's greatest works until comparatively recently, but is now securely attributed to Mazo. The white highlights on the dress look like spray-on snow, gaudy decoration quite alien to Velázquez, whose animated brushwork articulates structure. The rich reds point forward to later court portraits that can be seen in the final room of the exhibition. It's now hard to see how it could be mistaken for Velázquez, but rather than mocking earlier connoisseurs I see it as an opportunity to realise how our perceptions of great artists change over time. In future generations I suspect people will will be astonished by some of the attributions that we took for granted.

Mazo's reputation has suffered because he hewed close to Velázquez without equaling his brilliance. That said, he's a really good artist and a number of pictures long given to Velázquez have been reattributed to Mazo (most notably the View of Zaragoza) The re-assessment of Mazo in this exhibition is judicious. Miguel Morán's catalogue entry describes the difference between Mazo and Velázquez as the difference between excellence and genius, which seems right to me. Mazo's version of Las Meninas was disappointing; perhaps inevitably it cannot measure up to the original, and I sense that he was dispirited by the obvious gap. The portrait of his own family (below) has long been recognised as his masterpiece. The debt to Las Meninas is clear, although he struggled to replicate its articulation of space. But the figures are excellent, and the range of technique and variety of expression comes closer to Velázquez than even his close copies. It is somewhat abraded, and the reds have particularly suffered, but its excellence is conspicuous, undiminished even by proximity to some of Velázquez's best pictures.

File:The Family of the Artist by Juan Bautista Matinez del Mazo.jpg
Picture: Wikipedia
The final section shows the continuation of Velázquez's style after his death. Juan Carreño de Miranda stars with his more sumptuous royal portraits. But it's hard to appreciate their quality after Velázquez and the final room is redolent of decadence and decline. A catalogue essay by exhibition organiser Javier Portús reminds us that Spain's political and economic decline was already advanced by the 1650s, which was a golden age only in the cultural sphere. His essay provides fascinating context, explaining links between painting and literature. 

The pictures are superb, but that alone doesn't make a great exhibition. It's the meaningful comparisons between similar works, the quality of the interpretation and the scale that makes this show special. We see pictures that are certainly fully autograph works by Velázquez alongside more debatable attributions and works by his best students. The wall text is brilliant, giving useful background without being overwhelming, and inviting you in to consider the questions that art historians debate, focusing on technique and pictorial quality. It's not difficult to understand, and it doesn't presume any prior knowledge, but it treats everyone as capable of engaging in the same conversation. For me the most rewarding aspect of an exhibition is the opportunity to explore relations between objects rather than being instructed in the curators' latest theories. This exhibition helps us understand these great pictures brilliantly through the intelligence and thoughtfulness of its selection, display and interpretation.

I have just a couple of niggles. The failure to discuss condition is unfortunate; it's mentioned neither on the wall text (forgivable), nor in the catalogue (inexplicable). Velázquez's virtuoso technique is susceptible to damage, and a range of states of preservation was evident.  The Infanta Margarita in Blue was rediscovered in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1923, and it's better preserved than the other Kunsthistorisches loans - perhaps because the others were over-cleaned before 1923. Even in reproduction the difference between the bright white of the Felipe Prospero and the subtle greys of the Infanta Margarita is striking.

The Apsley House portrait is glazed with low-grade glass that gives off a nasty reflection, which is particularly unfortunate because it's hung opposite a wall with the exhibition title in large white text, which means you can see the word 'Velázquez' reflected across the picture. Given the costs involved in mounting an exhibition like this, surely it would have been possible to re-glaze it so we could see it properly. 

I went twice. Friday afternoon was quiet and wonderful. First thing Saturday quickly became an unbearable scrum with as many as ten people per picture, making a mockery of the timed entry. It's such a shame that the Saturday visitors couldn't get to appreciate the carefully choreographed contrasts, because the view from one picture to another was obscured. Still, it's an enormously rewarding exhibition that's worth a trip to Spain - but go on a weekday. It's really one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen.


  1. Lovely review. Really agree with your points about meaningful comparisons and quality of interpretation. Recently visited Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. Former is fantastic - small amount of texts with intelligent questions that allow the painting to 'speak for themselves'. Poor old Vincent gets a loud playpen of a space with slogans and huge chunks of secondary contextual information, best look up afterwards by those interested; and the art itself becomes more like an illustration of the text.

    1. Thank you! I was really struck by the difference between this exhibition and the current show at the National Gallery. It's not that the wall text was at all difficult or technical in Madrid, but it drew people in to look closely at the pictures. The NG text was bland and trivial, with a bit of pop social history thrown in. A few museums still do a brilliant job, and to be fair the NG has done much better displays. But as you say, it needs to be more than an illustrated lecture.