Diego Velazquez is considered Spain’s greatest painter, “the painters’ painter” as Edouard Manet described him, and his influence on subsequent artists is beyond doubt. Painters as different as Francisco Goya, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso have paid homage to him and painted their own versions of his masterpieces.
The current exhibition at the National Gallery in London is the most comprehensive ever staged, and offers a stunning insight into the artist and his world.
Velazquez was born in 1599 to a wealthy family with claims to the minor nobility in the then fabulously wealthy city of Seville. As well as being the provincial capital of Andalusia, Seville was at the centre of the silver trade from the richest of Spain’s American colonies.
Wealth poured into the city, and even today the breathtakingly elaborate architecture of the churches and palaces echoes the almost unimaginable opulence at the heart of the greatest empire in Europe. Though Velazquez’s family intended him to follow a more respectable profession, his early gift for painting led to him being apprenticed to a local studio.
By the time he was in his early 20s he was an established artist in Seville, and a few years later his ambition took him to Madrid where he hoped to achieve fame and fortune for himself, and recognition and respectability for his profession. At the time in Spain, painting was considered to be merely the work of tradesmen.
In 1623, he was appointed official painter to King Philip IV and achieved the first of his ambitions. But Velazquez was never going to be a run of the mill court painter. Even his early work in Seville showed an astonishing ability to conjure surface and texture in paint.
The rough weave of ordinary people’s clothing and their wrinkled skin were depicted with the same dignity and intensity as the pearls and silks of his wealthy patrons.
This was something new – Velazquez was part of a movement in art that aimed to show the world as it was. This style revealed a simpler and more direct realism which contrasted with the established style of Raphael imitated by painters all over Europe.
Velazquez’s work is not simply naturalistic representational art, it is layered, multifaceted and has a psychological depth, the power of which can be felt across the centuries.
Though Velazquez has no rival in showing us the surface of things (except perhaps his Dutch contemporary Jan Vermeer) it’s what lies beneath that is compelling.
We see the wealth and power of empire in the sumptuous costumes and proud stances of the royal portraits.
But perhaps in the expressions we see something of the toll taken on the rulers of an empire which, despite appearances, had passed the pinnacle of its power. The Spanish empire had, in spite of its overwhelming military strength, involved itself in seemingly unending, unwinnable and economically unsustainable wars.
The compositions also reveal the complexity of life. Often there is a picture within a picture or some figures framed by a window suggesting other realities and views of the world.
Sometimes, as in his masterpiece Las Meninas (sadly not included in the show), you are not sure if you are looking at the scene in front of you, or if the whole picture is reflected in a mirror. Perhaps it is this multiplicity of possibilities that made his work so appealing to cubists like Picasso.
At times, as in the portrait of Pope Innocent X, the composition is straightforward but the ruthless and cynical gaze of power is chillingly apparent to this day.
This exhibition shows us Velazquez as a master painter whose technique and freedom of expression was unequalled until Goya or even the Impressionists 200 years later.
But more than this it uncovers the reality beneath the beautifully rendered surfaces.
Strike at National Gallery as Velazquez exhibition opens
All galleries at the National Gallery were closed on Wednesday 18 October and only the Velazquez exhibition remained open as 140 warders walked out in protest at attempts to cut their holiday entitlement.
Management kept open the £12 a ticket Velazquez exhibition, which had sold 13,000 tickets in advance, and closed off free areas.
The successful strike of Public and Commercial Services Union members will be followed by walkouts every Wednesday from 6pm – 9pm, starting next week.
Staff are angry about management’s plans to impose changes to contracts including withdrawing the three days holiday they receive in exchange for working Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day and replacing this with two days unpaid leave.
The warders, who protect one of the finest collections of paintings in the world, are among the lowest paid in the culture sector, earning as little as £13,562 a year with many earning a basic rate of pay of just over £6 an hour.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘The disruption caused by today’s action is regrettable, however we believe this demonstrates the bitterness staff feel at plans to withdraw their holiday entitlements during the Christmas period.
‘Our members taking action are some of the lowest paid in the culture sector and we call on management to negotiate meaningfully with them to reach an agreement and put a stop to future action.
The exhibition is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London until 21 January. Go to www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/velazquez
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