(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The reader who casually examines Jonathan Brown’s amply illustrated volume will find it rewarding simply to view high-quality color reproductions of masterpieces of painting. One who studies the text alongside the illustrations, however, will find an informative and enlightening account of the artist whom Édouard Manet called the painter’s painter. Taken together, the text and illustrations represent a brief course in art appreciation. Writing with insight and authority, Brown explains how Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez developed from an apprentice in the shop of the pedestrian but cultured painter Francisco Pacheco into one of the world’s most original artists. With his expertise as an art historian, Brown enables the reader to appreciate Velázquez’s technical innovations; otherwise, techniques which later became commonplace might seem so in their original expression.

Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the seventeenth century, produced approximately 150 paintings, a small number even by standards of his own day. His contemporary Rembrandt van Rijn left more than five hundred paintings and thousands of drawings. Brown lists ninety-eight surviving paintings attributed to Velázquez, seven additional ones in part by him, and nine as possibly by him. The matter of attribution, however, has not been finally settled, and most other authorities attribute a few more surviving paintings to the artist. Velázquez is perhaps best remembered for his equestrian portraits of Spanish royalty and nobility—paintings that juxtapose the dignity, poise, and composure of the self-assured human subjects to the dynamic horses, shown rearing or prancing. Yet his output was as varied as his talents were versatile. His diverse achievements include genre paintings (interior scenes of low life), landscapes, mythological and religious paintings, one battle painting, portraits of court figures, and group portraits of the royal family and courtiers.

More than forty of Velázquez’s paintings hang in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and several others are found in other Spanish collections. Outside Spain, the National Gallery (London) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) hold several Velázquez masterpieces. Others are scattered in galleries throughout the United States and Europe—American holdings being found in the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the National Gallery (Washington), the Frick Collection (New York), the Kimbell Gallery (Fort Worth), and the Meadows Museum (Dallas).

Velázquez’s early work centered on religious, mythical, or genre paintings, employing a naturalistic technique championed by the Italian master Michelangelo da Caravaggio. This was a technique that made the mythic and religious personages lifelike, as if real models had been used, and avoided idealizing them. This departure from previous practice apparently pleased King Philip IV, for, after viewing a portrait Velázquez had completed on command, the King named him court painter. Thereafter, he spent the remainder of his life, the greater part of his productive career, in the King’s service.

The early paintings also reveal a tendency to use objects in the manner depicted by still-life paintings and to use the technique of chiaroscuro in the reception of light. In the paintings, one detects a careful but subtle treatment of shadows, which, as Velázquez knew, often retain hues of their original color. Velázquez went to Italy in 1629, where he spent nearly two years, and thereafter his paintings took on added vitality, marked by richer coloration and greater brightness.

To the reader who examines the illustrations with care, Brown’s book makes it clear just how masterful an artist Velázquez became. The 326 numbered plates—ninety-nine of them quality color prints—range from 2½-by-3-inch black-and-white reproductions to 13-by-20-inch centerfolds in full color. They include Velázquez’s paintings, details from the works, radiographs, and reproductions of the works of his contemporaries and predecessors, which serve to place his achievements in context. By placing illustrations throughout the text and close to the critical analysis, Brown accomplishes a kind of convenience not usually found in art criticism books, which tend to relegate the illustrations to one section. Further, Brown’s work enables the reader to study in detail the paintings of a master without traveling to galleries all over the world. Especially useful for careful analysis is the technique of presenting a color reproduction and then adding illustrations that show enlarged details. For the painting Forge of Vulcan (Madrid, Museo del Prado), Brown provides four color plates and one radiograph.

A significant portion of the analysis is devoted to Velázquez’s art of composition. Brown shows how he achieved a sense of perspective, balance, and realism without being entirely realistic. A good case in point is the famous Venus and Cupid, the “Rokeby” Venus (London, National Gallery). The painting depicts a beautiful but entirely realistic...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Art in America. LXXIV, September, 1986, p. 19.

Booklist. LXXXII, August, 1986, p. 1648.

Choice. XXIV, October, 1986, p. 290.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, February 1, 1986, p. 176.

Library Journal. CXI, August, 1986, p. 136.

The London Review of Books. VIII, March 20, 1986, p. 12.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, November 6, 1986, p. 27.

The New York Times. August 4, 1986, p. 15.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, August 10, 1986, p. 1.

Spectator. CCLVI, June 14, 1986, p. 32.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVIII, September 5, 1986, p. 14.