Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 13, 2007
William B. Jordan Juan van der Hamen y León and the Court of Madrid Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 312 pp.; 75 color ills.; 170 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0300113188)
Exhibition schedule: Palacio Real, Madrid, October 24, 2005–January 28, 2006; Meadows Museum, Dallas, March 2–May 28, 2006

The figure of Diego Velázquez has dominated discourse on painting at Philip IV’s court since at least the late seventeenth century. Jusepe Martínez (ca. 1675), Antonio Palomino (1724), and other writers emphasized and reinforced Velázquez’s preeminence in the decades following his death. Yet in the 1620s, when Velázquez was a recent arrival in Madrid, fellow artists and connoisseurs often compared his works unfavorably with those of other painters. Scholars have recently shown that the rivalries surrounding Velázquez shed broader light on artistic theory and practice in Madrid. William Jordan’s Juan van der Hamen y León and the Court of Madrid represents an important breakthrough in analyzing a crucial decade in Spanish art history. Throughout the 1620s, Van der Hamen (1596–1631) enjoyed a flourishing career as Madrid’s principal still-life painter. By placing Van der Hamen’s works within the cultural context of the court, Jordan offers a new account of the dynamic period just before Velázquez secured his canonical place in Spanish art.

This volume was published in concert with an exhibition that Jordan curated of Van der Hamen’s works (Palacio Real, Madrid, October 24, 2005–January 28, 2006; Meadows Museum, Dallas, March 2–May 28, 2006). Like the exhibition, Jordan’s book represents the first major monograph on Van der Hamen, and the text is accompanied by lavish illustrations that eloquently testify to the artist’s contribution to Spanish painting. Jordan discusses Van der Hamen’s entire oeuvre, proposing new attributions and publishing a number of paintings for the first time. Throughout the text, he weaves Van der Hamen’s biography together with a perceptive analysis of his practice as a painter. Born in Madrid to parents of Netherlandish origins, Van der Hamen was raised in a family of intellectuals from the lower nobility. His brother, Lorenzo, became a prominent cleric and historian, whose social connections proved essential in advancing the artist’s career. Van der Hamen’s artistic training remains a mystery; his first recorded commission dates from 1619, when he painted a still life for Philip III. The artist enjoyed royal patronage throughout his career, but he never secured an official position as court painter.

Jordan emphasizes Van der Hamen’s struggle for recognition as a painter of religious and allegorical themes, subjects at the top of the emerging hierarchy of genres. The artist painted religious images for major institutions such as Madrid’s convent of the Encarnación and monastery of San Gil, where Palomino later saw and admired his works. Van der Hamen also brilliantly synthesized his skills as a still-life painter with his talents for creating visual and verbal poetry in Pomona and Vertumnus (1626) and Offering to Flora (1627), pendants surely commissioned by one of his major aristocratic patrons. Jordan relates these images to Van der Hamen’s expertise in painting fruits and flowers and to seventeenth-century descriptions of Flora. He argues that the paintings “surely have no particular literary source, because Van der Hamen was his own poet”—a tantalizing suggestion that deserves further consideration (177).

Jordan also stresses Van der Hamen’s active role as a portrait painter. The artist painted a series of twenty likenesses of illustrious contemporaries, including the writers Francisco de Quevedo, Francisco de Rioja, and Lope de Vega, who became one of his strongest supporters. Van der Hamen kept the series in his studio, while Lope and others rewarded him with poems that enhanced his reputation as a portrait painter. Shedding new light on artistic competition in Madrid, Jordan suggests that contemporaries compared Van der Hamen’s portrait of the poet Luis de Góngora (1620, now lost) with Velázquez’s likeness of the same sitter, painted in 1622. The rivalry between the two artists culminated in 1626, when they both painted Cardinal Francesco Barberini (both portraits are lost), who was visiting Madrid on a diplomatic mission. Barberini’s secretary, the antiquarian and connoisseur Cassiano dal Pozzo, famously contrasted his disapproval of the “melancholy and severe air” of Velázquez’s portrait with his praise of Van der Hamen’s replacement, which was apparently painted “very well” (207). As Jordan and others have argued, the “threat” posed by Van der Hamen’s impressive talent and growing reputation sheds light on Velázquez’s rejection of his application to become a royal painter in 1627 (217). I would recommend expanding this discussion of the artists’ rivalry to include a broader analysis of artistic theory and practice at court. Contemporaries doubtless considered Van der Hamen and Velázquez as especially suited to portraiture because of their respective backgrounds in still life and genre scenes, categories of painting that were related to portraits because of a shared dependence on nature. The perceived contrast between the “severe” realism of Velázquez’s early portraits and Van der Hamen’s painting also warrants further exploration. Did Van der Hamen’s admirers consider his portraits to exemplify the same courtly elegance as his still lifes?

Despite his accomplishments in other genres, Van der Hamen earned his living and achieved renown primarily as a still-life painter. Jordan demonstrates that Van der Hamen held sway as Madrid’s premier still-life artist by the early 1620s. It may be possible to take this important observation a step further. Indeed, Van der Hamen’s supremacy in still life may have informed Velázquez’s decision to abandon bodegones (still lifes and genre scenes) after settling in Madrid. As Jordan argues, Van der Hamen’s lavish flower bouquets, polished silver, and delectable sweets beautifully capture the “elegance” and “luxury” favored by his “affluent and courtly clientele” (75). I would add that Velázquez’s bodegones, by contrast, generally depict rustic figures accompanied by chipped ceramic bowls and pitchers. Velázquez surely realized that Van der Hamen already controlled Madrid’s market for still life, and he certainly also understood that Van der Hamen’s reputation as a still-life artist limited his recognition in other genres of painting. In a strategic gesture that merits reconsideration, Velázquez abandoned bodegones and turned his attention to portraiture, a field no single artist had come to dominate at court.

Jordan highlights Van der Hamen’s development of a new genre in Spanish painting: flower wreaths framing religious subjects, including the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin and Child, and the Vision of Saint Anthony (pls. 46–48). He also provides a fascinating account of conservators’ recent examination of a pair of flower wreaths (233–40); inside the wreaths, Van der Hamen initially painted religious images, which he later covered with landscapes. In keeping with his emphasis on the secular nature of Spanish still life, Jordan sharply distinguishes Van der Hamen’s religious images from the flower wreaths that sometimes surround them. Yet Van der Hamen’s wreaths provide an opportunity to consider the fluid boundaries between the sacred and the secular in Spanish art. Whether flower wreaths and other still-life elements carried religious connotations surely depended largely on the audience. Like Jordan, some viewers probably regarded the painted wreaths as purely ornamental, but evidence suggests that others interpreted the blooming flowers as exquisite glosses on the religious subjects depicted. In early seventeenth-century Milan, Archbishop Federico Borromeo used images of the Madonna and Child in flower garlands—along with ostensibly secular landscapes and still lifes—in his meditations on the wonders of God’s creation (Pamela M. Jones, Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform in Seventeenth-Century Milan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, esp., 84–87). Van der Hamen’s Spanish contemporary, Pedro Soto de Rojas, constructed verbal “mansions” of flowers and fruit intended to guide the reader toward spiritual paradise (see the Paraíso (1652) and commentary in Pedro Soto de Rojas, Paraíso cerrado para muchos, jardines abiertos para pocos; Los fragmentos de Adonis, ed. Aurora Egido, Madrid: Cátedra, 1981, 11–46, 62–139). Soto de Rojas may be especially relevant because he was an admirer of still-life painting and, during the 1610s and early 1620s, he enjoyed friendships with Van der Hamen’s associates, Góngora and Lope de Vega.

In his analysis of Van der Hamen’s still lifes, Jordan emphasizes the artist’s creative engagement with the works of other painters from Spain and abroad. This represents a nuanced approach to the problem of originality in Golden Age art. Van der Hamen highlighted his debt to the groundbreaking Toledan still-life painter Juan Sánchez Cotán through the unmistakable “quotation” of his works (98). Yet as Jordan argues, Van der Hamen transformed Sánchez Cotán’s humble melons and cardoons by placing them alongside the elegant glassware and overflowing fruit baskets characteristic of his own paintings. Alluding to multiple works of art, Van der Hamen sometimes combined Sánchez Cotán’s sparse backgrounds with the “sumptuous” imagery of Frans Snyders (103). By calling attention to Van der Hamen’s sources, Jordan reinforces his contention that artists in Madrid benefited from a “lively awareness” of contemporary European art (39). Like painters throughout seventeenth-century Europe, Van der Hamen based his artistic invention in part on synthesizing his pictorial sources with his close study of nature. As Jordan demonstrates in his conclusion, Van der Hamen’s students carried on his legacy by recreating his famous glassware and flower vases, and, in some cases, transforming those elements in their own compositions. Throughout this excellent book, Jordan emphasizes Van der Hamen’s active participation in the development of Golden Age painting, and thereby establishes his key place in the history of Spanish art.

Tanya J. Tiffany
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

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