September 10, 2015

Velázquez: The Greatest Artist?

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

There's a sense of a tender and giving person, yet one with pride. Velazquez paints these men with dignity and sensitivity; I feel that he loves them.

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.


  1. I saw the recent Velazquez exhibition in Paris.the Francisco Lezcano (The Boy from Vallecas) portrait was there and agree it is full of love and respect. It was the largest ever exhibition of his work outside of the Prado and I spent a whole day in the Musee d'Orsay looking and looking. greatest artist? impossible to say but when confronted with Velazquez's work in the flesh the answer is yes.

    1. How lucky you are, maureen, to have seen that show! Yes, there's such a difference in seeing reproductions and the actual paintings, especially with Velazquez.

  2. You've made some excellent points here Altoon, and Velasquez is no question one of the greatest painters of all time. That said, at any given moment, when we might least expect it, a painting can move us in ways that we could never predict. As an example, I remember visiting the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery, Washington in 1991, walking into the last room and being confronted by "The Flaying of Marsyas"". As I stared at it, I was weeping, which surprised me to say the least; a dark, late work, which had challenged Titian to finish near the end of his life. As described in the catalogue, his late work was *allowing us glimpses of the tragedy of human suffering and evoking a world made tumultuous by the quivering touch of his brush." I would also add that, at any given time, an artist, a painter, can reach out and touch us in unexpected ways. It could be a Constable sky or Turner seascape, a Chardin or Morandi still-life, a Matisse collage or Agnes Martin grid, a Klee watercolor or an Alice Neel portrait. We are fortunate to live in a world where art, and painting, remains an important part of our world (beyond commerce) and is irreplaceable.

  3. Thanks for this extensive comment, Robert. I completely agree with you, as would Philippe de Montebello, since he speaks of how we change each time we look at art; I know I do. And we are indeed fortunate; I feel fortunate each time I go to the Met.

  4. Well done Blog…….always a pleasure and Robert really articulated a lot of my feelings about it all seeing the details and thinking of what he taught Manet and then up through Deibenkorn in his figurative days when reacting to criticism of David Park he thickened up his paint handling…….It really is a river of tradition we all step into when we pick up the brush or pay homage to other painters great and small…...

    1. Thanks, Steven. I love your metaphor of the river of tradition.

  5. This post brought up wonderful and sometimes difficult emotions I have felt in front of paintings and other works of art, from Goya to Golub, Memling to Bourgeois, Boltanski to Spero. Thank you for your sensitive treatment of the subject of "greatest" painter. I've never seen a Velazquez in real life but your reproduction here is excellent. What makes great painting can be answered many ways, I believe. Even what makes something a painting is hard to pin down.

    1. Thanks Elaine, for the lovely comment, and I agree about the many ways we can see a painting as great.

  6. When I was a student I copied two of his works in charcoal. If there ever was an artist to learn from it was surely Velazquez

    1. I remember copying paintings, but I'm not sure if I did a copy of a Velazquez.