Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 23, 2004
Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Velázquez New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 256 pp.; 61 b/w ills. Cloth $99.99 (0521660467)
Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt, ed. Velázquez’s Las Meninas New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 236 pp.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $91.00 (0521800579)
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These volumes result from the intersection of two series at Cambridge University Press: the Cambridge Companions collection, now numbering over two hundred titles on subjects from Aristotle to William Wordsworth, but including relatively few artists outside the Italian Renaissance, and a more informal series of important books on Hispanic art and culture, including those produced out of the publisher’s New York office under the leadership of Beatrice Rehl. Both volumes under review were partially written and edited in an exemplary fashion by Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, and both will be essential additions to any library on Hispanic art.

The Cambridge Companion to Velázquez begins with Stratton-Pruitt’s “brief” but very thorough survey of the literature on Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez from the treatise of his father-in-law and teacher, Francisco Pacheco, to the present, and the reader could not want a better introduction to the artist. Beginning students will find a useful guide and seasoned veterans a wealth of perceptive insights. Stratton-Pruitt pays particular attention to the interplay of critical and biographical emphasis, as well as to the amount of archival documentation each generation of Velázquez scholars has brought to their studies. Her clear-headed, objective approach is welcome, indeed necessary, in a field charged with polemics, and she gives good advice, noting, for example, that the “changing interpretations of Velázquez’s art over time serve as guides to evolving tastes and values—even when they fail to help us understand his art better” (5). Fortunately, all of the essays in this volume serve to advance our understanding considerably, albeit in a wide variety of ways.

Alexander Vergara’s survey of Velázquez’s links with northern Europe is densely packed with historical information, contemporary artistic and critical sources, and particularly compelling artistic comparisons, many of which are by now standard (for example, Sevillian kitchen scenes compared to Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer, or the Fraga Philip compared to Anthony Van Dyck). Vergara is able to move from stating the obvious to clothing it in a wealth of complementary information, and the result is an extremely useful, enlightening text.

The dean of American Hispanists, Jonathan Brown, provides a contrast of method in the surprisingly theoretical essay on “Velázquez and Italy,” which the author situates in an evolving understanding of the “naturalization of Italian painting in other parts of Europe” (30). The artist made two trips to Italy, in 1629–31 and 1649–52. Since the second trip to Italy came so late in Velázquez’s career, long after his formation as a mature artist, Brown wisely concentrates on the first visit, which had a decisive effect on Velázquez’s art. Relatively few documents have been discovered relating to the first journey, so Brown uses what he calls “Geertzian thick description”—a reference to the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz—to maximize the available information. Brown also relies on a certain amount of speculation, as in the possibility that Velázquez met Guercino and Jusepe Ribera or that he was in touch with two Northern painters active at Rome, Joachim Sandrart and Claude Lorrain, when they began painting landscapes out of doors. Most importantly, Brown successfully demonstrates the radical nature of Velázquez’s two small landscapes of the Villa Medici in Rome (Madrid, Prado) and shows how, since Sandrart’s sketches have yet to be identified, the two Medici pictures are probably our earliest known plein air landscapes.

In the end, however, Brown finds that “Velázquez’s relationship with Italian painting was as much a debate as a dialogue” (47) and that “unlike Rubens, whose painting might be called an extension of Italian art, or Poussin, who in effect became an Italian painter, Velázquez kept his distance” (40). To demonstrate the limited direct influence of Italy, Brown cites several canvases from the 1630s, including the SS. Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit of 1633 and Pablo de Valladolid of 1634 (both Prado), while acknowledging the important Italianate aspects of later works such as Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) of 1657 (also Prado).

One may argue that Brown overstates his case and omits certain works, such as the Balthasar Carlos with a Dwarf of 1632 (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) or the Philip IV in Brown and Silver (London, National Gallery), that clearly show a direct connection with the art of Titian. Surely one of the most important things Velázquez was doing in Italy was “learning to look,” and when he came back to Madrid, with its vast treasures of Italian Renaissance art, he had plenty to look at. Thus, Velázquez’s engagement with the grand Italian tradition of painting began with the visit of Peter Paul Rubens to Madrid in the 1620s, was refined in Italy, and only brought to consummation as Velázquez revisited Italian works in the royal collection after his return to Spain. A more subjective query might be directed at Brown’s analysis of the portrait of Pablo de Valladolid. While Brown sees an anti-Italianate lack of delineation and “refuting” of geometry in the picture, one might instead understand Velázquez to be perfecting an essential element of High Renaissance painting, the creation of an illusionistic space that radiates from the depicted figures themselves rather than relying on overtly geometrical design elements. Nevertheless, one must agree with Brown’s demonstration that Velázquez’s response was as idiosyncratic and radical as it was brilliant.

Brown also salts his essay with many references to Velázquez’s technique, which the American scholar derived from his work with the Spanish paintings conservator, Carmen Garrido Pérez (see Brown, Velázquez: The Technique of Genius [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998]). Their observations may be added to material published by Gridley McKim-Smith, Greta Anderssen-Bergdoll, and Richard Newman (Examining Velázquez [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988]) and to the information provided by Zahira Véliz in her essay on “Becoming an Artist in Seventeenth-Century Spain,” included in the present volume, to form a fairly detailed picture of how Velázquez went about his craft. Véliz opens with an explanation of the training artists received in Velázquez’s day and the role of drawing in the works of his contemporaries, such as his teacher, Francisco Pacheco. Véliz’s survey makes it clear that the general humanistic education that Velázquez received as the pupil of an unusually erudite master was in many ways exceptional, even if it was indicative of the improving intellectual and social status of Spanish artists in the seventeenth century.

Antonio Feros’s discussion of the propaganda value of royal images, while somewhat overstated, is nevertheless an important historical explication of the raison d’être of Velázquez’s career at court. Sounding a note reinforced by several other essays in the volume, most notably that of Sarah Nalle, Feros describes the increasing isolation and glorification of the king beginning in the 1580s, yielding what he calls a “sacralized vision of the Spanish monarch” (69–73). As Feros notes, political and philosophical opposition to these trends necessitated the often-strident propaganda images of the Spanish Hapsburgs, as well as the deceptively straightforward portraits of Spanish kings, which emphasize the “individual virtues” of each monarch without recourse to symbolism. By the time Velázquez enters the scene, a formula for royal portraiture had evolved that yoked the seemingly contradictory elements of intimacy and hieratic formality (84). Feros’s historical observations go a long way toward clarifying this tradition, although, since his comments are principally historical, there is much art history left to do.

Magdalena Sánchez’s highly informative essay on the queens, princesses, royal widows, and other women at court documents their role as family supporters of the king (and occasionally, regents) and outlines the dilemmas many of them faced and the attempts of the king’s male favorites to control them. She also describes the beatas, or exceptionally pious women whose council was sought by the kings, and the foundation or reform of convents by royal women, most notably at the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. Most importantly, Sánchez shows how, particularly in the case of Isabel de Borbón, women at court could exercise real political power. (Sánchez uses and cites the scholarship of Steven N. Orso, who is listed more fully in Stratton-Pruitt’s bibliography. Feros would have done well to have consulted Orso as well.) Alas, the limitation of the scope of the book to Velázquez’s lifetime forces Sánchez to curtail greatly her discussion of the queen Mariana of Austria, who governed Spain for an extended period as regent for her underage and handicapped son, Charles II, after the death of Philip IV in 1665.

With her usual clarity, careful documentation, and breadth of view, Sara T. Nalle sketches the religious life of Golden Age Spain as a backdrop for Velázquez’s life and the relatively few religious pictures he painted. The demographic figures Nalle gives are astonishing: 1.2 to 1.6 percent of the population was found in either the regular or secular clergy, with the percentage versus the local population much higher in the cities. (A similar figure for the twenty-first-century United States would yield over four million priests and nuns, more than the total number of communicants in many Protestant denominations!) The seventeenth century was the high-water mark of the Catholic Reform, and “Spaniards,” as she observes, “felt closely tied to the church triumphant” (110). As the “world’s leading Catholic,” the king of Spain was the center of court rituals reflecting his symbolic role, which evolved into highly elaborate liturgical pomp. The religious ceremonial, like the political developments discussed by Feros, isolated the king from the common citizenry. Nalle summarizes other religious issues, such as the national celebration of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (not yet dogma), explains the social role of the Inquisition and its autos-de-fé, and properly emphasizes the role of confraternities in the religious life of the laity. An important issue in Velázquez’s early years, and the subject of one of his artistic successes (now lost), was the Expulsion of the Moriscos, which Nalle explains succinctly, along with associated reports of witchcraft. Except for Velázquez’s image of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and the mention of a handful of other religious compositions, Nalle eschews any attempt to connect the artist’s works directly with her subject. Yet everything she says about court ceremonial would have affected Velázquez, especially as he rose in the court hierarchy.

Lía Schwarz’s essay on Velázquez’s relationship to two Baroque poets and literary rivals, Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo, begins by noting the long-standing connection between painting (pictura) and poetry (poesis) in Italian and Spanish art theory (although, remarkably, she fails to cite Rensselaer Lee’s important 1967 study of the topic). Schwartz goes on to contrast the experiences of the Andalusian, Góngora, whom Velázquez surely knew (portrait at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and the Castilian, Quevedo, whom Velázquez may or may not have known but whose path could not have failed to cross that of the painter. Schwartz perhaps dismisses too lightly the possibility that the extant portraits of Quevedo may have some relationship to Velázquez—for example, as copies of a lost work. In the early 1620s, in the wake of the regime change that brought the Count-Duke of Olivares to power, all three men were attempting to find patronage at court, and, especially in Quevedo’s case, their parallel experiences cast much light on contemporary literary and artistic production. Of particular interest is Schwartz’s summary of Góngora and Quevedo’s ekphrasis, including the former’s comments on El Greco and the latter’s praise of Velázquez, although it is by no means clear that Quevedo’s reference to Velázquez’s naturalism being like the reflection in a mirror can be applied to the painter’s use of mirrors within his images. Schwartz is on firmer ground with her analysis of Velázquez’s grotesque and mythological figures in the context of Quevedo’s Menippean satires (compare Velázquez’s Menippus at the Prado).

With Margaret R. Greer’s article on Calderón de la Barca, the volume moves into the area of documented literary relationships, since Velázquez is known to have used a play by Calderón to provide the mise-en-scène for The Surrender of Breda (Las Lanzas) at the Prado; Calderón was also one of the principal cultural defenders of the nobility of painting. Greer’s essay is a gold mine of information and perceptive comparisons, as when she exploits Calderón’s description of royal hunts to enliven a viewing of Velázquez’s equestrian and hunting portraits and the hunting scene called La Tela Real (London, National Gallery).

Equally informative is Louise K. Stein’s essay on Velázquez and music, which ends with a convincing argument identifying the instrument in Velázquez’s Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) as a “double lyre” or lyra da gamba instead of a viola da gamba—a minor point, perhaps, but Stein cloaks it in an impressive array of contextual interpretations and classical allusions related to the theme of Arachne. (We might add that one of the first owners of the picture, Don Pedro de Arce, had social connections to Calderón; see Marcus B. Burke and Peter Cherry, Spanish Inventories 1: Collections of Paintings in Madrid, 1601–1755, ed. Maria Gilbert [Los Angeles: Provenance Index of the Getty Information Institute, 1997], 186–90.) Also of interest is her examination of Velázquez’s role as palace decorator in relation to operas by Hidalgo on Calderón’s libretti, and her comments on the career of the young Marqués de Eliche as an organizer of palace musical events in relation to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (which Eliche owned).

Stratton-Pruitt’s second edited collection, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, is organized along the same lines as the Cambridge Companion volume but has a different set of goals. While not avoiding the painting itself, this book also focuses on the work’s reception over the years and the cultural history these responses illustrate. After a brief exposition of the early documentation and object history of the painting, Stratton-Pruitt turns the discussion over to Alisa Luxenberg, Xanthe Brooke, and M. Elizabeth Boone, who respectively discuss the painting’s reception in Spain and France, Britain, and the United States. Of the three, Luxenberg has the best opportunities, since the other two must necessarily and arbitrarily divide up what is in fact a common topic. (Are James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent considered American or British painters? They are of course both, and perhaps Brooke and Boone should have been asked to write a joint essay.) Stratton-Pruitt returns with a remarkable tour de force, gently guiding the reader through the different types of critical response to the picture as objectively as possible without abdicating her analytic responsibilities. Among the more recent “empirical” or historical interpretations, those of Jonathan Brown and Fernando Marías are more favorable in Stratton-Pruitt’s explication (although the two disagree on the ultimate symbolic meaning of the work). Hovering over the whole endeavor, however, is the ghost of Michel Foucault, whose 1966 essay on the painting (translated in 1970 in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences) opened a now quite vast realm of late-twentieth-century responses. Foucault, as Avigdor Posèq summarizes him in Stratton-Pruitt’s article, held that the “conceptual apprehension of reality always depends on the fundamental codes of culture, especially those which govern the use of language” (132). Stratton-Pruitt deftly charts the chief followers of Foucault, leaving a more detailed analysis of Foucault’s legacy to Estrella de Diego’s theoretical–historical essay, which follows. Future cultural historians may well profit from de Diego’s comments, but for this reader her observations serve more as guides to evolving tastes and values than something that could help us understand Velázquez’s art better; it would have been far more useful to reprint or excerpt Foucault’s original essay for the convenience of the reader. Finally, Gertje R. Utley reviews the impact of Las Meninas on modern artists and especially on Pablo Picasso, casting much light on individual works and on the larger issue of appropriation and reuse in modern art. Oddly, Utley’s explanation leaves the reader somewhat frustrated—not because of Utley’s work, which is exemplary, but because one expects the picture’s influence to be wider and deeper. Perhaps future scholars may find more to say and different questions to ask with the benefit of more historical distance.

Although “select,” the bibliographies of both volumes are thorough and complete, again underscoring the important nature of the publications. Alas, the illustrations are decidedly second-rate, even that of Las Meninas in an entire volume dedicated to it. Surely what many feel to be the greatest painting of all time deserves more than a grainy black-and-white image.

Marcus B. Burke
Senior Curator, Museum Department, The Hispanic Society Museum and Library, New York

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.