Wander around any major museum, and you’ll notice a funny thing about pre-Renaissance art, namely: There were some fugly and very generic looking people about before the 16th Century. A couple of years ago I went to the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibition, and while I was blown away by the sheer volume of stuff on show, and by the craftsmanship of certain pieces, I was also struck by how much the Virgin Mary looked like Nicholas Cage, and by how baby Jesus looked like some sort of shaved marmoset or laboratory experiment gone hideously wrong.
Even as technique improved, and perspective brought added realism to painting, we still see the same wan, oval-faced women and the same dead-eyed, bearded men. All that began to change in the 1500s, with the advent of artists such as Il Bronzino (1503-1572) and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Suddenly we see faces animated by the spark of life, characters who it’s possible to imagine having lives, emotions and expressions outside of the paintings in which they appear.
For me, no other artist between 1500 and 1700 captures faces with the same degree of vitality as Diego Velázquez. Born into a fairly wealthy Seville family in 1599, he trained in Madrid and Italy and spent much of his career as an official court painter to King Philip IV of Spain. As well as capturing members of the royal household in candid and often very frank portraits, Velázquez had a keen eye for some of their more eccentric hangers on.
In tackling even classical subjects, he gave his characters a humanity that makes the paintings immediate and fresh-looking, even to a modern eye. In Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, the Sun god Apollo appears Vulcan, the god of Fire, and his fellow smithies, as they go about making the weapons of war. What’s striking about the painting is that apart from Apollo, who wears a laurel crown and whose head is surrounded by a heavenly glow, the other characters in the painting, even though they represent gods and demigods, are so very human. Apollo is here to break the news that Vulcan’s wife, Aphrodite, has been shagging Mars, god of War.
It’s the closest thing to an Eastenders doof-doof-doof moment that Greco-Roman myth has to offer, and – despite having died more than 300 years before Eastenders hit our screens – Velázquez understands this perfectly. Look at the blacksmith second from the left:
Some credit must, of course, go to the model for his performance, but it’s Velázquez’s genius that captured that spontaneity and authenticity on the canvas.
In The Triumph of Bacchus, another painting based on a classical theme, we have a vaguely disinterested-looking Bacchus god of Wine and Merriment “crowning” one of a band of drunken revellers.
The characters I’m drawn to here are the two chaps to Bacchus’s left, the ones looking directly at the viewer. Their sozzled expressions – the guy on the left trying (and failing) to hold it together, as if posing for a wedding photo, while the man next to him can only raise one eyebrow and leer – are just sublime; one of the most subtly recognisable depictions of drunkenness in the history of art.
Of course, it’s one thing to humanise two (potentially pissed) models you’ve just dragged in off the street, another to treat a well-respected, high profile client to the same degree of unflinching scrutiny; yet that’s exactly what Velázquez did when he painted Pope Innocent X.
I must admit, I don’t know a great deal about Innocent X’s eleven year tenure as pontiff, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say he was a cantankerous old git. Look at that face:
Whether it’s contempt for the artist himself, for the business of having to pose for an official portrait or for the tedium of everyday Popeing, I couldn’t say. Certainly, contemporaries of Velasquez were worried the Pope would hate the painting’s honesty, but to everyone’s surprise Innocent X loved it. Maybe because it makes him look like a badass.
Perhaps it was that very honesty which brought Velázquez so much success as a court artist and portrait painter, that made him stand out from the crowd in an age of sycophants. The subject he painted most often of all was the Spanish king himself, and thanks to an… erm… convoluted family tree (read: lots of uncles marrying nieces) he was no looker, but other than to make his nose slightly less bulbous Velázquez never flattered him.
There is always, in Velázquez’s paintings of Philip, a note of uncertainty behind the haughty facade that you just don’t expect to see in royal portraiture of the time. The Habsburg dynasty was nearing its end and Philip’s son, the severely inbred and disabled Charles, would prove the last of the line.
That quality of taking the viewer unawares is present in almost every portrait Velasquez made, whether he’s capturing the melancholy of someone who is employed simply to be laughed at…
The bellicose pomposity of a clown…
Or the nobility of his own Moorish servant (and fellow artist), Juan de Pareja…
Velázquez’s faces are not simply “well painted”, they’re alive. Costumes aside, they look like people you could meet here and now. And that’s why I love them.