Rubens Comes to Madrid

It was only noon but Velazquez decided to knock off for the day. He had started a new picture about the god Bacchus.


There were some drinkers beside the god, looking very drunk and silly; and the idea was good but he wasn’t happy with one of the faces. He liked one he had drawn in his sketchbook of a man who winked at the viewer but now in the Bacchus picture that wink didn’t come off. It didn’t look right. He had painted it right off—he never had any trouble painting just what he wanted; but as soon as it was there beside the other faces, the wink looked too frank, too explicit. It seemed to compromise the viewer. A delicate nature would instinctively look away, not at it. Then he had made the mistake of monkeying with the wink itself, trying to reduce the size of the eye, trying this and that, until finally he took a rag and wiped away the whole face, the work of three hours, in frustration.

A very temperate frustration. He wasn’t the kind of painter who breaks his brush in anger or throws his palette across the room. He knew he would just have to think the thing over again. Most painters thought with their brush, while they painted; a picture was an experiment with them, an excursion into unknown country. They never knew what they would find there—that was most of the entertainment of painting. But Velazquez always thought before he started a new painting. He knew exactly what it would look like—if he didn’t he wouldn’t begin. Once he began to paint, his brush knew the way. After the painting was finished he often changed things around in the picture—questions of arrangement. But while he painted, there was no experimenting.

His mind wasn’t on his work today. All the while he had been thinking about Peter Paul Rubens, who was coming to Madrid. This was very exciting news: Rubens was the most famous painter in the world, one of the legendary masters, like Titian or Michelangelo Buonarroti. All his life Velazquez had heard about him and he had seen copies of his paintings. In those days you didn’t see many originals by anyone, though King Philip had a big collection. Velazquez had grown up around painters and had heard talk about all the masters; but he didn’t know anyone who had been around like Rubens. Rubens had seen the originals of the best paintings in Italy and France. He knew more about them and about painting than anyone Velazquez would ever meet. He spoke fluent Italian, which was similar to Spanish, so they would be able to talk.

To be honest, Velazquez didn’t care much for the way he painted; but he wouldn’t have to say so. And in any case, you don’t argue with such a genius: you listen and maybe you learn.

Rubens wasn’t coming to Madrid to paint anything—that was the odd thing. The greatest painter in the world was coming here on a diplomatic mission. Negotiating for dukes and kings was one of his side-lines. Now they said he had a message for King Philip from the Duke of Buckingham. Spain and England were fighting a war over the Low Countries and, strange as it seems, the Duke and the Spanish minister had chosen a couple of painters to carry on their secret talks. The Spanish Viceroy in Antwerp had asked Rubens to travel to Madrid and convince the king to use him as his official envoy.
(See Rubens Comes to Madrid II)

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