My first reading of Diego da Sylva happened by the end of my high-school when I entitled my work « El Rey de pintores, Pintor de Rey » and passed my muddy Baccalaureate with it. His work not only enchanted my adolescent soul but also help me understand how he helped the development of the Impressionism in Western Europe.
My second reading, quite cynical thus becoming to the insouciant young age happened in New York, during his great retrospective in the Metropolitan Museum, circa late 1980s.
And now in Paris, at the Grand Palais where his enormous shadow fell over that part of the City of lights, magical, foreboding, telling the spectators- “there is no light but my Light, and Zurbaran is my prophet!” I’m watching his Immaculate Conception where the Virgin is truly an immaculate high-school girl surrounded with Pop clouds from 1618, his early “Seville period” which we know so little of. Next to Diego’s painting is his beloved Pacheco whose Virgin is a kid with her skin full of pimples—a real joy for the Feminists who can witness the most realistic Virgins standing firmly on the top of the Globe!
Next to these Virgins are Diego’s bodegons, full of the scenes from that sad Picaresque life-style, the paintings of the picaros or the poor, living in Spain in the beginning of the 17th century…Then his saints, where the young Diego followed the steps of Caravaggio, desperately trying to approach the King’s court in Madrid.. Was it in 1622?
His great influence at that time was Jusepe de Ribera whose St Philippe held a sword instead of a cross, and so the young Diego, in love with reality, said “no crosses here- I see only swords everywhere!” His estranged and antagonistic relationship with the Church and the court Diego will entertain until 1652 when he becomes “Aposentador Mayor de Palacio” a powerful function which will enable him to paint Las Meninas in 1956.
In 1659, he got the title of a “hidalgo” and in 1660 he dies in Madrid. His hatred towards the church is reflected in most of his work—his saints nuns and the rest of the clergy hold either swords or crosses as if they were swords (his Mother Jeronima de la Fuente, a mean, old head of the Monastery for Women holds the cross as if it were a hammer where she would hammer all the Sanctified Laws into the heads of the young nuns). However, his portrait of Luis de Gongora is human but somewhat bitter (he knows it all, he has seen it all). Most of his paintings that he was painting until 1660 are the portraits of the royal family- I know that he was painting them feverously so that the court would leave him alone, so that they would give him some free hours to paint those tender impressionist ones like the painting of Apollo and those few landscapes he called the “Italian ones”. There’s a body of Volcano executed with the extreme realism, juxtaposed to the figure of his sunny Apollo who manifested later, just before Diego died, in a form of Luis XIV. Apollo is brilliant but vain, probably as the 17 century rulers used to be. This is so much contrary to his tender vision of the “Temptations of St.Thomas d’Aquino” painted in 1633.
His greatest and rarest mystical painting though, is the one of the raven who carries food in his beak to the saints such as St. Anthony and St.Paul, the demolished saint from the desert.
In his “tender” period I would include the portraits of the royal infants: the prince infant Don Carlos (1638-1639) is just a young boy threatened by the royal pomp and future duties. Velasquez does not hide the Infant’s fear but is making it universal by removing the pompous side to it, often observed on all other royal portraits of the prince. In 1631 Diego painted the portrait of the same young boy here in the company of his royal companion, an ugly dwarf of an envious and vulgar expression. The dwarf is holding a royal scepter waving the object high above the prince’s head as if he would like to confuse us, as if he was asking the question—who is the king here, and who is the master? Should we ever know… as the same dwarf holds a scepter like a sword, with a facial expression which is self-revelatory, as if he’d rather kill the Infant on the spot, as if he were saying “the real Prince- it’s me!”
However, with the female models Diego is much gentler in approach- there is an Allegory of femininity, a tender semi-profile of a girl with her hair casually scooped on her head (was it his Sybille, or his muse?) The most tender element on this painting is the girls finger which she draws across the page—is she learning how to read or is she simply pointing to an extraordinary event in the text? We shall never know, but the outcome is not that important whatsoever: what we are to discover here and learn concerns more the painter’s own feeling towards the reader and less the purpose of her act.
The same purposelessness of the female expression, the same impressionist take, we find in Diego’s Venus in Front of the Mirror. We cannot see who there really is, a beautiful and naked young woman’s body reveals an unhappy and almost old face reflected in the mirror, the figure because of which Velasquez risked to get excommunicated from the church. And the mirror is held by a cupid, a baby-angel who is almost saying : “Look at you, and what has become of you, beauty!”
There is another group of paintings following these “tender” ones, a series of courtesans and people living at court—their faces are often mean and forlorn, even the face of the King Philip IV which appears to us either naïve or pompous or stupid, or all of the above. However, Diego’s colleagues, courtly painters such as Martinez Montanes, overwhelmed by an utmost career-climbing, did not dare endow the king’s face with such features. Diego’s real heroes were royal fools, dwarfs and clowns whereas he saved mean features for the clergy whom he hated. That is, he hated them as much as they probably hated the painter because as we observe the disgustingly cold, mean, blue-eyed look of Pope Innocent X , we clearly observe the model’s distance and disagreement with the painter. The same goes for the portrait of Duchess de Monterrey- her expression clearly says: Diego, hurry up, make it snappy- I hate being in this room and sitting for you!
Velasquez was not a painter who would try to hide boredom and ennui of his models as they were sitting for him and he rarely tried to endow the models with some humane expressions which they simply did not possess, as exemplified in his famous Las Meninas. He was able to observe something in them that other painters such as Jean Bautista de Mazo failed to see, and the element he observed was sometimes a certain fatigue with their daily life, their courtly duties, their pompousness and vanity. The real Andy Warhol of that era was Juan Carreno de Miranda, who, unlike Diego, painted the queen Marie Anne of Austria and her royal entourage with a grain of gentleness and glamour, but that was after Velasquez’s death in 1670s.
The best paintings which remain of Diego’s contemporaries and which are presented at Grand Palais belong to Pietro Martire Neri who painted the portrait of Velasquez himself with a brush that Diego held like a sword in one hand and an easel in the other. He painted a heraldic sign on his chest, on the left side covering Diego’s heart, but the red cross on his heart consisted of two perpendicular halberds and with a white collar which divided his head from the rest of his body. Dreamy and spiritual, his head remained forever (on Neri’s painting)up in the air while his body stayed on the court’s floor. Elie Faure justly remarked that after his fiftieth birthday Velasquez did not define a single object on his canvas.. Everything was there though, clear to us and at the same time dreamy, floating in the air, as these objects were surrounded by the air, all his images full of innocence, full of tenderness and some doomed unforeseen tragedy.
May 2015, Paris