Critics for years and years considered Velazquez “just a portrait painter”. They said: “Portrait painters do likenesses, not art. They make a nice oval of a lady’s face and paint her in pretty clothes. Unless she dislikes the color of her dress or her hair, she will be satisfied with their portrait. Friends will all agree it looks just like her, even if it looks like her neighbor. Is that the stuff a genius painter struggles with? Didn’t you say Velasquez was a genius?”
“And he does portraits even when he paints an imagined scene,” someone said. “He’s like a Dutch painter, but big.” Men were used to idealized paintings and turned up their nose at those industrious Dutch artisans who painted interiors and got everything in the house just right—the checkerboard floors, the window casings, the brass lamps—all of it. Velazquez did his furniture and people with the same kind of fidelity. Or so they thought. “Have you seen a Rubens?” they asked each other. “Now there’s a real painter. He can run circles around this Velazquez guy. He doesn’t copy—he makes it all up—he’s got it all in his head. That’s what I call an artist.”
And it was true: Velazquez didn’t “make it up”. Like a photographer, he collected the objects for his picture—a table, a clock, a suit of armor—and then arranged them in front of him. No doubt he composed the picture in his head, but then for each of its elements he wanted something to copy. Though he could draw from memory, the imagined version of a thing never convinced him. He wanted truth. The imagined object was born already a lie. Your mind had worked on it and made it personal, conceptual.
The Two Ways
There are really only two ways to make a picture. Either you copy what you have before your eyes or you draw your subject out of your head.
Neither one of these two ways is “pure”, of course. The artist who COPIES makes some changes according to ideas he has in his head (propriety, beauty, expression, etc,) ; he corrects what he sees and simplifies, maybe, or exaggerates.
And the artist who INVENTS a figure remembers a lot of facts he has observed in real models. He often adds a few more after his vision is down on paper or canvas.
The copyists were considered inferior to the inventors. The artist was supposed to “do something” with his subject. He was supposed to do more than merely repeat it.
Though Velazquez’s objects looked “uninterpreted” to many people—“not abstract enough”, yet in time it became clear that those objects had some mysterious importance or presence that mere copies could never have.
His naturalism was so proud that it was simply misunderstood. It was in fact a new kind, a unique kind, of abstraction. It made not the slightest nod to sentiment—no distortion of shape, as Michelangelo had done, or through color or dynamism, as Rubens did, or strange lighting effects, like Caravaggio’s spooky paintings.