Velazquez at the National Gallery

Well, I went to the Velazquez. Of course I spent most of the time finding angles to see the paintings between all the people, but I’m used to that. It was a good show, tracing his career from a couple of early paintings at age 17 (which were reassuringly stiff and clumsy) to his late paintings – mainly but not exclusively court portraits. Like a lot of artists he seemed to start by developing almost photographic accuracy — water drops trickling down the side of earthenwear jars and so on — and then developing a progressively a progressively looser and sketchier technique. A few silver daubs would evoke a richly embroidered fabric where earlier he would have painted every stitch.

I was expecting slightly more wow factor, possibly because about the most impressive picture I’ve ever seen in the flesh could well be Las Meninas (which unsurprisingly is still in the Prado). I find it hard to pick out single paintings which were absolute show-stoppers. What there were, though, were a lot of very fine paintings indeed.

Velazquez had the slight misfortune to be court painter to perhaps the ugliest royal family Europe has ever had. It was a branch of the Hapsburgs, and looking at Philip IV, it’s hard not to have uncharitable thoughts about inbreeding:

As well as Philip IV, Velazquez painted some fine pictures of younger members of the family, including annual portraits of the Infanta Margarita which were were sent to her uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, to whom she’d been betrothed from infancy. The one in the National shows her at eight. There are also a couple of paintings of her sister, the Infanta Maria Teresa, at fourteen, which were painted so she could hawked around the courts of Europe as a marriage prospect. She ended up as Queen of France, so I guess someone was able to see past the Hapsburg chin: