Court painter with an eye for royalty – and reality

The National Gallery in London celebrates the man who became one of the noblest painters of nobility – but who never lost his taste for painting people of humbler means.

"Each image [bears] his distinctive sensibilities – reticence, authority, brevity, and paradox." These carefully chosen words were written by Dawson W. Carr, curator at London's National Gallery, about a remarkable exhibition devoted to that genius of 17th-century Spanish painting, Diego Velázquez.

The National Gallery has a collection of Velázquez paintings second only to that at the Prado in Madrid – although it is quite a distant second.

An exhibition that can claim in any way to adequately represent the artist that Manet admiringly named "the painter's painter" has to have substantial loans from the Prado, and this exhibition certainly does. Those masterworks that visitors go to Madrid to see, such as "The Meninas," "The Spinners," "The Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback," – and enough others to ensure tourist-satisfaction – are not on loan to London. But a generous number of works are in the show, among them the two pictured here, "Tavern Scene," and "Pope Innocent X."

Wonderful examples of the court artist's work have also come from many other corners of the globe. A strong replica of Olivares on his horse comes from New York. There are also stunning works from Chicago, Boston, and Dallas.

Velázquez's portrait of the Infanta María Teresa (1653), so formal and yet so realistic, comes from Vienna – as do two other portraits of the children of Philip IV, Velázquez's chief patron. These child portraits breathe life and freshness into the stiffness and requisite tact of royal portraiture, and the viewer is persuaded that far from being remote icons, these are actual children the artist knew well.

The economy of the painter's touch contributes to the vital sense of a directly recorded moment. While this illusion of spontaneity was something he increasingly mastered – supremely in "The Meninas" and "The Spinners" – it was self-evidently a fascination and challenge from his earliest work onward.

On loan from Edinburgh, Scotland, is "An Old Woman Cooking Eggs" (1618). The two eggs magically appearing to coalesce in the hot oil could hardly be more instantaneous, and their immediacy is contrasted with the feeling of timelessness pervading much of the rest of this early work. It was painted when he was 19 and still in Seville, Spain, before moving to Madrid as a court painter. Its ambition is an indelible sign of his overall ambition as a painter. He successfully elevated his status as an artist, eventually achieving knighthood in a period when artists were still often considered little more than artisans.

But even though he had become one of the noblest painters of nobility in art history, he never lost his taste for painting people of more humble position.

'Velázquez' is at the National Gallery in London until Jan. 21, 2007.

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