Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, The Spinners (Las Hilanderas) or the Fable of Arachne, 1655-60; oil on canvas, 86 x 114 in.
All images except the last courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado website, where you can see high resolution images, in great detail.
If you were asked the rather ridiculous question of who is the greatest artist of all, who would it be? I say "rather ridiculous" because to look at great artists of different times or cultures and try to evaluate them on a comparative scale seems impossible. The love I have for the paintings of Fra Angelico is equaled by that I have for Kazimir Malevich, or for Egyptian relief sculpture; who wants to choose? But recently, reading the wonderful book Rendez-vous with Art––a conversation at various museums, between the long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, and Martin Gaylord, an art writer––I came across a chapter that reminded me of my years-ago feeling that Velazquez was the greatest of them all. Gaylord and de Montebello were at the Prado, in front of The Lances, and de Montebello remarked
I find it very hard to talk about Velazquez; he strikes me dumb––because he was a painter of miracles, the miracle of converting paint into life, into "truth", as a visitor to a display of paintings at the Parthenon in Rome, in 1650, exclaimed about Velazquez on seeing his portrait of Juan de Pareja, now in the Met. There, this is life!Manet called Velazquez "the supreme master", and we saw his influence on Manet in a 2003 exhibition at the Met, Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting. I was lucky enough to have visited the Prado thirty years ago––and the Prado is the only place to truly see Velazquez––and I too was astounded; seeing the paintings in reproduction did not prepare me for their intense presence. The famous Las Meninas was remarkable, but I remember being especially thrilled by The Spinners; the quality of light and movement of ordinary activity, with the curtain drawn back, made it seem as though there were actual figures on a stage.
The Spinners detail
The assured fluid brush adds light and life; each figure is an individual, caught in a moment's gesture.
Velazquez, Mercury and Argos, ca. 1659; oil on canvas, 50 x 98 in.
I love this painting for its beautifully composed forms, for the touching male beauty (although it's a story of Mercury's stealth)...
Mercury and Argos detail
...and the sensuously painted flesh, so alive that we feel we can run our hand over it.
Velazquez, The Jester Calabacillas, 1635-39; oil on canvas, 42 x 33 in.
What points so strongly to Velazquez's greatness are his portraits of the jesters and dwarfs and actors at court, these special yet ordinary individuals––not the royalty he also depicted–––that show his depth of feeling, and his humanism. They are real people, breathing flesh and blood, about to get up, to turn, to gesture towards us.
The Jester Calabacillas detail
How does Velazquez achieve this magic of life? One way is by softening the forms, and by dissolving their edges. This gives an indeterminate quality to the figure, allowing for a sense of motion: the eyes can turn, the mouth change its expression, the head tilt, since they're not fixed in space.
Velazquez, Francisco Lezcano (The Boy from Vallecas), 1636-38; oil on canvas, 42 x 33 in.
Here is another remarkable portrait, of a jester who was companion to Prince Balthazar Carlos.
Francisco Lezcano detail
Francisco Lezcano detail
The fluidly painted detail of warm reflected light under the hands is another keenly observed element that adds life.
Velazquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650; oil on canvas, 32 x 27 in.
Image and quote courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.
Finally, a painting I can visit each time I go to the Met. How I love standing in front of this portrait of a man––a man who had been a Moorish slave and assistant in Velazquez's workshop; who became a painter and was freed in 1654––and feeling as though I am in the presence of a living human being. When shown in Rome where it was painted it was acknowledged that
...everything else seemed like painting but this alone like truth.