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Velazquez at the National Gallery

6 June 2012

Rose Balston explores the National Gallery's spell-binding Velazquez collection, and its endurance of historical "hiccups"...

Diego Velazquez was one of the most revolutionary and stimulating artists of his age. A son of Seville, he was born on the 6 June 1599, 413 years ago. And thank goodness he was. We, in London’s National Gallery, are fortunate enough to have the second best collection of his art in the world (after the even luckier Prado in Madrid).

Standing in front of these luxurious oils it is quickly apparent that with every stroke of the brush Velazquez broke new ground, whether he was painting the king, the court, Christ or the kitchen. From an early age, as an apprentice to the artist Pacheco in Seville, Velazquez understood the power of optical illusion. He employed them with gusto in his early ‘bodegons’. These are scenes of everyday life that Velazquez made endlessly fascinating by bamboozling the viewer with mirrors, open windows, pictures and uncertainty on relationships between characters. And, of course, the more we look at and question these scenes, the more engrossed we are.

In the early 1620s, Velazquez’s talent took him to the court of Philip IV in Madrid. Heir to one of the vastest territories of the historical world, this jaw-y Hapsburg was also a great art lover with a collection awash with sensuous Titians and Rubens. Philip IV, keen for his own personal painter, promoted Velazquez through the court’s ranks to ensure he stayed put. While this restricted Velazquez’s output to portraiture – which until then had been a relatively unexciting genre – he made it innovative, exciting and creative. Admire the energetic dabs and flicks of paint in Philip IV’s posh pantaloons in Philip IV in Brown and Silver. Retreat eight steps and see that this has transformed an abstraction into shimmering silver embroidery, which blazes out from the brown silk beneath.

But it is Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus that is his true trump card. Using the same enigmatic optics from his early career, he gives his audience an unadulterated view of an extremely beautiful young girl.  Gone are the fleshy, formidable, voluminous Venuses of Titian and Rubens. Instead you see the behind of a thin Spanish or Italian girl with a contemporary hairstyle engaging with herself (or is it us?) in a mirror. Her skin is more luminous than any portrayal of skin hitherto had ever been (c.1647-51), and its rosy tones contrast beautifully with the soft grey below her. Velazquez’s strokes are unprecedentedly free and loose. Venerate his exhibitionist three foot long swoops of paint from one side of the canvas to the other. Is there a more beautiful painting than this? Mary Richardson (AKA Slasher Mary) thought not. On the 10 March 1914, shortly after the National Gallery had bought this beauty, Richardson, a friend of the imprisoned Emmeline Pankhurst, charged into the room with a meat cleaver and cut Venus’s body six times, leaving the canvas in tatters. Imprisoned for only six months, Richardson proclaimed her aim was to ‘destroy the most beautiful woman of history as the authorities had destroyed the most beautiful woman of the present [in reference to Pankhurst]’.

Thankfully – and thanks to an exceptional team of National Gallery restorers – Venus was soon back on her spot, once again turning heads and stunning one and all.

If you want to learn more about the great Diego Velazquez, join Rose on Friday 15 June between 6.45 and 8pm in the National Gallery. See The Magic Paintbrush of Diego Velazquez - Art Shot or email rose@arthistoryuk.com for questions.

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