Diego Velázquez: The Early Court Portraits
September 16, 2012 through January 13, 2013
Dallas Art News managing editor Michael Roman and I recently attended the preview of the latest collaboration between the Prado and the Meadows Museum; Diego Velázquez: the Early Court Portraits. The exhibit opened to the public Sunday and is not only an opportunity to see works by this great master from other U.S. galleries, the Meadows and the Prado; but a fascinating insight into the pragmatism and politics involved in the production of these images. In addition to this, the exhibit explores in some detail the conservation and scientific investigation that goes in to determining images’ provenance, alterations and chronology.
The exhibit centers on the portrait of Phillip IV, King of Spain, from the Prado, accompanied by other Velázquez masterpieces from the Meadows Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Kimble Art Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In addition, a bust length portrait – thought to be first ever Velázquez of the King which is owned by Meadows, and a light box display showing x-rays taken of the Prado’s and the Meadows’ portraits, which show how the images were altered and reworked.
Supporting this, in a side room are some twenty prints – illustrating how the image of the king was transmuted to enable transmission to the general public (who would not have been privileged enough to view paintings of the King). The prints highlight the use of image as powerful propaganda and are among the first examples of mass produced prints in Spain.
The exhibit is carefully displayed, on a background of blue-grey walls, which complement the spare and muted color pallet of the paintings. Meadows director, Dr. Mark Roglán noted that special effort was taken to reduce distraction on the walls and thus commentary and detailed labels are constrained in accompanying pamphlets rather than being printed on the walls as is the more usual convention.
Velázquez was twenty four when he produced his first portrait of Philip IV in 1623. The picture was much to the King’s liking, both due to the artist’s obvious talent and his ability to alter his style to meet the requirements of the King and the messages he wished to portray.
It is thought that not only was this portrait the one that “got him the job” as court painter, but that this first portrait is in fact the one held by the Meadows. X-rays and other investigations appear to support this theory by showing how this original portrait forms the model for subsequent portraits of the king, including the Prado’s Phillip IV. How fascinating that this picture is not only most likely the first Velázquez portrait of Phillip IV and the one after which so many other paintings were modeled, but that the Meadows owns such a work.
The patron/painter relationship between Velázquez and Phillip IV was incredibly fruitful – some say the greatest in history – one of the accepted great masters of art worked closely with the King who remains one of the world’s most renowned patrons and collectors. At the time, paintings were viewed more as a commodity and a vehicle for communication than as the rarefied works of genius we might regard them today. Paintings, such as these portraits, were reworked and altered to convey different messages and propaganda. Velázquez’s ability to interpret the message the King wanted to send was crucial to his success.
Phillip IV wanted to clearly propagate an image of himself as a restrained and hardworking monarch devoid of frivolity and vanity. The young King wanted to distance himself from the excesses and corruption of his father’s court, and thus introduced severe austerity measures in all aspects of life, particularly that of dress and public display. Velázquez depicts the King in a spare and austere manner, in simplified spaces using muted pallets of greys and blacks. The clothing is markedly pared back and the King is shown “at work” rather than engaged in more typically Royal pursuits.
Many art historians highlight the obvious genius of Velázquez so evident in these works – his ability to render fabrics and details with such sensitivity and clarity with a very restricted and drab pallet, and his ability to reach beyond superficial appearance to produce a portrait that gives an insight into the psychological depths of the subject.
The copy of the x-ray of the Prado’s Phillip IV, alongside the masterpiece itself and other versions enables us to clearly see the reworking and alterations the image underwent. The inclusion of a recently discovered and almost identical work – a copy produced by Velázquez’s workshop – (also on show here) provides us with a greater understanding of the extent to which workshops were used and images reproduced – quite different from our accepted understanding of the value of original works produced by the artists own hand.
To me, the exhibit at the Meadows can be viewed as two almost separate entities – on one level it’s a wonderful opportunity to view (for the first time in Texas), early works of a master painter in collaboration with a great patron. On the other hand it is an exploration of the academic and scientific inquiry which, after 400 years, can still provide us with new information and insights into these great masterpieces and the men (painter, patron and political message shapers) behind their production.
Diego Velázquez: The Early Court Portraits is on view at the Meadows Museum now through January 13, 2012.