January 18, 2011

Velazquez and Fra Angelico, with Thoughts On My Changing Sensibility

Velazquez, The Waterseller, 1618-22; oil on canvas; 41 x 31 inches.

For many years, if I was asked to name my favorite artist, with no hesitation I acknowledged Diego Velazquez. For me, there is no artist who captures, with mere paint, the actual life of a subject, a physical presence living and breathing. The early works, such as The Waterseller above, have less of this breath, but are monumental descriptions of form and sympathetic portraits of ordinary people.

Velazquez, The Dwarf Francisco Lezcano, 1642-45; oil on canvas; 42 1/8 x 32 5/8 inches.

Detail of Francisco Lezcano

Some of my favorite of Velazquez' portraits are those of the lesser people of his world, the dwarfs and jesters who he portrays with all the human empathy and seriousness an artist can possess. He applies paint in a free, fluid manner, softening the edges of forms: a head, its features, seem to move, as though we can see around the three dimensional body, bringing remarkable life to it.

Velazquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650; oil on canvas; 32 x 27 1/2 inches.

I have spent a lot of time in front of this portrait, which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It gives me the opportunity to marvel at the seemingly simple means Velazquez uses to transform his canvases into compelling, communicating characters.

Velazquez, The Fable of Arachne or The Spinners, 1657; oil on canvas; 86 1/2 x 113 3/4 inches.

Velazquez was also a very ambitious artist, and this painting, along with Las Meninas at the Prado are overpowering, complex, and exciting, a swirl of forms in space. (The Prado has a wonderful website here, where you can find all the great work in their collections, with high resolution images which enable close viewing of details.) When I was a young artist I also had grand ambitions, painting large narrative figure compositions, and looked to artists such as the Italians of the High Renaissance and Velazquez as models.

But now my ideas about my own work have changed, and my feelings about the great artists of the past along with them. I no longer want to have a "favorite artist"; I see so much that moves me and enriches my life and my work. Now I see the clarity of the artists of the Quattrocento and their faith centered world as tremendously important, and I had overlooked them years ago. The panel paintings of Fra Angelico are among those that now thrill and inspire me.

Fra Angelico, The Apostle Saint James the Greater Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, ca late 1420s; tempera and gold on panel; 10 x 8 7/8 inches.

There is a simplicity of form in these works, a stylization of plants and buildings, a shining brilliance of color, a classical structure of horizontal and vertical. In this painting, one of my favorites, the turmoil of devils is subdued in an overall narrative reticence, but within the subtle gestures are a world of feeling and belief.

In 2005-06, the Met mounted a major exhibition of Fra Angelico with a terrific catalog, from which I photographed these paintings. Looking at these small works, one stunning painting after another, was a magical experience. Their refinement and precise, loving touch have been a lesson to me as a tempera painter.

Fra Angelico, The Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damian, ca 1440-42; tempera on panel; 14 11/16 x 18 1/8 inches.

Even within a gruesome scene of martyrdom there are delicately observed grasses and flowers and tall elegant trees standing as sentinels along with the human ones, as though to say that God's grace still exists in the world.

Fra Angelico, Saint Nicholas Calms a Tempest at Sea and the Miracle of the Ration of Grain (detail), mid 1430s; tempera on panel; 13 3/4 x 24 1/4 inches.

The miracle in the story is heightened by the marvelous forms of curlicued mountains echoed in the swooping hulls at sea. Each detail is reverently rendered, from the clothing of officials and workers to the bins of grain.

Fra Angelico, Scenes from the Life of Saint Nicholas (detail), ca. 1437; tempera on panel; 13 3/8 x 23 1/2 inches.

There are balanced geometries in the settings for Fra Angelico's tales, creating orderly spaces for the movement of figures.

Fra Angelico, The Virgin Annunciate, ca. late 1420s; tempera and gold on panel; 12 3/8 x 10 inches.

Within the sensitively precise outlines of the Virgin is a life prior to the flowering of humanism, when humankind became the measure of all things. It is inward and reflects a life of faith, where the representation of things of this world are a hymn to a higher being. Although I am not a religious person, I find this philosophy of representation very appealing as I look around me, at nature and objects, even machines, and see the beauty within them.


  1. I love Fra Angelica and saw the show at the Met three times!! One of my all time favorites. Have you ever see the Fra Angelica at San Monaco Convent in Florence? The frescoes he painted were on the cells in the monks rooms. They are so beautiful! Fran

  2. Fran, lucky you to have seen the show three times; I amazingly was able to see it twice. I did see the frescoes at San Marco, but it was many years ago, in 1984. I remember finding them very beautiful, and I love the reproductions; maybe I'll see them again someday.

  3. Altoon, thank you for posting this. I have been to Florence a few times and always find myself at the beautiful San Marco. There is something that draws me to the paintings within or perhaps to the silence within. I don't remember some of the other names of the artists there, the only one that stands out in my mind is Fra Angelico. There are so many other incredible painters that lived as monks in that monastery.

  4. Susan, thanks for looking, I'm glad you liked the post.

  5. what different sensibilities - I marvel at this. what kind of (visual) information is important changes in different eras. but what does 'visual information' mean? in it is the way of thinking at that time - which can be seen now, that is, in another light, still extending a line of thinking that began when painting began - a language we have inherited, and continue.

  6. What a delight to sit down to my email and find this post. You make life so rich for all of us!

  7. thanks, Deborah.
    rappel, it certainly is interesting about the change of 'visual information' through time. It seems we're now in an age where we can pick and choose what it means to us, since there are so many sensibilities around us.

  8. "It is inward and reflects a life of faith, where the representation of things of this world are a hymn to a higher being."

    I too share this thought when looking at many artists - many in the past, and perhaps fewer in the present. Though it can sometimes be very clear that the artist is trying to get things just right, with a perfectionist mentality almost, one can feel when it is out of honor and awe for the beauty around us, utilizing the skills he/she has been born with, and not about seeking glory alone for him/herself.

    Faith can be in many things, and I think it can be about recognizing a power that is much larger than us and our capabilities - humanism allowed for this re-interpretation of spirituality, and I am grateful for that.

  9. Thank you for the thoughtful, lovely comment, Rebecca.

  10. Thank you, Altoon, for this comparison of two of my favorite artists. You continue to question your evolution which is inspiring for us who delight in visiting your blog. Your friend, Donna

  11. Altoon, I am fascinated by the counterpoint you've offered us of Velasquez, Fran Angelico and your changing sensibilities. When I look at Fra Angelico's work (which I've loved for so long), I find myself breathing a sigh of relief. The apparent simplicity of the forms, the beauty that is contained within them and the austere richness of the colors absorb me. When I look more closely, I notice details like those in the "Life of St. Nicholas" in which our gaze is directed towards the windows containing a blackness--a kind of deep space that draws us inward. Wonderful post.

  12. Thank you Hannah, for your comment. Fra Angelicos's work is so full of detail and incident that pulls us in along with its beauty. It's really hard to get a true sense of it in reproduction, but at least we get to share it this way.

  13. What a beautiful show that was... Nothing trivial, nothing without largeness of spirit, deep concern for truth.

    I have enjoyed poking around your blog and website...

    1. The show was fantastic, wasn't it?
      Thanks for spending the time looking around.