Was Velazquez All That Great?

In life Velazquez was celebrated as a great painter, at least in Spain and Italy. But after his death his pictures weren’t worth much. A man sent to Madrid by the Duke of Mantua to hunt for good paintings wrote happily to him that he had found portraits by Velazquez, Murillo, and others. But the Duke turned up his nose: “I don’t think those painters you mention are so famous that it’s worthwhile having them, and it’s better not to bother yourself too much looking around for them.” This was just nine years after Velazquez died.

He wasn’t put back up on the list of greats for more than a hundred years. And then it wasn’t art critics who began thinking about him, but painters. They say Goya re-discovered him. He went to the Prado Museum and copied many of Velazquez’s paintings. Then a little later, the French painters began telling each other Velazquez was good. “He’s just what I was looking for,” Delacroix wrote to a friend from Madrid. “By himself he’s worth the trip here.”
“He’s wonderful,” said Manet. “He’s a painter’s painter.”
“Sly as a fox,” said Whistler, the British-American. “Nobody can do it all with so little means.”
And those painters began imitating him—or so they said.

Now you read art critics calling him the greatest painter of all: the Shakespeare and Phidias of painting. They say his big Meninas (Maids of Honor) is “probably” the best painting in the world. What should we think? We saw that what went down came up; should we expect to see Velazquez’s reputation fall again? “There are cycles,” say the wise, pipe-sucking art historians, “changes in taste.”
But isn’t excellence a fixed thing? Is Velazquez good or bad? It’s a long way from nobody to the greatest artist of all.

It all depends on what you think a painting should be.
See Was Velazquez All That Great II.


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5 Responses to Was Velazquez All That Great?

  1. iondanu says:

    For me it’s no doubt that Velasquez IS a great artist, one of the best (I dislike making absolutisation: the greatest has a lot of candidates…) And even the artists you cite as liking him very much, Goya, Delacroix, Manet, whistlesr…they were themselves painters with tremendously natural talent, artists who could do “pieces de bravoure” picturale extraordinaires. Paintings which take exactly the type of talent (or genius) Valasquez had: spontaneity of the brushstrokes, tempered by an extraordinary capacity of compositional organisation of a painting. Some other very great one had it: Rembrandt, Hals, Van Gogh…some others too… As for the “waves” of glory, I’m incapable of taking them too seriously… Ruskin, for instance, detested Bernini’s work…or Bernini was extremely talented (natural talent) and has some great sculptures and architectural works which touch no doubt greatness…

  2. 100swallows says:

    I agree with you, Danu, that it’s silly to say who was the greatest. If there’s one thing all the great paintings show, it is this: that there’s no comparing. Each artist is unique and “great” in his own way. And that’s why there’ll always be room for another.
    Ruskin’s taste in painters and painting, in spite of his compelling judgments, was terrible (I think). He called Holman Hunt’s Christ at the Door (or something) the greatest picture of the nineteenth century. And he raved over The Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, which I like too though I don’t take it for the best art.

  3. iondanu says:

    Holman Hun? Never heard of it! But I saw some of Bernini’s sculptures and drawings and the man was – no doubt – very talented. A lot of natural talent… I’ve long ago stopped to take anyone’s word (mine in the first place) as infailible…

  4. 100swallows says:

    Danu: Hunt was one of the British pre-Rafaelite painters. Look him up–I’m sure you’ve seen some of their work. There’s a famous one of Ophelia (from Hamlet) floating dead in a pool after her suicide. That’s by Millais, another Pre-Rafaelite and, by the way, a protégé of Ruskin and the man who married Ruskin’s ex-wife. He did a fine portrait of Ruskin.

  5. Pingback: Velázquez e a beleza sem esforço « sobrepintura

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