Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain


The Surrender of Breda (1635)
Diego Velàzquez

The Surrender of Breda, by Velazquez

The Spanish had defeated the Dutch at Breda. This scene is not the usual conqueror compelling a grovel. It portrays the magnanimity of a conqueror with the proud fatigue of the defeated. The victors on the right with a forest of upright lances, led by Spinola conferring an arm embrace prior to receiving the key to Breda from Justin of Nassau, in slow motion minuet. The faces of the crowd, not posed but caught by a camera, in a moment, some watching, some turning, some gazing towards the viewer.

The landscape way off, in a silvery light, a portrait of the Netherlands, blues, greens, yellow ochre (light brown) is a haunting precursor of Cézanne.

The Dutch weary resignation, the Spanish grace, in the two principals constitute an absence of glory. Civilization survives war. The horse, back to us, smooth, shiny, in contrast to the smoky panorama dominates the victors’ side.

Spinola was a mercenary and a friend of Velázquez. We know this to be his portrait (the victor on the right). The taking of Breda was the only military victory of Philip IV while King of Spain. He sent Spinola, his general, a terse message: “Marqués sumais Breda. Yo el Rey” — Marquis take Breda. I, the King.

That’s pretty clear.

Breda was a Dutch fortress known as the right eye of the Netherlands. On June 5, 1625 it was conquered.

The painting was done before 1635 but after Spinola’s death in 1629.

Spinola is in elegant close-fitting armour, trim boots on shapely legs, a dazzling purple crimson scarf, the blue and white of the checkered flag, the sheeny rump of Spinola’s horse all trump the Dutch leader, Justin, in floppy breeches and plump doublet. It was said Spinola uttered these rather improbable words, “The courage of the vanquished is the only glory of the victor.”

The lances are reminiscent of Tintoretto’s lances in his Crucifixion in Venice’s San Cassiano (Chapter 86). Velázquez saw this.

Two years later the Dutch recaptured Breda. This picture was to glorify Spain. The irony is that the Duke of Alba was of Italian birth and was a paid mercenary as were all of his troops, a calculating bunch, most German. The ‘Spanish’ troops don’t appear too happy as they have been denied plunder of Breda. This was to be their pay.

Family of Charles IV (1800)

Goya was fascinated by Surrender of Breda.

This painting of the Bourbon dynasty in 1800 has the line-up feature of Velázquez. Queen Maria Louisa occupies the centre. She was the power. Charles, the king, was weak as Goya clearly reveals.

It is odd that he could get away with this.

David and Goliath
Caravaggio (1573-1610)

David and Goliath, by Caravaggio

A pensive, very youthful David, standing over the dead hand of Goliath sporting a gleaming flashing thumb nail. The youth of a pubescent David startles because of his reticent adolescence.

Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor (1548)

Charles V, by Titian

It is clear that Titian was the godfather to Velasquez, Rubens, Van Dyck and even the jealous Tintoretto — they all copied his works and his painterliness — with dabs of splayed chunky colour.

Titian’s Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor (1548), the great leader on horseback with his jaw jutting. He was the last of the good royal fighters — he really was a good soldier (I think). He sure as hell was a strong king. His huge portrait under a pink sun setting sky — spreading russet throughout the piece off-set by flickers of gold against the silver plate of his armour — oh it is a mighty work!

Danae Receiving Zeus’ Gold

Danae Receiving Zeus’ Gold, by Titian

However, his Danae Receiving Zeus’ Gold is the most sensual portrayal of a lingering orgasm possible. She reclines with head aside, a wan sleepy look as the gold tumbles, being Zeus’ love, with a tough old hag next to the bed trying to catch any spare change with a basket. I don’t think any other artist can do this. The fascinating part of the Danae is that the pink red paint at the top glistens as if applied yesterday. Amazing — it’s so fresh.

Self Portrait (1562)
Titian (1489-1576)

Oh this pleases me! My nearly most favourite artist at the age of over 70 being overflowing with piss and vinegar — and to think he lived till 86 in full flight. Gahhh, there’s hope yet for a barrister slightly beyond a conventional age!

The golden chain denotes Titian’s status as a Knight of the Golden Spur. He was elevated to the nobility by Charles V.

As Vasari said in spite of his advanced years he was still ready to paint. Hurrah!

He looks sour but he was terrific!

Burial of Christ (1572)
Titian (1489-1576)

My favourite here.

Imagine my shock when I read the note next to the painting: “Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea lower Christ into tomb. The Virgin holds Jesus”. This motif was not in the gospels but from an Aretino devotional text:

“… the involvement of Titian’s studio in the execution of the painting is evident in the unresolved foreshortening of the arm supported by the Virgin and the general simplification of the details.”


The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1639)
José de Ribera (1591-1652)

A leading Spanish painter was Ribera who spent all of his time painting in Naples which was a Spanish City. He was influenced by Caravaggio’s dramatic use of white and theatrical poses.

St. Philip did die tied to a cross but this is the preparation for the deed. The strained arms, nearly out of his sockets, the depressed stomach, the face — “how did I get in this mess?”, the pale white grey of a body soon to be all gray against the red jerkin of the man heaving his leg up from the bottom is a great example of Baroque painting. The pain, the drama, the clashing diagonals — all high drama.

El Greco

I have always found El Greco somewhat precious — perhaps because what I have seen have been small canvases (except the Frick’s St. Jerome). Well, here there is a whole vast room of big buggers — and I mean big! They are not just flickering mannerist bits but are giant flames.

Two of them stand out — The Adoration of the Shepherds — a variety of clashing colours with spiralling columns of blue and yellow searing the composition upwards towards a number of Spanish angels.

The Adoration of the Shepherds (left), The Holy Trinity, and The Baptism of Christ, by El Greco

The Adoration of the Shepherds (left), The Holy Trinity, The Baptism of Christ

The Baptism is a twisting marvel with an axe next to St. John, a symbol taken from a sermon by St. John in which “he affirms the future destruction of the Jews, who are unworthy of being considered part of the chosen people” (guide book).

Everyone in all these canvases is a pure and distinct Spaniard.

El Greco’s The Holy Trinity — angels, Christ, coloured pale black ivory set against the aquamarine colour of the angels’ robes (with wings, as feathery as Correggio). A sweep of violins.

Writers on Artists, Aldous Huxley, Edited by Daniel Halpern, North Port Press, 1988, San Francisco:

El Greco was very successful. It is said that he paid an orchestra to play music while he ate meals. He had a 24 room mansion on the edge of a canyon. Most rooms were empty.

One of El Greco’s roman friends wrote of a visit to the painter for the purpose of taking a walk. “El Greco was sitting neither working nor sleeping and declined to go out with me on the ground that the light of day disturbed his inward light.”

Huxley opined El Greco had a “constant preoccupation with the ideas of mystical religion. His aim is to assert the soul’s capacity to come, through effort and through grace, to ecstatic union with the divine.”

There is neither sensuality nor a voluptuous quality in his painting. The Prado paintings are of elongated figures trapped in a restricted space, expressing emotion by the agitation of the robe over an undulating organic force. Consider the contrast with Mantegna where the real physical anatomy is central to the work.

Descent from the Cross (1435-1438)
Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464)

Descent from the Cross, by Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross is a glory. Real muted tears — a 3-D effect, the blue of Mary’s dress so pronounced as to be a special aquamarine — smooth against the white troubled cowl about her face and neck. Each participant wears precious shoes, all in a truly luminous setting — it is perhaps the egg white in the tempera, but it fairly glows — all in a setting of hushed concentration — such intensity of concentration.

Robert Payne couldn’t disagree with my sentiments more:

Rogier van der Weyden, born in Tournai, appears to have studied sculpture when young, for all his works are sculptural. He paints with intelligence and insight, and as a portraitist he is the equal of Jan van Eyck, but when he paints a Descent from the Cross or an Annunciation we are never convinced of the reality of the vision. Jan van Eyck could paint the Virgin wandering with a look of enchantment through her own church, or set her on a throne alone or in the presence of attendant saints, and we believe in her. She walks with assurance into her paintings, and it is precisely this assurance which is lacking in the Virgins of Rogier van der Weyden. His Descent from the Cross in the Prado is dominated by the figure of the fainting Virgin supported by St. John, the figures arranged with a purely sculptural elegance. As for the Virgin, she resembles a plump housewife who has fainted at the sight of some rats in her closet. Though the artist’s superb intelligence is everywhere present, the scene defies belief: there is only a painted waxwork. Rogier van der Weyden had all the gifts except the gift of vision. [The World of Art, Robert Payne, Doubleday & Company, NY, 1972, p. 344]

Also to my chagrin, Robert Cumming in his Art: A Field Guide, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2001, says, “But the stiff poses, cramped spaces and static expressions are wholly unreal. But everyone seems to say he is a superb portraitist.” (See his portrait of a Lady, National Gallery of Art, Washington.)

So I got thinking — what do others think?

Sister Wendy, as you might expect, views it as one of the supreme masterpieces of world painting. She views Mary’s fainting as a contrast to Christ’s death. “Her bloodless face will flash into life again; His, humanly speaking, will not.”

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005 at p. 596: “The palette of subtle, slightly muted colours is sparked with red and white accents to focus the viewer’s attention on the main subject. The whites of the winding cloth and the tunic of the youth on the ladder set off Jesus’ pale body, as the white head-dress and neck shawl emphasize the ashen face of Mary.”

What does the bible of art historians, E. H. Gombrich, say in his History: The Story of Art (Phaidon, London, 2006)? At page 206 he says:

We see that Rogier like van Eyck, could faithfully reproduce every detail, every hair and every stitch. Nevertheless, his picture does not represent a real scene … For they really seem like actors in a mystery play or in a tableau vivant grouped or posed by an inspired producer who had studied the great works of the medieval past and wanted to imitate them in his own medium. In this way, by translating the main ideas of Gothic art into the new lifelike style, Rogier did a great service to northern art. He saved much of the tradition of lucid design that might otherwise have been lost under the impact of Jan van Eyck’s discoveries. Henceforward northern artists tried each in his own way to reconcile the new demands on art with its old religious purpose.

I still love it!

Death of the Virgin (1462-1464)
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)

Death of the Virgin, by Andrea Mantegna

Mantegna has a small Death of the Virgin — my he is a great painter. The elegance of the robes, the creased luxury of the bed siding — a water view of a bridge across a lagoon — offset by a checkered pink marble floor in the foreground. Elegant without Watteau’s cloying sentimentality. A picture of suspended grief.

Eleven of the twelve apostles congregate about the Virgin. St. Thomas not there because he was preaching abroad.

Through the opening an accurate picture of Mantua and its lake. It’s like that today. Italy’s most beautiful small city.

A study of balance, order, disciplined perspective and restrained emotion. Neither desperation nor theatricality. It is a subtle congregation of quiet sighs and whispered condolences.

Mantegna was a master of robes, reflecting a spiritual anguish more so than the faces or body movements. Here the gowns, crying for a touch, are a levitating force. Sculpted bodies, emotional clothes, yet only a muted chorus whispers.

Above this panel there was originally Christ receiving the soul of the Virgin which would have driven the viewer’s eyes up.

I like the patterns of it, the floor, the pillars framing the opening, the rectangle of the bed, the balancing candlesticks. A picture of order.

Kiss of Judas (1618-1620)
Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

The Kiss of Judas, by Anthony Van Dyck

Van Dyck has a huge Kiss of Judas or The Betrayal of Christ in browns and Titian colours, Christ stock still at the kiss and violence surrounding the pain. It tells that this act of betrayal spawned consequences of killing. The act unleashes a huge emotive black force.

Although early in his career, this is a mature masterpiece.

Artificially lit by torch flame the troops rush to arrest. A swoop of power mowing into the back of Judas’s brown gown, roiling in emotion as he prepares to plant the treacherous kiss on a benign, expectant, somewhat disappointed Christ. Beneath the long red robe trailing at Christ’s feet is Peter hacking off the ear of Malchus, the High Priest’s servant midst the violence unleashed by the Roman soldiers.

Such a swoosh of power and thrust coming to a halt before Christ, but it’s only a halt for a millisecond.

Pieta (1618-1620)
Anthony Van Dyck

Pieta, by Anthony van Dyck

He also has a large Pieta with a Mantegna grey-white hue with thinly skittered blood about his chest and legs.

Endymion Porter (1635)
Anthony Van Dyck

The portrait of Sir Endymion Porter and Van Dyck has an unlikely story behind it. Endymion Porter (no relative I assure you, although Joey Slinger in a mean burst noticed a facial resemblance) was a bright agent for King Charles. His grandmother was raised in Madrid and Endymion could speak fluent Spanish.

James I reigned from 1601-1625 and notwithstanding his stunning creation, the King James Bible by a committee under his close provenance the rest of his court was a corrupt mess. The wicked phrase catamite smeared James.

Charles was quite moral, withdrawn, perhaps a stammer, perhaps a polio impediment, but he meant well for a time. To defend Charles is too difficult a brief and besides, I don’t know my facts.

In 1623, two years before his ascension to the throne, he and his buddy Buckingham (Steenie nickname) slipped off to Madrid in disguise; false beards. The object, to court the Spanish king’s sister. Their companion translator — Endymion. Charles and Buckingham travelled under the monikers Tom and Jack Smith. Charles never really had a chance for the King’s sister but during his frustrated wait he saw the Spanish king’s stunning art collection of Titians, Rubens and the rest.

This was the genesis of Charles I’s fantastic art instinct and drive for an unmatched Royal Collection. If not for some of the forced sales after his execution, it would have outshined all Europe.

The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (1483)
Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510)

There is a Botticelli here which, while not one of his great works, has a gruesome, interesting story to it. The panels explain it. It is a myth of a rejected suitor who committed suicide because of the lady’s haughty rejection. According to the Decameron she went to hell for her haughtiness. Their punishment was that every Friday the rejected suitor on a horse with hounds would chase her, catch her, eviscerate her, eat her heart and then lo and behold the girl would jump up and keep running. You would too, if you could. It is fun following the sequence of this creepy tale.

Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet (1547)
Tintoretto (1518-1594)

There are not that many magnificent Tintorettos outside of Venice but the Prado has one. Christ, far to the right of the painting, washes the feet of the disciple. But the eye follows the patterns in the floor of a light Copenhagen blue to disciples frantically tearing off their leggings so they can get washed. One pulls with sweat and grunt the legging off a plunked disciple, slipped off his bench on the floor. In the middle, a dog, stolen from one of Bassano’s paintings but still quite arresting. The blue floor designs stretch back through water of a canal and into glorious architecture.

The canvas was meant to be right up next to a church congregation so Jesus was closest and a Last Supper was on the other side of the altar. You can see a last supper off to the right. It is an imitation of the actual Last Supper painted as a companion piece to this work.

If you stand to the right all this compositions come together and the perspective over water makes the flow logical and inevitable.

The Doge of Venice washed the feet of twelve poor people on Maundy Thursday.

Twelve nobles and their wives did it at least once in 1524 at the Ospedale deglo Incurabli for Syphilitics.

Garden of Earthly Delights (1500)
Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymous Bosch

Last Hieronymous Bosch — a genius out of nowhere, without precedent or artistic roots. In about 1500 he created the Garden of Delights — a huge work, with Adam and Eve in tranquility with benign animals in the left panel.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a world gone berserk — men in clam shells, men with flowers in their assholes, monster coloured chickadees and birds, sexual coupling in shells, bubbles, canisters, lobster claws. It requires time to assimilate — but it is worth it — all alone before this genius with the occasional gusts of Japanese tourist, hordes of them in moving groups — one minute for the painting — then off. One panel of Hell — the consequences of the garden’s ‘delights’. In the top a city on fire with flickers of fires and explosions illuminating the dark night. Platoons of marching troops fleeing fire and damnation. Closer, horrible tortures on nude men and women doled out by various monsters. A sow in a nun’s habit attacking a man. Words can’t capture any of it. A dream which is a product of LSD.

In the left panel God introduces Eve to Adam who already may pose to be a bit of a problem. He has a look of conflict about him which may wrestle with his required look of obedience.

The owl in the pink structure foresees the end of the world. It is in the middle of the confluence of the four great rivers, the source of all.

On the right is the tree of knowledge and good and evil. A snake represents evil already present in the garden. The birds on the top are magnets for vices.

The tree on the left is the tree of life.

There has been speculation that Bosch was an adherent to an Adamite religious sect which was bent on purging sexual desires and did it by nude rituals. Not such a bad idea I suppose but I can see that the ritual might lead to some backsliding. This is most unlikely as the painting was done in 1500 and was placed in the Escorial, the royal monastery to be viewed by King Philip II who was very pious. The work is a satirical comment on the shame and sinfulness of mankind.

The middle section is a world gone topsy-turvy, symbolized by the extreme size of the animals. The strawberry is a symbol of luscious short term pleasure. A strawberry in the hair of a woman denotes prostitution. The black women are also symbols of prostitutes. The horses running around the lake of prostitutes in the middle are symbolic of lust. The view was that horses are horny. Maybe they are.

The man carrying the clam with a leg peeping out is this: the clam is a vagina; the leg belongs to an adulterer; the deceived husband is carrying it.

The mouse is a ‘negative’ symbol. Homosexual acts are the men with fish (check to see it).

The owl with the many legs under it is meant to be a hermaphrodite, a symbol of an unhappy marriage.

In the lower corner of adultery and lust St. John the Baptist points at Eve in a glass prism. The apple the originator of sin and the cause of human madness. Be careful with apples!

The broken eggs portray an attempt to go back to childhood.

Now, the panel of Hell on the right. Lucifer, the blue bird perched on a stool devours humans and defecates them down to a pit where gluttony and avarice reside. Some peer into this pool. Lucifer’s cape hides his preferred sins being those of the senses. I am not sure what this means — imagination is more dangerous than action?

The central monster with a human face under a bagpipe and disc, sits on two drifting boats, a symbol of the ship of fools. In his shell is a tavern, with priests ascending for a drink. The analysts say he is despairing and dying from a prolonged orgy. Funny, he looks quite like Laurence Olivier. He is meant to be the image of lust and the devil.

Music was often challenged as a sinful diversion. In this Hell it has a corner of its own where musical instruments play infernal, endless music to torment the captives.

There is in the lower corner an Abbess shown as a pig, trying to seduce a devout man to make false witness to authenticate a false relic. Her foot is on a metal object. In 1517 Luther nailed his challenge on the doors of Worms. Part of this challenge was about the church dealing in false relics to its own profit.

The idiosyncrasies of Hell are shown by the Rabbit stalking the hunter.

There are other Hells for the monks, the knights and gamblers. As to be expected.

All in all a subtle and intriguing work.

Haywain (1500)
Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

This is easier than the Garden of Earthly Delights.

The tipsy hay cart with religious figures on the top is urged on by the left figures of a pope and king, above Isaiah in a black robe with his back to us warning of vanity of the flesh (“vanity of the flesh” — what a terrific phrase!).

The official Prado Guide lumbers through this:

… When open, the left panel shows the origins of sin, from the fall of the rebellious angels to the expulsion from Paradise. The centre panel scrutinises the world of men with an allegorical image based on a Flemish popular saying: ‘The world is like a hay cart and everyone takes what he can.’ The hay symbolises desire for earthly possessions. Powerful figures like the pope, the emperor and the king follow the wagon in a procession, while the common folk try to clamber on it and are crushed or right to death in the attempt. Others obtain hay easily, such as the abbess to whom it is brought by her nuns, or through deceit, such as the quack doctor with bulging pockets. On top of the haystack two couples indulge in hedonistic pleasures to the sound of music played by a demon. An angel prays imploringly to Christ the Redeemer, who observes the whole scene from above, showing his wounds. The cart is drawn by internal beings that drag everyone to Hell, which is depicted in the right-hand panel.

… Bosch was incapable of the simple statement; it was not enough to proclaim that we are all revelers wasting our lives away, but he must show a hundred figures engaged in their fatal revelry. In The Hay Wain, … we see a great hay cart being pulled across a summer field with an escort of cheerful, ribald countrymen absorbed in their pleasures. The great men of the earth, emperors and clerics, follow the cart, lovers cavort on the hay, the fortune-tellers are at work, the fat priest is attended by nuns who offer him sheaves of the precious hay. And then, as though there had been a sudden shift of focus, we observe that all these figures are demented and not in the least what they seem to be. People are quarrelling murderously for a few straws, peasant women are falling under the wheels of the hay cart, and strange demons with the heads of giant rats and the bodies of fishes are leading the way. Everywhere we look the bright summer day is filled with menace. [Robert Payne, The World of Art, Doubleday & Company, NY, 1972, pp. 348-349]

In short, life starts happily but one thing after another causes a lot of real problems.

Mary Tudor, Queen of England (1554)
Anthonis Mor (1516-1576)

Bloody Mary. In my tour of the Prado I begin with this painting partially due to the difficult pathways in the Prado. But nevertheless, it is a riveting beginning to anyone who has studied the Tudors. Queen Mary who, as a child in the tower was told she would have her head crushed “as a soft apple”. Life presented its challenges. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine, known as Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife of huge European importance. Mary was not a looker and desired to marry Charles V but that was not to be. In 1554 she did marry Charles’ son, Philip II, her second nephew, eleven years younger. She became Queen in 1553 and died in 1558. Repression was the sign of the times both by Henry VIII and Mary. There was many a head on a stake overseeing London bridges.

She holds in her hand a rose, symbol of the Tudors. The artist, Mor, was sent to London to portray her for Philip II.

Heaven knows what Philip must have thought when he saw this formidable fiancée. To me she is the old fashioned schoolmarm catching a delinquent student whispering to a desk-mate. Her pale blue eyes all a river.

After she died Charles V, a powerful force, decided he would retreat from kingly duties and he took this painting to his retreat. Odd. Hardly relaxing.

Christ Presented to the People (1515)
Quinton Massys (1466-1530)

Just before the room with Bosch’s surreal figures there is a picture by Quinton Massys, Christ Presented to the People. This followed Bosch especially his portraits of evil men enjoying Christ’s suffering (see London National Gallery). The surrounding figures are leering, mugging jobs. They are a motley, crazed crew. This is a far cry from High Renaissance studies of grief, respectful grief about Christ.

Triumph of Death (circa 1562)
Pieter Bruegel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder followed suit in his The Triumph of Death — a great concentration camp of a work. Death the reaper — easy to assess — death, endless skeletons crushing the living — and all fall. Organized death, with an extended empty howl.

A supreme portrait of organized death. In this time a dominant theme of thought was the Dance of Death being inevitable. Here grey troops on the right march through all — including the sitting king on the left and the crouching jester on the right. The horse of death floats through with its skeleton rider scything all before it and in a second job pulling loads of skulls.

A gloomy vision of organized death.


The Three Graces (1635)
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Rubens was a favourite of Philip IV of Spain whose hunting lodge was to be filled with Rubens: The Slumbering Argos of the 100 Eyes Slain by Mercury; Persiphone; The Rape of Europa (a copy of Titian — damn near identical) — not a joke — this frenzied pursuit of unbridled lust; Saturn Eating His Children (a Goyaesque horror).

The Three Graces, by Peter Paul Rubens

Then a room with The Three Graces as its centrepiece. The whole room is a symphony of plump women — all pearly and pink.

Rubens seen in two rooms with two themes is a revelation and it is the way it should be seen. Then and only then you comprehend his ‘oeuvre’ in all its blunt pronouncement. Rubens is violence and flesh sometimes, other times grand formality with elegance.

The Three Graces has Rubens (then 60) showing his 16 year old wife as one Grace. It was so erotic that Charles III wanted to burn it but this was somehow avoided.

Rubens copies Holbein’s Thomas More which is in the Frick — a straight copy — but without Holbein’s flat green. There is the stubble of the beard but the eyes perhaps a touch more averted.

Vulcan’s Forge (1630)
Diego Velàzquez

Vulcan's Forge, by Diego Velazquez

Velàzquez, then 31, captures the very moment of Apollo in orange robe, prattling to Vulcan that his wife, Venus, is trysting (you can call it worse) with Mars. Vulcan is one millisecond from eruption, Apollo a prim shoveller of dirt, is just getting into the lurid tidbits. There will be hell to pay!

When I re-visit this in October of 2009 I observe that this is the only Velàzquez that has a ‘pop’. Velàzquez is usually terribly calm but here Apollo the God of sun and poetry confronting Vulcan the God of fire, has a mischievous energy.

Las Meniñas (1656)
Diego Velàzquez

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez

In 1985 the Illustrated London News with 44 experts picked the top 20 paintings in the world. Number one was this painting. The dealer, Daniel Wildenstein, described it as “the greatest work of art by a human being. All others are far behind.”

Well reader, he doesn’t make my list. Bully you say. Why? I’m not sure why. I love Velàzquez and for years this was at the top of my list. He’s as great a painter as Rembrandt but in portraying court society and ceremony he bleaches out personality and eradicates emotion. I suppose Royalty never show public emotion. A wizard with paint, perspective, pools of light — yet there is an annoying ambiguity in presenting human interaction.

The Las Meniñas is fascinating but it’s ultimate charm is the verbal explanation not the glory of the painting itself. I mean by that: Velàzquez is painting a picture and the mirror at the back portrays what he is painting midst royalty and courtiers, who play a certain role in the theatre positioning of the painting. The ultimate act of semiotics.

One interesting observation by Alexandra Connor’s Rembrandt’s Monkey: and Other Tales from the Secret Lives of the Great Artists (St. Martins Press, 1989), “Syphillis passed on to a child in the womb was recognized almost at birth, the infant possessing the peculiar saddle nose of the disease in the male figure in the righthand background of Meniñas.”

I can’t see it in the reproductions. He is the only figure in the painting who has not been specifically identified. I look carefully — with my art tour group in October, 2009 and they identify it as the far right child. Try and find him.

What is striking is the amount of space occupied on the left hand side of the painting by the blank back of the immense canvas. This is risky. Does it add anything?

What do you do if you’re met by a tidal wave of unfettered adulation over a painting and you just don’t get it? Oh sure, the painting is extraordinary, I’ll give it that, but not THE BEST — no damn it, it’s not. Who are you to say this? What do you really know?

These are my thoughts when confronted with Las Meniñas by Velàzquez in the Prado. Now Velàzquez is a favourite of mine. I purr with adulation over the Surrender of Breda, praise Appollo setting Vulcan off in Vulcan’s Forge, I give an unreserved tribute to his menacing portrait of Innocent X in the Doria-Pamphili, and I may credit it as the best portrait of all, and I revel over his lush Rokeby Venus in London — but this painting puzzles me, not as a masterpiece, it is that, but so many saying it is the best.

Here are some quotes of notable, well respected individuals in the art world on the subject of Las Meniñas:

Dr. John Hayes, Director of the National Portrait Gallery says of Las Meniñas:

“Exceptional truth of tone and sureness of almost impressionistic handling; apparently effortless relationship of figures; deep insight into character; unsurpassed as an informally grouped portrait.”

Daniel Wildenstein, Dealer:

“… Because it is by far the greatest work of art by a human being. All others are far behind.”

Sir Brinsley Ford, Former Chairman, National Art Collectors Fund:

“Luca Giordano described this picture as the ‘Gospel of Art’. It is a masterpiece of one of the world’s greatest painters.”

Laura Cumming:

“At the very least the painting makes you feel you were there at the court with these people right then, but it is the praise you could give a thousand time-stopping pictures and Las Meniñas is more advanced than all of them for it also reverses that proposition, creating the illusion that these people feel you are there with them too, that their scene is fulfilled, completed by you. … They are alive to your presence.”

Even my idol, Sir Ernst Gombrich, picked it, although his art book doesn’t reveal this preference.

The Plot: Velázquez on the left at work before a huge canvas. The subject revealed by the mirror image on the back wall of the King and Queen, Philip IV who are sitting for the portrait. A crowd of people have come into the studio. Their little daughter, Infanta Margarite, flanked by two maids of honour. We know their names as we know the names of the two dwarfs. The distant background people were obviously minders of the child.

Some of the personal circumstances are interesting. The King, a pompous one, with strict rules of hierarchy, loved theatre, the arts and hunting and even wrote plays. But on many levels he was a boob and he was broke. His fatal wars bankrupted the government. In winter there was no wood for fire burning and fish served on golden platters stunk. He had many illegitimate children (32?) and married the Queen in the picture who was 13 at the time and was intended for his son. But his son died so pop took his place. She had many stillborn babies, one boy survived as monarch but was semi-retarded. The infanta died shortly after her father.

The maids of honour on either side of the infanta were from noble families and were kneeling not from affection but protection, the other moving into a curtsey. There were strict lines of people in a chain supplying royalty.

The dwarf on the right filled the function of a jester and had a fool’s licence which put him outside the strict social protocol.

Velázquez had a court job running part of the Royal Household. He wanted to be a member of the Order of Santiago. He had to apply and prove purity of blood (neither Jewish nor a moor). His aristocratic ancestry didn’t exist so he was stymied. Philip prevailed and myth has it that he painted the cross on Velázquez’s vest after his death.

Sir Kenneth Clark observed in his book Civilisation (BBC, 1969) at p. 213:

“However any attempt to relate art to society soon gets one into a false position. The greatest of all pictures based on the facts of vision wasn’t painted in the scientific atmosphere of Holland, but in the superstitious, convention-ridden court of Philip IV of Spain: Las Meniñas which was painted by Velázquez about five years before Vermeer’s finest interiors. I draw no conclusions from this, except that although one may use works of art to illustrate the history of civilisation, one must not pretend that social conditions produce works of art or inevitably influence their form.”

Kenneth Clark discusses the mystery of how the eye at a certain distance from the painting moulds the dabs, flecks, slashes and smears of paint into a form image. The eye makes it coalesce.

Clark said, “I would start from as far away as I could, when the illusion was complete, and come gradually nearer until suddenly what had been a hand, a ribbon and a piece of velvet, dissolved into a salad of beautiful brush strokes. I thought I might learn something if I could catch the moment at which this transformation took place, but, it proved to be as elusive as the moment between waking and sleeping.”

Don’t you love the phrase, ‘salad of beautiful brush strokes’?

However, in the Kunsthistoriche Museum in Vienna there is a picture of the Infanta in a blue dress and there is a point at which you can record the distance of coalescence.

One problem with analysing paintings after you have actually seen them is that the reproductions don’t recreate what you actually saw. Las Meniñas is a huge picture so pages in an art book can’t catch it in its subtlety.

H. W. Janson, in his famous History of Art [Abrams, 1995] says:

Although the side lighting and strong contrasts of light and dark still suggest the influence of Caravaggio, Velázquez’s technique is far more varied and subtle, with delicate glazes setting off the impasto of the highlights. The glowing colours have a Venetian richness, but the brushwork is even freer and sketchier than Titian’s. Velázquez was concerned with the optical qualities of light rather than its metaphysical mysteries. These he penetrated more completely than any painter of his time. His aim is to show the movement of light itself and the infinite range of its effects on form and color.

Pretty heavy stuff that. But I can’t tell what it means unless my nose is actually in the Prado, in the painting subject to a guard clucking me back a step or two.

So, even after all this, pointy headed erudition, I’m sticking to my guns — good but not that good!

The Cardinal (1510-1511)

The audio machine says of the cardinal, “cold, distant, enigmatic, suggestive gaze.”

That doesn’t help much.

Then the audio goes further calling the cardinal “defiant”.

What do I see? A difficult, albeit bright twerp, who got a boost somewhat and hence is an early cardinal. A mouth as tight as a small clam.

He’s lucky to have that cardinal robe protecting him, giving him a dignitas I doubt he deserves.

The Annunciation (1425-1428)
Fra Angelico

This is in its original frame. On the top left the angel Gabriel casts Adam and Eve out of the paradise, Eden.

Later Gabriel comes to the Virgin carrying God’s message, to assist in man’s redemption via Christ.

God’s hands (it is rare that a painting shows God’s hands) release the dove of the Holy Spirit, carried in the golden shaft. The face of God appears in the medallion above the middle support piller. The swallow on the tie bar may be a symbol of the near eastern messenger swallow of antiquity. (What’s this about you may ask? Don’t.)

The robe of the angel Gabriel, pure pleated poetry, ironed especially for the mission is of a deeper pink than the Virgin’s.

Fra Angelico was fighting a bit of a rear guard action by portraying religion in a non-naturalistic old formal style.

When God speaks by the golden shaft, the ‘paint’ is burnished real gold.

I love this painting for its innocence, for the subtle realism of the angel’s wings and the Virgin’s quizzical careful, near suspicious look. (You’re saying whaaat?)

Self-Portrait (1498)
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

The third of 18 children! The son of a Hungarian goldsmith.

The inscription says: “I painted according to my physique. I was 26 years old.”

A picture of elegance in Italian clothes of latest fashion — which removes him from the position of a mere craftsman as he had to deal with princes and aristocrats.

His hat is a foppish delight, atop long curled ringlets of hair.

This is three years before his self-portrait appearing in the Munich Pinakotech, where he is Christ-like looking straight at the viewer.

Artists didn’t do this at this time, not at all.

My, isn’t he a handsome one?

Pablo de Valladolid (1632-1635)
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)

Manet went to Madrid in 1865:

It was Velázquez who gave Manet his greatest pleasure. “The entire trip is worth making just for the work of Valázquez,” he wrote to Astruc on September 17 after rejoining his family. “He is the painter of painters; I was, however, not at all surprised; I found in him the realization of my ideal in painting; the sight of these masterworks gave me great hope and great confidence. I was not at all satisfied by Ribera and Murillo. They are decidedly painters of the second rank … Two others, after the Master, captivated me: Greco, who is bizarre … and Goya, whose masterpiece, in my view, is at the Academy (The Duchess of Alba, what an entrancing fantasy).” He was referring to The Clothed Maja; The Naked Maja was kept out of sight and shown only by special permission. [Beth Archer Brombert, Edouard Manet, Rebel in a Frock Coat, Little Brown & Company, 1996, p. 179]

Manet’s most expansive account of his stay in Madrid was the one he sent to Fantin-Latour telling him “what a joy it would have been for you to see this Velázquez,” none of whose great contemporaries, exhibited in the same museum, could hold a candle to him. Even Titian’s portrait of Charles V seemed “wooden” when compared with Velázquez. Manet now recognized the difference between the works attributed to Velázquez in the Louvre and the authentic ones. In his view the most astounding piece among all of Velázquez’s works “and perhaps the most astounding piece of painting every done” was the portrait of an actor who was famous during the reign of Philip IV: “the background disappears, it is air that surrounds this fellow dressed entirely in black yet vibrant.” This is Pablo de Valladolid, both the title of the painting and the name of the subject, whose stance and extended right arm immediately suggest a theatrical pose, as does his direct gaze at the viewer. Dating from the 1630s, this work, regarded by many art historians as a forerunner of modern painting, unquestionably exerted the greatest influence on the second phase of Manet’s career, which began after his return from Spain. [Beth Archer Brombert, Edouard Manet, Rebel in a Frock Coat, Little Brown & Company, 1996, p. 180]

When I go to check Pablo de Valladolid (still at the Prado) it is one I’ve never focussed on. A 40 year old mean, pot-bellied man with an expansive arm gesture, all in black, black goatee, a pate of black coiffed hair, a ruff, against a bland brown-gray atmospheric backdrop, the legs casting a partial shadow. A tough little nut with a façade of bravura. But here is much of Manet’s later work, single figures, flat patterned with backgrounds which offer neither perspective nor much help of any kind.

I now see by research that Pablo was a court jester or buffoon. He sure doesn’t look like a barrel of laughs.