Of the 46 works in Velázquez (National Gallery until 21 January) 13 can be seen in London at any time, mainly for free and without the press of people expected at the current exhibition. Nine are from the gallery’s own collection, four are from Apsley House. (Some of the most remarkable pictures by Velázquez in England arrived during or shortly after the Peninsular War as spoil, gifts or purchases.)

The early works among the London pictures, paintings from 1618 through to the late 1620s, include religious subjects (St John on Patmos, The Immaculate Conception) and genre pieces (The Water-Seller of Seville, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary). The genre pictures are lit, it seems, by an afternoon sunlight which penetrates dark rooms, strikes highlights from pottery and metal and tans leathery flesh. Later, paler, brighter canvases develop an eloquent, economical style in which dabs and flourishes of paint suggest, more and more magically as time passes, the glitter of jewellery, the sheen of fabrics and the translucence of flesh. Among these are portraits, and two pictures – The Toilet of Venus and the panoramic Philip IV Hunting Wild Boar – which are Velázquez’s only versions of those subjects.

Of the loans from abroad only the 11 from Spain (eight of them from the Prado) add significantly to what can be learned from the London pictures about the range and quality of Velázquez’s achievement. To get his full measure, time in Madrid is still, as it has always been, obligatory. So what, apart from satisfying a general desire not to have to go abroad to search things out, does this exhibition do?

The curators are clear. The aim is to ‘give a context to the permanent collection’, and the justification for moving pictures from their usual homes (ticket revenues and visitor numbers apart) must be looked for in comparisons between familiar and unfamiliar paintings. The most enlightening juxtapositions are, as you would expect, with the loans from Madrid. Mars, from the Prado, shares a room with The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’). It, too, is a fluent piece of flesh painting, and one that defers less to Italian precedents than the Venus. But even the Venus is different from the pictures by Giorgione, say, or Titian, which it superficially resembles. Both gods, as though caught in a contrary mood, fail to answer a primary question: ‘Who, what kind of person, are you?’ In neither picture can the face be read. Mars’ is in shadow, Venus’ is seen only in a blurred reflection. Even the face of the cupid who holds her mirror is as soft as a photograph taken through a gauze. Look at reproductions in the catalogue* of pictures not in the exhibition and you find that the detail of the faces in The Spinners (painted in the last years of his life) and Las Meninas is blurred in much the same way. As time passes Velázquez gives less precise detail about edges. Instead he offers patches and strokes of colour that offer the minimum our visual apparatus needs to set about filling an information vacuum. It is our imagination which completes the picture, finding in the process a pleasure hard to identify, but which bears some relation to the smile of recognition that comes when you see the answer to a problem.

The regular response to the look of his late pictures has been wonder at the startling presence achieved through marks which seem to lack precision and definition. The Temptation of St Thomas Aquinas, which was painted in 1632-33 after his return from Italy, shows him moving towards that economy of means. In it a suavity of brushwork makes the firmer, harder contours of a religious picture painted only a year or so before, the National Gallery’s Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul, seem provincial. Yet the earnestness of the kneeling child-soul and its homely attendant – not an angel so much as a nursemaid with wings – are more human in their tenderness. Velázquez, unlike Rubens, engages less and less with his subjects: Rubens always adores his children, loves his wife, suffers with martyrs and struggles with the devil. The Flagellation is as intimate as Velázquez gets.

Two pictures painted in Rome, Joseph’s Bloody Coat brought to Jacob and Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan (the former now in the Escorial, the latter in the Prado), mark the transition from brown to bright and from marked chiaroscuro to more even lighting. Some of the strangeness and intensity of earlier compositions has gone. Velázquez has become more international European, less provincial Spanish. The figures (all male) are close to being academic life studies, the poses are ones which could be held by a model. (Rubens would, I guess, have had at least one figure floating, twisting or falling.) In both pictures the body types are so similar that the same man could have posed for several figures, while the marble floor and rug in Jacob’s house suggest studio props. The impression one gets is that Velázquez only wanted to paint what he could see. The brushwork has not loosened into anything like its final miraculous fluency and economy but the colour is less heavy. That these pictures stand at a watershed is underlined by the fact that Joseph is painted on the brown ground used in the Seville pictures while Apollo is on the grey ground used for his later work.

He had proved that he could paint a plain narrative. He had already made much of pots and pans in domestic scenes; he went on to prove that details in portraits – trivial things: ribbons, bows, embroidery, a lapdog, an open book – can exhibit high skill more effectively than noble subject-matter. They enliven official images of the royal household which would otherwise be uninteresting. The Habsburg face was no gift to the portrait painter and Velázquez, whose genius was for truth-telling, was not a flatterer. In 1653 Philip IV wrote: ‘It is nine years since any portrait was made, and I am little inclined to subject myself to Velázquez’s phlegm, nor thus find further reason to witness how I grow old.’ He did sit again – as a 1656-57 portrait shows. (The National Gallery version is in the exhibition.) It is a perfectly observed image of a plain, dignified, unsuccessful, unhappy man. But Velázquez’s style fails when confronted with bland baby faces. In portraits of royal children the surroundings bring the pictures to life: in Infante Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School the horse, performing a levade (its front feet off the ground) and the figures in the background (identifiable, even though painted with absolute economy – one of them is clearly the Count-Duke of Olivares); in the portrait of Felipe Próspero the lapdog squirming on the chair beside him. And always the clothes. Not because they are elegant – to our eye they are the opposite: the panniered skirts, as firmly built as furniture, pay no heed to the body beneath, the hair, or is it a wig, frames the face like a padded box – but because of the joyful economy with which the brush marks re-create a landscape of silk, gold and silver on the canvas. Many successful portrait painters handed over such work to studio assistants; if Velázquez did he was a wonderful teacher.

In his greatest paintings perfect technical ease and accuracy, wonderful in themselves, create a presence without making a judgment. In the portrait of Innocent X, the pope, devious and wily by reputation, looks those things. However, his appearance, rendered vividly and dispassionately, leaves judgment to us. It is the same with the portraits of the palace dwarves (one of them is in the exhibition) and that of his assistant Juan de Pareja (which is in New York). Most portraits – those which flatter in particular – have in them the seeds of caricature. Velázquez’s do not.

In his case one does not feel that to know the pictures is to know the artist. This is in part, no doubt, because the tenor of 17th-century Spanish court life is foreign to us. But there is also a distance which arises from the nature of his art. You don’t expect to know his character from his work any more than you expect to know that of a surgeon from his operations.

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