Friday, November 11, 2016

Favorite Art Books Part 6

One of my favorite painters, crossing all eras, is Diego Velazquez. His work has a deep humanity and incisive observation that most works just don't. Couple his insight with an undeniable mastery of his medium and few painters in history can match him. He lived in the time of Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals, and other masters and although he became well-known near the end of his career, he was less famous. It's hard to find much written about his personal life, but since he lived in the relatively insulated court of Felipe IV of Spain many of those records have come down to us. He lived in the palace and painted the vast majority of his works for that king, which meant that the public didn't see most of his masterpieces until well after he and Felipe were long-dead.

Diego Velazquez, "Pope Innocent X," 1650
Still, some of his most impressive work did become known during his lifteime. His portrait of Pope Innocent X was painted during a stay in Rome (on behalf of his king) about 1650, ostensibly because he was hoping for commissions from the church and others. The portrait was so realistic, according to several sources, that the Pope ordered it taken away, saying it was too real. Another well-known portrait by Velazquez is an image of his slave, Juan de Pareja, painted at about the same time. Those who saw it in a special exhibition there said that this painting alone represented "truth," while all others were just paintings. Perhaps his crowning masterpiece is "Las Meninas," painted in 1659 only a few years before he died and now on continuous display in the Prado Museum in Madrid. In that single painting, Velazquez demonstrates his mastery of everything to do with painting--composition, mastery of materials, and the kind of penetrating vision too many artists seem to lack.
"Juan de Pareja," 1650

Because of my admiration for Velazquez and curiosity about how he achieved such dazzling results with his brushwork while using the limited palette of the time, I've read a few books about him and attempted copies of a handful of his works. These three books have proven most engaging and useful to me, particularly when looking into the thinking and methods of the master. Not surprisingly, two are by the same author.

"Velazquez: The Technique of Genius," by Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido was published at the end of the 20th century, and brought together an art historian and a conservation scientist who discuss his work from the standpoint of art history and use of materials. Together they delineate techniques of Velazquez in fascinating detail. Jonathan Brown had already written authoritatively on the painter; Carmen Garrido was and is Head of Technical Services at the Prado in Madrid. Between them they have enormous expertise. They examined thirty painting, using the findings to show how Velazquez' methods evolved over the span of his career. The book starts with a biographical chapter by Brown and a chapter following by Garrido delineating his materials and methods, including how his technique evolved over his career. These two chapters seem a bit skimpy to a practicing oil painter, but provide valuable information about Velazquez' materials and techniques, particularly topics such as the fabrics he employed as supports--linen and hemp--as well as sizing and priming methods plus a list of pigments, and so on.

The authors marshaled impressive methods in their analysis of these paintings, including radiography, infrared and ultraviolet analysis and so on. The wide array of methods allows the authors to infer a great deal about the techniques and ideas embodied in the paintings. Of course,without writings by the painter (which seem not to exist), and no matter the evidence, it's not really possible to know what went on the painter's mind. Still, the analyses here are valuable to anybody who is interested in the work of this titan of oil painting, and there are literally no others that provide this level of information coupled with wonderful color closeups of the works. In particular, the evolution of Velazquez' technique is instructive, particularly how he achieved some of his most brilliant effects. There are chapters devoted to a number of favorites, including not only Las Meninas but several other favorites, including "The Forge of Vulcan," "Los Borrachos," and "Aesop." For a working painter, the insights and information provided, plus the glorious closeups of masterful brushwork and compositional struggles make this my favorite book about Velazquez. Highly recommended, but perhaps not so interesting for a general reader.

"Velazquez: Painter and Courtier," also by Jonathan Brown, was published in 1986 and is easily available online and in used book stores. In this volume Brown, who has spent his entire career fascinated by the Spanish master, collects information from the Spanish court records and other sources and puts the reader right there, in the Spanish Court of the 17th century. The volume is intended for both casual readers and scholars, and so there are likely to be sections that someone only dipping a toe into the waters might be happy to skip. But in his readable style, Brown helps us see how the painter and his work changed and grew during his long tenure as painter to Felipe IV of Spain. As with other books by Professor Brown, this one is lavishly illustrated in black and white and in color. Highly recommended.

Finally, Taschen publishes "Velazquez: Complete Works," an enormous volume containing all known works. This book is the definitive volume on the master, comprising the catalog raisonne and images of all known paintings. It is a large format book and for the general reader it's quite expensive. Nonetheless it's a lush with color  and details. For a painter interested in the works and the techniques of Velazquez this book might be useful. For others, perhaps not so much, although it is an undeniably beautiful volume.
Other posts in this series
Favorite Art Books Part 5
Favorite Art Books Part 4
Favorite Art Books Part 3
Favorite Art Books Part 2
Favorite Art Books Part 1

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