Getting to know Diego…

I’ve been getting to know Diego Velázquez over the past few months. Not in person, he’s obviously long dead (1599 – 1660), but through other means…

At the start of the year I read “The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez” by Laura Cummings. It’s not quite a biography, but instead follows the story of an English man who becomes obsessed by what may, or may not, be a long-lost Velázquez portrait. I won’t spoil the ending, but I did discover quite a few interesting things about Velázquez’s life and art along the way.

– He became a Royal Painter in the court of Phillip IV at just 24 years old, in 1624. But he didn’t actually get that much time to paint, with time taken up by the busy life of the Royal Court. From records of the Royal Household, it looks like he painted 5 – 6 canvases a year. Sometimes 7 canvases in a busy year

– He managed to escape the Royal Court and spend two extended periods of time studying art in Rome. During one of these periods he threatened not to return and there are several letters from King Phillip IV exalting him to return!

– He initially studied art in Seville, learning from the studio of Francisco de Pachecho. He went on to marry Pachecho’s daughter, Juana. His father-in-law later writes that  when Velázquez painted he liked ‘having the thing itself in front of him’.

– As an artist, when he could, he studied others’ work, but he also seemed to follow his own instincts. He was painting ‘en plein air’ in the 1630s, very rare at the time and a thing later seen as revolutionary when the Impressionists started doing it in the 1800s! You also see his independence of thought in his subject choices. Of course he painted many of the Royal Family, but also the servants, dwarfs and entertainers, with equal care and attention.

One of his most famous paintings is Las Meninas – it is mentioned on the first page of Laura Cumming’s book and it is often cited as one of the greatest paintings of all time. I regularly listen to a brilliant podcast TalkArt and two guests (Phylidda Barlow – an amazing sculptor, and Louisa Buck, art critic and Turner Prize jurist) have recently mentioned Las Meninas as the art work they would most like to steal in an imaginary art heist! The painting hangs in the Prado in Madrid, and I’m hoping to be able to visit it later this year.

In the meantime I thought I’d see what work by Velázquez is here to see in Valencia. It turns out the Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia has three of his works on display, and it’s even free to visit!

First up, is ‘Woman in Profile’ believed to date from Velázquez’s first trip to Italy. She’s on show in an octagonal frame and looks to me like she’s a small part of a much larger painting. I’m guessing this from the visible rips on the left-hand side of the frame. She’s also only very recently emerged from a private collection, going on  public show in 2017.

Then I saw the painting I’d come to see, the only universally recognised Self-Portrait by Velázquez. It’s hung at head height – which is a brilliant choice by the gallerist. I felt like I could really look Diego Velazquez in the eye.  I looked him in the eye for a long time. I moved closer, I backed away. And as I’d read, he really was a most incredible portraitist. His brush strokes are there and not there. It’s a strange half-spoon of a face, the far side melting into the shadows. The eyes coming into focus, the moustache standing proud in front of his face, but then evaporating into the deep murky background. If you have an hour to spare in Valencia, pop in, you won’t be disappointed.

And last up is a portrait of Saint Simón de Rojas Lying Dead, made in 1624, when Velazquez was just 24 years old. I’m not sure I’ve particularly looked at a death portrait before, but I can report he looks both very dead, but also very human. Simón de Rojas was also part of the Royal Court and presumably someone Velázquez knew.  Quite an incredible thing to imagine a young Velázquez painting the Queen’s dead confessor, presumably for many hours.

So that’s me and Diego so far. I look forward to making it to The Prado soon!