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.

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