Painting Power: Diego Velazquez Was a Skilled Politician as Well as a Master Artist, Finds Mark Irving on a Visit to the El Escorial Palace near Madrid. and Right, Richard Cork Analyses His Most Famous Work, the Enigmatic Las Meninas

By Irving, Mark | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Painting Power: Diego Velazquez Was a Skilled Politician as Well as a Master Artist, Finds Mark Irving on a Visit to the El Escorial Palace near Madrid. and Right, Richard Cork Analyses His Most Famous Work, the Enigmatic Las Meninas


Irving, Mark, New Statesman (1996)


Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was "the painter of the painters", declared Edouard Manet--but he was much more than that. The days when artists played a leading role in national or international politics are long gone (what does this say about the cliquey introspection of today's art world?), but while Velazquez's work is justly celebrated for its aesthetic achievements, far less well known is the role he played in articulating the political imperatives of his masters.

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The work has become divorced from its political context largely because it is so seductive as art. The breathtaking ease of the brushwork, the huge but seemingly effortless restraint with which Velazquez controlled his colour palette and pictorial composition, the sheer facility of draughtsmanship: all are amply demonstrated at a forthcoming exhibition at the National Gallery in London--amazingly, the first ever monograph show in the UK of Velazquez's work.

The palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial towers 400 metres above Madrid, the highest capital city in Europe. Designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo, a pupil of Michelangelo, it encompasses a monastery, two churches, a sacristy, the mausoleum of the Spanish kings and more besides. It was in these dark corridors that Velazquez performed that most delicate of tasks for an artist: the creation of images that squared dynastic continuity with religious piety. His duties were several: as portrait painter from 1623 to King Philip IV, Velazquez did not just create likenesses of the king (who, exceptionally, granted the artist at least five separate sittings over the course of his life). He was also charged with ensuring that all other portraits of the king, many of which were sent abroad as essential props of diplomatic theatre, conformed to strict etiquette. He was, in effect, guardian of the king's image.

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At El Escorial, there was no division between church and state. The grey granite surface of the enormous building is abrasive, laboriously constructed and immutable; visitors passing beneath the four-metre-high statue of Saint Lawrence that stands above the central door on the front facade quickly sense the intensely focused atmosphere inside the palace walls. Courtyards lead past library windows and princely apartments to the source of ultimate wisdom, the mighty basilica.

Precedent for Velazquez's intriguing political function was set by the artist Francisco Pacheco, head censor of the dreaded Inquisition in Seville, who also happened to be Velazquez's father-in-law and teacher. Pacheco had the ear and admiration of Caspar de Guzman, Count-Duke of Olivares, a black-bearded and black-robed manipulator who was chief minister to Philip IV. His sinister and powerfully controlling influence is evident in both the Velazquez standing portrait of him and in the softer, but still politically charged painting of Philip IV's boy heir Baltasar Carlos testing his small horse outside the royal mews. Olivares was clearly monitoring the welfare of Spain's most precious possession. (In fact, the prince died before reaching puberty.)

Velazquez was also given the task of managing the collection of works of art within El Escorial. In an age when paintings and their display conveyed a range of overt and subtle meanings to Spanish and foreign visitors alike, this was no humdrum responsibility. Even today, British ministers' choice of art for their offices and apartments is subject to agonised wrangling by civil servants as to which political messages could be construed from them.

Visitors to El Escorial today get to see only a fraction of the curatorial hang arranged by Velazquez. But in the chapter house you can still get a sense of his artistic and editorial values.

On the ceiling is a field of gently elegant grotesques, all mermaids' tails and goat masks. Its frivolity is surprising amid the sobriety of this ashen-faced palace. …

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Painting Power: Diego Velazquez Was a Skilled Politician as Well as a Master Artist, Finds Mark Irving on a Visit to the El Escorial Palace near Madrid. and Right, Richard Cork Analyses His Most Famous Work, the Enigmatic Las Meninas
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