The Rack, the Rapier, the Ruff and the Fainting Nun

Nicholas Penny

  • Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting by Gary Tinterow and Geneviève Lacambre et al
    Yale, 592 pp, £50.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 300 09880 4

A revealing text for understanding the hold that Spanish painting of the 17th century had over the imagination of art-lovers in Britain and France during the first half of the 19th century is the description of the ancient Scottish seat of the Roman Catholic earls of Glenallan in Walter Scott’s The Antiquary. The late Countess, ‘partly from a haughty contempt of the times in which she lived, partly from her sense of family pride’, had not permitted the interiors to be modernised. The ‘valuable collection of pictures’, which hung in ‘massive frames . . . somewhat tarnished by time’, included ‘family portraits by Vandyke and other artists of eminence’, but was richest ‘in the Saints and Martyrdoms of Domenichino, Velázquez and Murillo’ – and the ‘manner in which these awful, and sometimes disgusting, subjects were represented, harmonised with the gloomy state of the apartments’. Beyond the picture gallery was the Earl’s private chamber, its high walls hung with black mourning cloth. ‘Two lamps wrought in silver’ shed an ‘unpleasant and doubtful light’ on a silver crucifix and ‘one or two clasped parchment books’. ‘The only ornament on the walls was a large picture, exquisitely painted by Spagnoletto,’ of the martyrdom of St Stephen.

The Spanish school evoked the rack, the rapier, the ruff, the spiral ebony chair-leg and the fainting nun, and a world that was now sufficiently distant or in decline (in The Antiquary it is the invasion of Bonaparte, not the Jacobites, for which beacons are prepared) to appeal to the imagination of a more enlightened age. Scott must have chosen Domenichino because his name conjured up, to anyone of taste, a painting that had long been one of the most admired in Rome and was familiar from prints and copies even to those who had not travelled there: the Last Communion of Saint Jerome, a quintessentially Counter-Reformation subject.

The other artists listed are Spanish. Murillo was chiefly known for his paintings of two great themes in art: the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, and picturesque poverty, the former filled with smiling cherubs, the latter featuring grinning urchins. Spagnoletto was the artist we now know by the name of Ribera, who was active in Naples, then under Spanish rule; he was associated with paintings that depicted the sufferings of emaciated saints and the eloquence of beggar philosophers: an appropriate reference for Scott, not only because of the faith of the ‘gaunt and ghastly’ Earl, but because Edie Ochiltree, the King’s beadsman, an itinerant sage of proud bearing and wild white hair who encounters the Earl in his private chamber, might also have been a fit subject for Ribera’s brush.

What Scott and his readers would have thought of as a typical painting by Velázquez is less clear, as we shall see, but he was well known as the portraitist of a sombre King, his solemn counsellors, chaperoned princesses, dwarfs and jesters. He too painted the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and the ancient sage in modern rags. The most beautiful of his paintings in the National Gallery shows a child conducted by an angel to view Christ, who, having been whipped, has collapsed on the prison paving. The child, as I explained to the late Princess Margaret on one of her visits to the Gallery, stands for the Christian soul. ‘How very, very Spanish,’ she pronounced slowly, after a moment or two pursing her lips.

The Antiquary was published in 1816, not long after the Allies had insisted that the French return to Spain the paintings they had confiscated for the Musée Napoléon in the Louvre. Major works (by Titian, Raphael and probably Van Eyck, as well as by Spanish artists) which had been illegally removed and found their way into private collections in London or Paris were not returned. And Marshal Soult was allowed to keep his many artistic trophies, among them Murillo’s great Immaculate Conception from the Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes in Seville, a picture that is known to have been on offer for 250,000 francs in 1823 and, ten years later, for twice that much. It was bought for 615,000 francs by the Louvre in the sale of 1852 which followed the Marshal’s death – then the highest price that had ever been paid for a painting.

The exhibition Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, which opened last year in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and went on to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, gave us a sample of the masterpieces in Soult’s collection and in the Galerie Espagnole in the Louvre, which was formed by Louis-Philippe partly out of that collection. In the Metropolitan Museum The Immaculate Conception was mounted on a special screen (on which it could not be hung as high as it should be) in the middle of a large room. The label concluded with a note that in 1940 the ‘French Government decided to return it to Spain’. This seemed rather coy for an exhibition that addressed the relationship between political power and artistic taste, and the catalogue entry, full of useful information, is also euphemistic on the nature of this transaction, ‘closely following the end of the Spanish Civil War’, and deftly avoids the words ‘Hitler’, ‘Vichy’, ‘Nazi’, ‘Falangist’ and ‘Franco’. Given this embarrassment the loan is a remarkable achievement.

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