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Velázquez and the Golden Age

CaixaForum. Barcelona 11/16/2018 - 3/3/2019

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Art at the court of Philip IV was clearly an international language devoid of local boundaries. It is this international context that facilitates the best understanding of the work of Velázquez, particularly from 1623 onwards. The works that most influenced him were those by the artists best represented in the royal collections, such as Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens, and one of his key experiences was the trip to Rome in 1629 where he encountered classical and Renaissance art and established contacts with painters of his own time.

The exhibition aims to draw attention to that reality through a selection of 61 paintings associated with Velázquez, the Spanish royal collections and Spanish Golden Age painting. More than twenty of these works were painted by Italian, Flemish and French artists, including Titian, Rubens, Luca Giordano, Jan Brueghel, Anthonis Mor, Giovanni Lanfranco, Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Massimo Stanzione and Guido Reni. Spanish artists are represented through works by Ribera, Zurbarán, Murillo, Alonso Cano, Pereda, Maíno, Sánchez Coello, Mazo, Van der Hamen and others.

Curator:
Javier Portús, Museo del Prado Senior Curator Spanish Painting (to 1700)
Co-organized by:

Exhibition

Art

Art
Juan Martínez Montañés
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
Ca. 1635. Oil on canvas
Museo Nacional del Prado

During the Spanish Golden Age art was increasingly debated. One of the channels of debate were the paintings themselves, through which artists reflected on their activity, defending the image that they wanted to project of themselves and alluding to issues related to the status of art.

Painting and sculpture were controversial, for while their makers and supporters maintained that they were artistic and liberal activities, many others classified them as crafts. In order to increase their prestige, painters emphasised the connections between their art and power, both in the earthly and the religious fields. One of the most ennobling moments at which artists could portray themselves was while they made a portrait of the king, as in the case of sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés. Other arguments that support the nobility and importance of painting and sculpture were their religious utility, and the existence of scenes that established close connections between art and divinity. In Zurbarán’s The Crucified Christ with a Painter, the figure of Christ turns towards the painter in an act of acknowledgement of the services rendered, and both El Greco’s The Veil of Saint Veronica and his God the Father Painting The Immaculate Conception refer to one of the clichés preferred by artists: the idea that divinity acted as a painter.

In their turn, the paintings by Alonso Cano and Juan Andrés Rizi describe a mind-set in which paintings and sculptures were more than just ‘works of art’ for, being as they were sacred images, they had almost magical powers.

Knowledge

Knowledge
Aesop
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
Ca. 1638. Oil on canvas
Museo Nacional del Prado

Classical Antiquity and Christian tradition played a key role in the intellectual horizon of the Spanish Golden Age, and were consequently the object of pictorial representation. They often gave rise to images that made implicit comparisons between wisdom and poverty, resulting from the growing interest in Neo-Stoicism that spread throughout Europe during the Baroque. Besides revealing some of these intellectual referents, this section allows us to see how pictorial tradition developed through works painted for the same places or depicting similar characters. Velázquez painted Aesop for the same hunting pavilion that housed Rubens’s Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher and was therefore able to contemplate the earlier composition as he worked. The comparison between the two works shows different narrative sensitivities and Velázquez’s interest in clothing classical characters in ordinary contemporary dress. In its turn, the work by the Flemish painter can be likened to the picture of the same theme painted by Ribera at roughly the same time, that explores the dramatic and descriptive possibilities of chiaroscuro. Despite starting from a common basis – the conception of painting in chromatic terms – Rubens, Velázquez and Ribera managed to offer several unique, personal alternatives.

The Spanish Golden Age was also a time of important scientific developments in which experience and accumulative knowledge were highly valued, giving rise to works like those by Jan Brueghel the Elder that presented viewers with small visual encyclopaedias, encouraging them to probe the themes underpinning the paintings.

Still-Lifes

Still-Lifes
Still Life with a Cardoon, Francolin, Grapes and Irises
Felipe Ramírez
1628. Oil on canvas
Museo Nacional del Prado

The still-life was a genre that didn’t become fully independent from others until the Golden Age. Before then, numerous references could be found to eatables, containers, raw materials, etc., in historical compositions, but the first paintings devoted entirely to these motifs began to appear around 1600, and in barely a few years the theme had spread throughout Europe. Furthermore, works of extraordinarily quality and refinement were produced from a very early stage, as proved by Jan Brueghel’s Vase of Flowers. In Spain, Sánchez Cotán made outstanding works in the history of the genre in Europe in the first years of the century, inaugurating one of the most fertile traditions in the history of Spanish painting. Felipe Ramírez’s Still Life with a Cardoon is a direct reflection of his works and of his compositional system, while the paintings by Van der Hamen, Juan de Espinosa and Tomás Hiepes in this section reveal the changes that the genre would undergo from the decade of 1620 onwards.

The still life also encompasses a range of food-related scenes with different characters, such as Alejandro de Loarte’s The Poultry Vendor. Two of the main phases in Spanish painting of the Golden Age belong to this thematic field: Murillo’s childish themes and the early works by Velázquez, who in paintings such as The Waterseller of Seville or Old Woman Frying Eggs proved the array of possibilities the still life offered him to create exceptionally original compositions.

Mythology

Mythology
Mars
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
Ca. 1638. Oil on canvas
Museo Nacional del Prado

Mythology, the set of narratives through which Graeco-Roman antiquity articulated its religious system and expressed its vision of the world, offered the painters of the Renaissance a wonderful opportunity to explore new artistic themes. One of these was the nude, artistic form par excellence in Western tradition, the place where artists proved the scope of their possibilities. Spanish royal collections abounded in mythological paintings portraying nude figures, most of which had been made by foreign artists and were usually stored in so-called reserved rooms. These private chambers survived until the early nineteenth century, and were a way of protecting the paintings against moral censorship.

The presence in this section of works by Titian, Rubens and Velázquez attracts attention to the three main names that enable us to speak of royal collections in terms of international tradition: Rubens learnt from Titian, and Velázquez’s style is inspired by the knowledge of the works by the two of them. All three artists are connected by a similar conception of painting as matter in which colour is more important than line.

Most of the pictures in this section were genuinely courtly products, because of their origin, their fate or because they reveal step by step the emergence of a pictorial tradition in the Spanish court.

The Court

The Court
The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia and Magdalena Ruiz
Alonso Sánchez Coello
1585 - 1588. Oil on canvas
Museo Nacional del Prado

The court was the stage on which Velázquez’s career unfolded between 1623 and his death in 1660, and as a result the adjective most often used to define his art and his biography is ‘courtly’. His work in the court is fundamental in order to understand important aspects of his art that distinguish it from that of his Spanish colleagues: his customary dedication to portraiture, his incursions into the field of mythology, and the scant presence of mythological works. These thematic options are related to the kind of expectations generated by painting in the court. This section displays some of the motifs related to the genre, such as royal portraits, the representation of jesters, and historical and allegorical paintings.

The court was one of the main backdrops for the forging of a pictorial tradition in Spain during the seventeenth century. The accumulation of paintings from diverse origins, and the need that different courtly artists had to adjust their work to the expectations of that environment gradually created an international chain of Flemish, Italian and Spanish artists inspired by the works they discovered upon their arrival in Madrid. Velázquez wasn’t oblivious to this, and had to adapt his portraits to courtly uses. Indeed, his art in general cannot be understood without bearing royal collections in mind, which are especially rich in Venetian painting of the Renaissance and in seventeenth-century Flemish works.

Landscape

Landscape
Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
1634 - 1635. Oil on canvas
Museo Nacional del Prado

Landscape has been a pictorial genre for quite some time, and nobody is surprised by the fact that an artist should choose to depict the natural world just as it is. However, the process that led to this situation was slow and for many years landscape was conceived as a mere setting for stories. The age of Velázquez was a key moment in the redefinition of landscape, and the artist himself occupied an important place in this history. Around 1630, French and Italian artists active in Rome were making landscape the leitmotif of their painting. The most remarkable of these was Claude Lorrain, whose experiences with nature were filtered through artistic rules, giving rise to a landscape ‘constructed’ in classicist terms that acts as a backdrop to religious or historical scenes. The most important alternative to this conception was posed by Velázquez, who took the concept of ‘painting from life’ to the realm of ‘painting from nature’, creating pioneering works in which landscape is the chief motif and requires no accompanying narrative. This love for exact, truthful representation of nature is revealed in the backgrounds of some of his portraits, such as the one of Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback, depicted in a perfectly recognisable setting made up of valleys and mountains, but also of light and air.

Religion

Religion
The Adoration of the Magi
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
1619. Oil on canvas
Museo Nacional del Prado

The main theme explored by Spanish painters of the Golden Age was religion, which accounts for over 80% of works by Ribera, Zurbarán, El Greco and Murillo. The last section of the exhibition is dedicated to this subject matter, and comprises eleven works, a small figure in comparison with the number of religious paintings circulating in seventeenth-century Spain, yet balanced in comparison with those found in the courts where Velázquez pursued most of his career.

The selection seeks to emphasise the ties between Spanish and foreign painting. Caravaggist interest in chiaroscuro and realism was shared by Velázquez, Maíno, Ribera and Stanzione; the paintings by Guido Reni and Zurbarán reveal a similar compositional technique; the figures of St Francis depicted by Gentileschi and Van Dyck were characterised by a similar system of emotions and pathos; while the pictures by Murillo and Rubens similarly appeal to concerns such as tenderness and domestic intimacy. Yet despite these common features that describe similar aesthetic horizons and a comparable religious and emotional system, each of these great masters managed to create an original and unmistakable style, as evinced by all the works in this section.

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