Peter Burke

  • Velazquez: Painter and Courtier by Jonathan Brown
    Yale, 322 pp, £35.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 300 03466 0
  • El Greco and his Patrons: Three Major Projects by Richard Mann
    Cambridge, 164 pp, £35.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 521 30392 3

The rise of the professional art historian in the later 19th century has been a mixed blessing. Making paintings, statues or buildings are activities which are as much a part of history as making treaties, making motorcars, making war, making love, or making the crops grow. It was good to have art taken seriously by historians of the calibre of Heinrich Wölfflin, but a pity to have it subtracted from the territory of the ordinary historian, the general practitioner. The declaration of art-historical independence impoverished general history, and encouraged a history of art which stressed the internal history of styles at the expense of the social and intellectual milieu.

All this is an old story. Now that works such as Francis Haskell’s Patrons and Painters (first published in 1963) and Michael Levey’s Painting at Court (1971) have made the social history of art respectable, it is becoming quite difficult to remember the time when it was virtually restricted, or abandoned, to a handful of Central European Marxist émigrés such as Frederick Antal, Arnold Hauser and Francis Klingender. Yet it takes time for a new style of art history to spread from the centre to the periphery. It is only in the last few years, thanks to scholars such as Jonathan Brown and some of his Spanish colleagues, such as Julian Gallego, that the art of 17th-century Spain is beginning to be seen again in its intellectual, social and political context.

Jonathan Brown is the author of monographs on Ribera, Zurbaran and Murillo. His volume of essays on Images and Ideas in 17th-Century Spanish Painting dealt in the main with the aesthetic theory of learned artists such as Francisco Pacheco and Vincenzo Carducho, but it also suggested the need ‘to integrate Spanish baroque painting with the cultural, social and political institutions that brought it into being’ along the lines of Carl Justi’s classic Velazquez und seine Jahrhundert (1888), an example which has rarely been followed. Brown’s next book, A Palace for a King (1980), written in collaboration with a ‘plain’ historian, John Elliott, studied the court of Philip IV and the building of the Palace of the Buen Retiro on the outskirts of Madrid. Behind the enterprise loomed the massive figure of Philip’s first minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares. Olivares took it seriously enough to supervise building operations in person, a sign of their political importance, whether as a boost to the prestige of the young monarch, or as a means of distracting him from his ambition to lead his troops into battle, or as a way of weakening the higher nobility by attracting them into the orbit of the ‘Sun King’ (‘el Rey Planeta’, as Philip was called), in the manner of Versailles a generation later.

Velazquez was a pupil of Pacheco’s at Seville, and he was brought to the court of Philip IV as part of the ‘Seville connection’ associated with Olivares. A study of Velazquez at court was thus an obvious choice for Brown to make when he was invited to deliver the Slade Lectures in Oxford in 1982. These lectures have now been elaborated into a book. This is an important re-assessment of Velazquez as an artist as well as a pioneering study of his role as courtier. Brown is unhappy with the traditional view of Velazquez as a ‘proto-Impressionist’, and he also distances himself from some other recent interpretations.

Brown’s own story is essentially a Bildungsroman of a young man from the provinces whose discovery of Renaissance Italy helped him to discover himself. To have reached the political metropolis, Madrid, was not enough. An artist had to visit the cultural metropolis as well. His stay in Rome in 1629-30, where he sketched the Raphael and Michelangelo frescoes, ‘turned Velazquez from a gifted but somewhat provincial painter into a brilliant master of the prevailing international style’, capable of producing works in the grand manner such as The Forge of Vulcan (now in the Prado) and Joseph’s Coat (in the Escorial). Yet he did not succumb entirely to the grand manner. In a sense, his very provincialism was an asset. Since Spanish visual culture had not fully absorbed Renaissance Classicism, it was easier for him to preserve his freedom and his individuality, ‘representing the visible world in a more direct, unaffected way’, as Brown puts it, than the masters of the High Renaissance and the Baroque.

Whether ‘more direct’ is quite the right adjective is open to doubt. Velazquez was adopting an alternative set of pictorial conventions, a bold style of brushwork which can be seen for the first time in his Philip IV in Brown and Silver, now in the National Gallery, in which the play of light on the King’s rich brocade is captured by a deliberately ‘blotchy’ technique, a ‘virtually unpredecented’ sketchiness for an official work of art (Brown does not discuss Titian’s late works at this point, though he does acknowledge the general importance of Titian’s influence). ‘This technique,’ he suggests, ‘appears to be quick and spontaneous,’ but the appearance is deceptive. Velazquez was a slow, thoughtful painter. Radiographs show the extent to which he improvised on canvas, but also the large number of his pentimenti, his second thoughts.

Another way in which Velazquez departed from the grand manner was in his concern for the humble, from the kitchen-maids of his early works to the extraordinary series of dwarf and jester portraits: ‘El Primo’, ‘Calabazas’, ‘a buffoon called Don John of Austria’, and so on. In The Forge of Vulcan, he pays attention, as Brown reminds us, to Vulcan’s assistants and their ‘feelings of surprise and concern’, while The Surrender of Breda finds room to portray ‘the reactions of ordinary men’ to the actions of the two protagonists, Ambrogio Spinola and Justin of Nassau.

Unlike his predecessors, Brown devotes considerable space to discussing Velazquez as a courtier, a role he played for more than thirty years, from his nomination as one of the royal painters in 1623 till his death in 1660. We learn in some detail about the network of friends of friends by means of whom the artist reached the court. The art patronage of the Early Modern period has to be seen as part of a wider system of social relationships, the unequal ‘friendships’ between patrons and clients, in which the clients have to humble themselves and offer gifts to their superiors. It is interesting to learn that Juan de Fonseca, a key figure in the negotiations surrounding the appointment of Velazquez as painter to the King, was also the first recorded owner of the artist’s Waterseller. Was it a sweetener?

Having arrived, Velazquez clearly knew how to behave in his new milieu. There is documentary evidence of his aspiration to become a knight of Santiago, one of the prestigious Spanish military orders reserved for noblemen. His few surviving letters do not give much impression of his personality, but his first biographer, Palomino, who was collecting material when people who had known the painter were still alive, remarks on his ‘natural grace and composure’, and his ‘gentlemanly bearing and deportment’. He knew how to be a sunflower – that memorable image which Van Dyck used to portray his own role at court. He was also a man of some literary culture, or so the surviving inventory of his library suggests. He owned an Ariosto and a Pliny as well as tools of his trade such as emblem-books and architectural treatises like Vitruvius, Serlio, Palladio and Scamozzi. Brown passes over this library rather hastily. He does not even tell us that it included a copy of that indispensable guide to survival and success in the presence of a prince, Castiglione’s Courtier. Whether he needed Castiglione’s advice or not, Velazquez was certainly a success at the court of Philip IV. Indeed, from our point of view he might be described as too much of a success, for as Brown well shows, from the early 1640s, his court responsibilities took most of his time.

As Philip became more and more interested in picture-collecting, perhaps as a relief or an escape from politics, Velazquez became more of an administrator, something like a modern gallery director, responsible for hanging and framing, and also for new acquisitions (which involved him in a second trip to Italy in 1648). Together with his king, who spent hours on occasion watching his pictures being arranged, Velazquez ‘conceived and realised’ what Brown calls ‘a style of court decoration which may justly claim a place as one of the wonders of the Baroque age’, in the Alcazar, the principal palace in Madrid, and also in the Escorial. And this was not all. In 1652, the King appointed his painter aposentador mayor del palacio, an office which put him in charge of room allocation and palace cleaning, brought him over fifty thousand ducats a year (excluding perquisites), and involved him, at the end of his life, in the organisation of the formal meeting between the aging Philip and his new son-in-law, the young King Louis XIV. It is hardly surprising that Velazquez had little time to paint. The wonder is that in these last years he was able to produce such masterpieces as The Fable of Arachne and Las Meninas. For social historians, all this information about the organisation of court life is fascinating, for in the wake of Norbert Elias’s brilliant Court Society (1969) they have woken up to the importance of studying this very special kind of place and the demands it made on the individuals who lived in it, demands which are well described in the case of 17th-century Spain in the manuals of the art of prudence or discretion by the Jesuit Baltasar Gracian.

The real challenge, however, in a book of this kind is to relate Velazquez the artist to Velazquez the courtier, to show what difference the court milieu made to what he painted, as distinct from what he was prevented from painting. Brown’s study passes this test with honour. Michael Levey has called Velazquez ‘the supreme courtier-painter of the 17th century’, no faint praise in the age of Van Dyck and Rubens. Brown shows us what makes a courtier-painter supreme. It may be summed up as a kind of pictorial tact. Portraits afford many opportunities for the exercise of this kind of discretion, since they are best regarded not as simple reproductions of objects in the painter’s visual field but rather as presentations (as well as representations) of the sitter to the spectator: in other words, as documents of what the late Erving Goffman used to call ‘impression management’. The painted face is a means of creating and maintaining social face, with the advantage that it is relatively easy for the artist to adjust the appearance of the sitter to the requirements of his or her social role. Occasionally it is possible to catch Velazquez in the act of doing just this, as in the cases of Juan Mateos, the royal huntsman, and the sculptor Juan Martinez Montanes (neatly juxtaposed by Brown with less flattering representations of the same sitters). In the case of Olivares, the author notes the tact with which the painter improved the appearance of the Count-Duke, a heavy man, ‘by placing the body at an angle, thus diminishing the apparent bulk’. As for the royal family – Philip IV, his wives, his infantes and infantas – the lack of alternative representations makes it difficult indeed to distance ourselves from the images of them fabricated by Velazquez. He seems to have had fewer visual problems with his king than other painters had with Charles I and Louis XIV, both notoriously diminutive monarchs, but there was room all the same for the exercise of a discreet form of flattery.

A modern viewer may well find the facial expressions of these state portraits too impassive, and the postures too stiff, but it is worth remembering that rigidity was de rigueur at the Spanish court, part of the local etiquette. A French envoy noted with some surprise that when an official letter was presented to Philip, ‘the King did not change his posture.’ In a similar way, the Spanish viceroy in Naples in the mid-16th century, Pedro de Toledo, had amazed the local nobility by his Spanish manners, notably by the fact that when he gave audience he remained, as one observer described him, like a ‘marble statue’, immobile and expressionless. His daughter Eleonora married the Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici and was painted by Bronzino, whose frozen style was peculiarly appropriate for recording this equally frozen behaviour, a case of art imitating life imitating art. Compared to Bronzino’s portraits, those of Velazquez seem relaxed, especially those painted in his and Philip’s late middle age.

Another way in which the painter can enhance the sitter is by surrounding him or her with appropriate accessories, props for the maintenance of their social identity. Even more obviously than other kinds of painting, the portrait is a system of signs: clocks, swords, dogs, curtains. Like Bronzino, Titian and Van Dyck, Velazquez is one of the most skilled manipulators of the velvet curtain. He knows too that ‘the clothes of a prince should express majesty,’ in the words of the 17th-century political theorist Traiano Boccalini, but he, or his master, prefers a majestic simplicity to more obvious forms of ostentation. The French envoy already quoted remarked that Philip wore ‘a very simple costume’ and that ‘although the dress of the Spaniards was not among the most brilliant there was nevertheless an air of grandeur and majesty which I have never seen anywhere else.’

Like his Renaissance predecessors, Velazquez exploits the symbolic possibilities of armour, which can give the prince a heroic, epic quality. Arma virumque pingo. Yet he exploits these advantages with restraint. Tactful as always, he even manages to portray in armour the four-year-old heir to the throne, Don Baltasar Carlos, without making him look absurd. He is prepared to employ a muted symbolism – the riding school, for example, as metaphor for the education of the prince – but he eschews mythological accessories, goddesses or virtues. He prefers understatement to hyperbole. As Brown puts it, Velazquez avoids ‘the rhetorical excesses of Baroque portraiture’. We must not assume that he avoids rhetoric; he has simply chosen the rhetoric of simplicity. His reticence is an effective form of communication. It was certainly fitting that he should have owned a copy of The Courtier, for his pictures are successful exercises in that art of concealing art which Castiglione called sprezzatura. Even the painted surfaces exemplify this quality of planned spontaneity.

If anyone could have convinced the 17th-century Spanish nobility, jealous of their honour and punctilious to a superlative degree, that a painter could be a true caballero, that man was surely Velazquez. All the same, his attempts to enter the order of Santiago ran into difficulties. Brown concludes his excellent book by telling the story of these difficulties and suggesting their relation to the two great works of the painter’s late period, both in the Prado, The Fable of Arachne and Las Meninas. Arachne, he points out, is represented in the act of successfully challenging Minerva in the art of weaving; we do not see the punishment of her presumption. As for Las Meninas, Brown argues that the unusual combination of king and artist in the same picture, however discreetly managed, is a claim for the nobility of painting in general and Velazquez in particular.

This fascinating discussion of the relation between images and ideas, which also takes up, but does not adopt, Foucault’s suggestion that Las Meninas is concerned with the relationship between painting and spectator, makes one regret that Brown has not discussed more paintings in this way. On The Surrender of Breda, in which Ambrogio Spinola has descended from his horse to embrace his defeated opponent, he makes the perceptive comment that placing victor and vanquished on an equal footing ‘transformed the scene from a tableau of Spanish military power into a metaphor of Spanish moral superiority’. Agreed: but it might be worth adding that many 17th-century viewers would have seen Spinola’s gesture as an example of the virtue of clemency celebrated by Stoic writers such as Seneca in particular. Seneca, who was, after all, a Spaniard, was much read in 17th-century Spain, especially in the court milieu. Olivares was represented as a second Seneca in a play by Quevedo, and the Count-Duke’s own library contained a number of works by the Neo-Stoic writer Justus Lipsius. It may not be altogether fanciful to see Velazquez as a Stoic painter, practising the virtues of restraint and discretion they recommended.

Richard Mann’s study of El Greco’s patrons is highly appropriate to a new series of monographs on art history of which the editors are Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. It is the author’s first book, a revised version of a doctoral thesis supervised by Professor Brown. Its timing – and its price – encour-comparisons with Velazquez, comparisons which would be rather unfair – though it is not unfair to lament the much poorer quality of the plates in the Cambridge book. El Greco and his Patrons is a study of a deliberately limited topic, but not a trivial one. It still smells too much of the thesis, but it does a workmanlike job, reconstructing the programmes of three major projects, and relating them to the interests of the patrons, especially Diego de Castilla, Dean of Toledo, who brought El Greco to Spain to paint altarpieces for the church of the convent of Santo Domingo, and Pedro Salazar de Toledo, a scholar interested in art who engaged the artist to decorate the Hospital of St John the Baptist. The patchy nature of the evidence often forces Mann to be inconclusive, and phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘must have’ and ‘it seems possible that’ abound. On the other hand, there are valuable incidental comments on the meaning of gestures in El Greco’s paintings, and on the interest in Neoplatonism (more exactly, in the treatises On the Celestial Hierarchies by ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’), which the painter shared with his patrons. Another fascinating point to emerge from Mann’s study is that both Don Diego and Don Pedro were supporters of the cause of Bartolomé de Carranza, the former Archbishop of Toledo, a man of Erasmian inclinations who was arrested by the Inquisition on a heresy charge soon after his appointment and spent the rest of his life in prison. It is also interesting to learn, though Mann makes little of this, that one of the men involved in the selection of El Greco for the Santo Domingo commission was the scholar Pedro Chacon, ‘the Varro of his age’, whose suggestion that Christ and his Apostles reclined at the Last Supper influenced Poussin’s rendering of the scene. Chacon, like El Greco, was one of the many interesting people in the circle of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.