Book Review: Valazquez

Las Meninas painting by Diego Velazquez
Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), Diego Velazquez, 1656

Dawson W. Carr

Francisco Goya was an established painter with royal patronage before he ever saw the great paintings by his countryman from Spain’s golden age, Diego Velazquez. This was not unusual. The great paintings we take for granted as part of our cultural heritage were all behind closed doors in the palaces of the kings and their courts. Now, royal collections have been moved to museums and images of the paintings are available to everyone through lushly produced books, such as the National Gallery, London’s Velazquez, edited by Dawson Carr.

Diego Velazquez painted what is widely believed to be the finest painting ever painted, Las Meninas, the little girl, the Infanta in her impossibly wide skirt, with the young attendants, her little dog, a dwarf, Velazquez himself, and her parents looking on, seen in the mirror behind her. His portrait of the canny Pope Innocent X is similarly acclaimed as the finest portrait ever painted. It earned Velazquez a golden chain and the papal dispensation to become enobled, a cherished goal of the painter. The pope is casting Velazquez a calculating gaze as he considers a written request, perhaps the very request made by Velazquez himself. It is widely agreed that his Rokeby Venus is among the best female nudes. Through his paintings of the king, equestrian portraits, and paintings of the everyday life of workers and servants we possess a visual understanding of life at the center of one of the greatest empires the world has known.

The National Gallery of London’s Valezquez gives us several ways into its subject. There are long form essays on the political and cultural milieu into which Velazquez entered as a young man. At least as regards art Spain was a meritocracy; the son of immigrants, Velazquez became an intimate of the royal family. There is a long essay on his painting technique and there are many essays on individual paintings often with enlarged details of particular interest to the essayist. The images of the paintings are exquisite. Short of a visit to the Prado in Madrid, the National Gallery’s Velazquez is the finest way to be dazzled by this great art and to learn more about one of the most fascinating eras of Western history.

The book is available in the Birmingham Public Library’s central location.

Check it out.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library