Velázquez and his Influence on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Painters

Velázquez and his Influence on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Painters

[READ TIME: 1 hour 30 mins]


It is twenty-five years since I wrote this thesis for my BA (Hons) Fine Art at Middlesex University, London, where I studied from 1991 to 1994. In my second year I took off before the end of year assessments to do a two-week Flamenco guitar course with Paco Peña in Cordoba but it was another 10 years before I came to live in Madrid, in September 2003, and was able to see the paintings of Velázquez and Goya in the Prado. The following month a special exhibition of Manet in the Prado opened which was an amazing opportunity to see Manet's work alongside that of Velázquez.

Olsen, 'La Lucha', 2011, Oil on 6 Wooden Window Shutters,
300 x 250 cm, Private Collection, Spain.

Although much of my earlier work is abstract, looking at Velázquez's paintings has been an important influence. Returning to the Velázquez's in the National Gallery, London, as I began working on portraiture I found a lot of answers to my questions.

Re-reading my thesis I see I was very fortunate to attend a lecture series in 1993 on Velázquez at The National Gallery, London, to listen to the latest views at the time of experts on the artist. I am also grateful to Art Historian Peter Webb, whose encouragement and advice guided my investigations and the structure of the thesis. I have only made small corrections to the original thesis (which was typed on an early electronic typewriter) and I have taken advantage of being online to include links to the paintings mentioned (some of which can now be viewed in great detail on the gallery websites) and footnotes.

I have decided to share it now as a way for me to reflect on my own artistic journey to date, and in the hope that it might inspire others on their own creative paths.

Charles Olsen. Madrid, March 2019.


‘In Velázquez it’s a very, very extraordinary thing that he has been able to keep it so near to what we call illustration and the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel.’
Francis Bacon, 1962

Francis Bacon in his statement on Velázquez suggests the immediate attraction of Velázquez’s art to the painter: his ability to reveal with a remarkably natural use of paint not just a likeness but a deeper understanding of the emotions, the humanity, the life of his sitters. Through looking at Velázquez’s paintings in both an art historical context and their influence on modern painters I shall explore why his achievements continue to attract attention. What do they offer the artist today? Edouard Manet was thoroughly impressed by Velázquez’s paintings during a journey to Spain in 1865 when he visited the Prado in Madrid and influences can be seen in his way of painting. This century Pablo Picasso has also looked to Velázquez’s work, in particular ‘Las Meninas’, for inspiration. He brings a different way of looking to the work which initially seems far removed from the original painting. And Francis Bacon, quoted above, became obsessed with Velázquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, producing a series of studies and paintings after this portrait.

In PART ONE, after outlining Velázquez’s artistic development, I shall go on to discuss two important works from different periods in his life. I will outline my own experience and readings of these works before introducing how others have viewed them. Then in PART TWO I will look at how the artists introduced above have responded to Velázquez’s work, ending with an exploration of my own response to his work.

My involvement with Velázquez’s art comes not from a direct engagement with the history of art and established ideas of Velázquez as the ‘Painter’s painter’ but rather I have been attracted to Spanish art via a modern sensibility through artists such as Picasso and Miro as well as through a personal involvement with Flamenco and its notions of Duende or the spirit. It comes from a desire to understand my own position in relation to an important fragment of the history of art through looking with my own eyes—there being an impressive collection of Velázquez’s paintings in the National Gallery, London—and through the eyes of the artists introduced above.


Velázquez’s Artistic Development

Diego de Silva y Velázquez was born in 1599 in the rich society of Seville which, during his teenage years, was at the height of its importance as a result of its monopoly on trade with the Americas. It was an open society, though one of ‘tremendous piety’. It was also open to influences through trade with Northern Europe and there was an awareness of artistic ideas and developments across Europe. This was the fertile environment in which Velázquez grew up and was able to develop his talent.1

There are very few biographical details to illuminate our understanding of Velázquez’s life and character and it is only really possible to look at him through studying both his paintings and how others have viewed them and by setting these in the context of the art and society of his times. Initially Velázquez is thought to have studied under Francisco de Herrera, a ‘stern and unpleasant man’,2 for a few months before moving to the studio of Francisco Pacheco who Ortega y Gasset described as ‘a mediocre painter but an excellent man, of wide culture, gentle manners, and acquainted with the distinguished society of Seville—artists, writers and noblemen’.3 In this climate Velázquez was able to apply himself seriously to his art and also gain a wide knowledge of the thoughts of the time. Palomino called Pacheco’s house ‘a gilded cage of art, the academy and school for the greatest minds of Seville’.4

The Italian artist Michelangelo da Caravaggio influenced many of Velázquez’s generation. They saw no future in the painting of the ‘beautiful’ in the formal academic mannerism of the day and turned to the ‘naturalism’ of Caravaggio. His paintings are characterized by the presentation of ‘plebeian characters’ and a use of real light to create a dramatic emotional atmosphere.5 The theorist Vincenio Carducho compared Caravaggio to the ‘Anti-Christ’ who, with his ‘superficial imitation’ of nature without any preparation, would lead young artists away from the traditional ‘scientific’ and ‘true’ approach to art.6

Figure 1: Velázquez, 'Kitchen scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary', 1617–21,
Oil on Canvas, 59 x 101.9cm, The National Gallery, London.

Velázquez’s earliest paintings of this period in Seville are known as bodegones which are paintings of everyday objects and people, generally in an intimate setting such as at a table. [See figure 1.] This differs from Caravaggio’s approach in that the light, instead of conveying a sense of heightened emotion is more, as Ortega y Gasset describes it, just ‘the medium by which objects make their appearance’.7 Unlike Caravaggio, Velázquez does not impose himself on his paintings; they are more studies of ordinary people and objects, even in his religious works. These paintings were well received and have been described as an inspiration to his contemporaries including Pacheco who ‘painted similar subjects in imitation of Velázquez’.8 Bodegones were a popular subject with his generation of artists but were seen by some as a low, coarse subject, not suitable for a serious artist and it was through the strength of Velázquez’s art that they became generally accepted. He is reported to have said ‘I would rather be the first in coarseness than the second in delicacy’.9 This determination has been interpreted as a rebellion against Pacheco and Raphael and many writers have praised his independence of mind but this tends to negate the relation between Velázquez and his time. Gabriele Finaldi stated that Pacheco in his writings on Velázquez relates him to the sixteenth century to make him seem above the history of art.10 I will discuss the development of Velázquez’s early paintings in the following chapter.

Also during this time in Seville, Velázquez painted a number of religious subjects including ‘The Immaculate Conception’ and ‘St, John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos’, which were commissions from religious bodies. Few artists could find employment except through such commissions and it was only through Velázquez’s acceptance into the court of Philip IV that he escaped this traditional path of the artist.

Velázquez was fortunate to have the opportunity to paint the king’s portrait in 1623 after the Count-Duke of Olivares had drawn to the king’s attention a portrait by Velázquez of Don Luis de Fonseca, an ecclesiastic and gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, which had ‘created a sensation in the palace’.11 King Philip was so impressed by Velázquez’s talent and the portrait of himself that from then on only Velázquez was allowed to paint the king. As Painter to the King his life became dominated by the life of the court where he was required to portray the king and other members of the royal family. Philip also requested various mythological works for the Royal Palace. John Elliot describes Velázquez’s position as one of security in which he could be above the criticism of his contemporaries; ‘If you’re second you try harder’ whereas in being the most favoured he could work how he wished.12

In 1628 Rubens came to Madrid on an unofficial diplomatic mission and was entertained by Velázquez during his eight month stay. Rubens’ great knowledge of the world of art may have been the inspiration for Velázquez to broaden his experience by travelling to Italy to study the ‘Old Masters’.13 Velázquez obtained leave to visit Italy in 1629 to 1630. During this trip he made drawings after Tintoretto's Crucifixion, and copies after Michelangelo, Titian and Veronese. Some critics said he was untouched by Italy but Finaldi describes this as a belief in the ‘force of genius and nationalism’. Influenced by his trip to Italy Velázquez painted large scale history pictures, notably ‘The Forge of Vulvan’ and ‘Joseph’s Tunic Presented to Jacob’, (both in 1630), in which he demonstrates his grasp of the relationship of figures to architectural space. Also in these works can be seen the dramatic Italianate use of affetti—the movement of the mind seen through the gestures, arrangement, and movement of the figures. Finaldi suggests the example of Titian was ‘a catalyst in the loosening of his style’. Velázquez also met various artists: followers of Caravaggio, and the Spanish artist Guiseppe Ribera in Naples who is credited with the invention of the ‘peasant philosopher’ which Velázquez had used in his paintings of ‘Menippus’ and ‘Aesop’.14 Velázquez returned to Italy in 1649 to 1651 where he painted the portrait of ‘Pope Innocent X’. This second journey did not alter his approach to painting which suggests he had reached the height of his artistic achievement.

In 1658 Velázquez received the Order of Santiago for which he had to prove ‘the purity of his blood and the nobility of his family’.15 Ortega y Gasset states that ‘Velázquez had never practised painting as a profession, that he had always lived with the decorum and attitude of a nobleman, that his painting was a gift, a “grace”, and not a means of living’. He emphasizes Velázquez’s nobility and service to the king and suggests this is the reason why he produced so few paintings; he was a gentleman who ‘painted a little’.16 Velázquez died in 1660 soon after returning to Madrid from organizing the celebration of the ‘Peace of the Pyrenees’ where Philip IV made a gift of his daughter Maria Teresa to King Louis XIV of France.

Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez describes Velázquez as ‘distanced from conventional religiosity’; characterized by a ‘“modern” and lay humanism’ he had a dignified and serious tone of mercy toward all creatures’. His library contained ‘numerous books on mathematics, history, architecture, and Spanish and Italian poetry’ and he had comparatively few of devotion in comparison with people of the same social position’.17 This interest in science and humanity points to Velázquez as a ‘modern’ figure, and perhaps because this is reflected in his paintings his work retains a particular resonance for the twentieth century.


I shall discuss two paintings in detail from different periods in Velázquez’s life. One thing I have found in looking at a specific work and subsequently reading what others have written is that they generally confirm my own feelings and this search for explanations has to become a process of looking beyond the words for something more: of spending time with a painting, And not just once but every time one approaches a painting one sees it as if for the first time, particularly in the case of Velázquez in certain works where a freedom and life exist, as if one is seeing the painting a moment before it is completed.

Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1617–21

Velázquez’s ‘Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’, (Figure 1), is a bodegón with a religious subject. Before discussing what others have written about this painting I will attempt to describe it. A young woman sits at a table crushing garlic. She seems a little self-conscious with her hands reddened, her face shiny, and cheeks flushed from working. At her side and older woman introduces her to the viewer with gently pointed finger; maybe she is just uncertain? The older woman seems lost in thought, her eyes unfocused. She does not engage the viewer and this draws our attention to her stillness, a calm resignation. Her dark clothes, making her body dematerialize into the shadow behind, heighten a sense of detachment.

Before the young woman a table is covered with various ingredients, a still-life seen with as much care and attention as the women. The deep shiny glazes of the earthenware set off the white eggs and silvery plump fish with their wonderful staring eyes. Also on the table are some garlic, a red pepper, a jug, and the shiny brass pestle and mortar in the woman’s hands. An image beyond the table depicts Christ in the house of Martha and Mary; its glowing light coming from the right separates it from the rest of the painting.

Figure 2. Velázquez, ‘Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’ (Detail)

These three elements—portraits, still-life and religious scene—all seem slightly disjointed. There is a tension in the perspective of the table compared with the women which is particularly expressed in the ellipses of the plates and mortar. Perhaps this heightens the sense of uncertainty on the young woman’s face? The religious image also throws up problems of a literal reading. It seems as if it is distinct from or beyond the dull brown surface of the wall. The looseness of the brushwork also distances it from the main picture.

After looking at this image for some time, pondering the story implied in the juxtaposition of the kitchen scene with the religious episode and the formal construction of the painting with its various diagonals directing the eye, I suddenly became aware of the richness of the colouring. Standing close to the painting the dark green-blue of the plate made the silvery warm fish come alive. The hint of red under the gill and the red pepper below heighten this sense of the real. Against the empty brown background these glowing colours have a peculiar intensity bringing each object to life.

I was also drawn to the lack of detail, this is not a photographic representation. The old woman’s finger becomes moulded paint, the religious image in relation to the kitchen distracts the mind. The three parts described above drift apart and the portrait of the young woman, and the colouring of the fish and plate, remain in an unstable tension. These undercurrents of narrative, portrait, paint and colour in this work reveal for me the experience of the intensity of looking; of trying to grasp an aspect of truth in paint but not fixing on a particular truth. It is the tension which comes from learning and experimenting which finally draws me to this painting. Velázquez moves a long way from his early bodegones and I will later discuss how the nature of this tension changes in later works.

In discussing ‘Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’ critics tend to concentrate on the relation between the religious image and the action in the kitchen and they all reveal a confusion about how to read this painting. Particular Flemish prints, where a religious story is depicted in the background which justifies or contrasts with the main scene, are cited as the influence for this painting. In Velázquez’s work critics point to the ambiguity of this relationship, and theories about whether the religious image is seen outside the room through an opening, as a reflection in a mirror, or as a painting within a painting, abound. The author AS Byatt points out that studies suggest that the ‘ambiguity’ in Velázquez’s painting is ‘the result of a failure of foreshortening, and that the painter does mean to depict deep space’, and ‘the message seems to be the orthodox religious one, that the vita contemplativa is deeper and more significant than the world of the flesh’.18 On the other hand Ortega y Gasset calls it ‘practically a profane work’.19 And again for AS Byatt, ‘the sensuous pleasure of this painting is finally the still life… a source of light to rival the calm gold glow round the Christ’. Allan Braham feels ‘the stillness and simplicity of the scene, in juxtaposition with the biblical episode in the background, invests the painting with an almost sacramental power’, but he also claims it is ‘finally as a painting and not as an illustration that the picture owes its power to excite’.20

I find it hard to believe like Enrique Ferrari, that ‘the ambiguity is intentional on Velázquez’s part’.21 I prefer Dr Peter Cherry’s analysis of the painting in which the still quality, though with implied movement, the use of posed figures, the lack of interaction between figures, all point to Velázquez’s interest primarily in painting; in the ‘extreme objectivity’ of painting. He talks of the painting as ‘self-referential’ and ‘non-linguistic’, pointing out that certain objects and people are repeated in other works by Velázquez and each time they are looked at afresh.22

Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver, 1631

In this portrait, (Figure 3), the king, in his late twenties, stands in a very slightly unstable pose: poised. His left hand rests on his sword in a completely relaxed way so the blade is pushed horizontal: non-threatening. In his right hand he holds a slip of paper which is inscribed with Velázquez’s signature—one of the few he signed. His face and body are turned in three-quarter profile to his left. The shadow beneath the collar or golilla, and the golilla itself, visually sever Philip’s head from his body where it levitates with poise. He has the jutting lower lip and chin of the Hapsburg family.

Philip IV is presented in a very simple space, standing on a plain flat floor across which his incredibly soft shadow falls. Behind him hangs a deep red curtain drawn back to reveal a dark empty space; a void. The curtain’s colour is continued in the table-cloth. At the end of the table is a chair, draped with the king’s cloak, although only two legs are visible and are arranged inclined towards the king on either side as if to prop up the king in his unstable pose, There are visible pentimenti around the legs and feet which suggest animation. They also remind us of Velázquez’s direct alla prima approach to painting; working directly on to the canvas from life without detailed sketches. And the greatest delight in his work, as in many later works, is the freedom of the paint.

Figure 3: Velázquez, 'Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver', 1631–36(?),
Oil on Canvas, 198 x 111 cm, The National Gallery, London.

This portrait conveys the physical presence of the king; a sculptural quality, with a lightness and purposeful intent. The wonderfully portrayed clothes with their silver detail exquisitely and precisely though freely stroked on reveals a much more profound tension: the joy and expressiveness of Velázquez’s painting in no way detracts from the very human side of the king’s nature. There is both a sense of revealed truth and a love of the paint. I refer to this as a ‘tension’ in the sense that Velázquez manages to hold these two elements together in a harmony which belies the fact that they are one and the same thing: the paint itself.

Figure 4: Velázquez, 'Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver' (Detail)

Allan Braham refers to the series of portraits of Philip IV as ‘moving… as a cumulative record of his sad life’.23 While John Elliot asks the question whether Velázquez ‘was aware of the difficulties of Spain while at the same time expressing the dignity of the court?’24 Critics always return to this question of the representation of reality in paint. Fahy stated in a lecture at the Metropolitan’s Velázquez exhibition that ‘there’s a great controversy in the books over whether Velázquez was doing it instinctively or as a result of a tremendous amount of cogitation’, but like other critics he returns to the sensuality of the painting, ‘it’s painting to give you real visual pleasure’.25 A. Sánchez believes that ‘both [his eye and hand] are at the service of an intelligence whose silent reserve and meditative objectivity create an aura of mystery’.26 And it is with a certain distance and respectful silence when viewing this work that I can most fully appreciate its insights into the nature of man.

In discussing the development of Velázquez’s painting technique, Zahira Veliz informs us that X-rays show the increasing freedom of his painting from early works, where there is a concentration of marks on the figures, to later works where the brushwork evenly covers the surface. But she also states, with reference to the above portrait, that the details are ‘extremely calculated’ and not at all impressionistic.27 Fred Licht agrees, ‘our idolization of the spontaneous brushwork has misled us’ and ‘what we praise today as “courageous lack of finish” has more to do with the artist’s unwillingness to appeal to us’.28 This again suggests the dignity of Velázquez; his commitment to the king, but also his commitment to the art of painting through which he conveys the essence of his time.


Nineteenth and Twentieth Century artist’s responses to Velázquez’s work

Edouard Manet (1832–1883)

There is a lack of documented discussion by Manet of the work of Velázquez apart from a few passages in which Manet generally pours praise on him. In 1865, after visiting the Prado in Madrid, Manet wrote in a letter to Henri Fantin-Latour ‘what pleasure it would have given you to see Velázquez, who alone is worth the whole journey. The painters of every school who surround him in the Madrid Museum, and who are very well represented, all seem second-rate in comparison with him. He is the painter to beat all painters. He didn’t astonish me, he enchanted me’.29 Théodore Duret, who met Manet in Madrid and became a close friend recalled ‘Naturally we went every day to the Prado and spent a considerable time before the paintings of Velázquez’.30

Even before this journey Manet had been attracted to the work of Velázquez, and he had a particular interest in Spanish art. Spanish themes are evident in many of Manet’s paintings of the early 1860s and he had a collection of Spanish costumes in his studio which ‘saw frequent use’. This interest was not unusual for his generation. Édouard Lhote in an article in ‘L’Artiste’ in 1862 declared that
the Spanish school had revolutionized the French school of painting’.31 A contemporary of Manet, James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), also had a strong interest in Velázquez’s work. In 1862 he planned an expedition to Madrid with Fantin-Latour ‘particularly to see the paintings of Velázquez in the Prado’, although in the end he travelled alone and did not reach Madrid.32 ‘It was not he, but Manet,’ states James Laver, ‘who was to be the channel through which the influence of Spain was to affect modern painting.’33

Manet studied under Thomas Couture in the 1850s, He ‘registered as a copyist at the Louvre … immediately after entering Couture’s studio’ where he made copies after the Old Masters. This was an essential part of 1850s art education.34 On his travels he made a point of copying the Old Masters. 1852 saw him at the Rijks museum in Holland and in 1853 he went to Italy.35 There is therefore a wide range of possible influences on the developing Manet, but the above statement suggests an identification with and enthusiasm for Velázquez’s work, and that Velázquez has had an important influence on his painting. I will look at Manet’s work in the light of Velázquez’s and in relation to further statements by Manet.

Manet’s ‘The Spanish Singer’ of 1860, (Figure 5), was accepted by the Salon in 1861. Its ‘ancestry’ was, as Kathleen Adler pointed out, immediately recognized by Theophile Gautier who wrote ‘Velázquez would have given him a friendly wink, and Goya would have given him a light for his papelito.36 Manet himself described ‘The Spanish Singer’ as ‘…executed with the naïveté of métier found in Velázquez’.37
This ‘naïveté of métier’ probably refers to a simplicity or directness which Manet perceived in the painting of Velázquez. Manet’s friend Charles Baudelaire used the word naïveté as ‘a term of praise for the peculiar quality which differentiated [Manet] from all others’. To Baudelaire this described ‘…la domination du tempérament dans la maniére.’38

Figure 5: Manet, The Spanish Singer, 1860,
Oil on Canvas, 147 x 114 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

‘The Spanish Singer’ is executed in a direct, painterly way with particular concentration on the singer’s features. The singer is sitting in a space enclosed by an even, dark brown background. The shadows below the singer have a similar quality to those in Velázquez’s portraits of Philip IV. It is a very simple uncluttered space and in the lower right corner is a still-life of onions and a wine jug. The colour is understated; there is a lack of strong hues, the pale red of the guitar strap being the brightest element in contrast with the deep tones of the green bench. All these suggest the influence of Velázquez’s paintings.

During this period a number of paintings in the style of Velázquez, or which ‘merely came from Spain’, were attributed to him as ‘autograph works.’39 Among these was the painting of ‘A Dead Soldier’, now thought to be Italian School, 17th century, which inspired Manet to paint his ‘Dead Toreador’ in 1863. ‘A Dead Soldier’ displays none of the characteristics of a Velázquez and the only aspect of it which Manet has taken seems to be the pose of the figure.

Manet also wrote, in his letter from Madrid to Fantin-Latour, ‘The most astonishing work in this splendid collection, and perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting that has ever been done, is [Pablo de Valladolid]. The background fades into nothing; the old boy, all in black, so alive he seems to be surrounded by air’.40 Manet uses this light, thin, scumbled background in paintings such as ‘The Fifer’, 1866, and ‘Portrait of Faure as Hamlet’, 1877. In the latter, clouds are suggested and the background becomes like a mist behind Faure’s legs. However these paintings are not looking backwards. Although they are touched by romanticism, they portray contemporary figures. His paintings convey a feeling of Baudelairean ‘modernité’; of the ‘heroism of modern life’.41 This is not only reflected in the colour black of the clothes portrayed, of which Baudelaire asks if it were not ‘the necessary costume of our long suffering age, which bears upon its black and narrow shoulders the symbol of perpetual grief’, but also in the subjects and direct painting techniques which both point to Manet’s attempt to understand the nature of the world he inhabits, and questions how to portray this world in paint.42

Ortega y Gasset in his essay ‘On Realism in Painting’43 of 1912, discusses ‘…the Velázquez of Manet, Velázquez the Impressionist’. But Manet chose to distance himself from the tenets of the Impressionists although he worked with Monet and Renoir at Argenteuil in the summer of 1874. Kathleen Adler illustrates that ‘though Manet’s palette had become lighter and brighter during his association with Monet his concern was not with representing ephemeral effects; [His paintings] are highly organized and deliberately contrived’.44 George Moore noticed how Manet would continually repaint areas of the canvas and ‘every time it came out brighter and fresher, and the painting never seemed to lose anything in quality’.45

Manet is very much of his time but remains independent artistically, only taking from others those ideas which are meaningful to him. Baudelaire wrote a letter which is ‘significant as an explanation of the aesthetic attraction’ Manet felt for Spanish painting: ‘…People have told him so much about his imitations of Goya that he is trying to see some Goyas. It is true he has seen Velázquez, I know not where… You doubt that such surprising mathematical parallels can be found in nature? Very well! People have accused me, yes me, of imitating Edgar Poe! Do you know why I have translated Poe so patiently? Because he resembled me. The first time I opened one of his books I saw, with terror and ecstasy, not only subjects I had dreamed of, but phrases I had thought of and he had written twenty years earlier’.46 Moore called Manet ‘un petit Velázquez’ and claimed ‘In this world all is echo. The temperamental characteristics which created Velázquez’s art and which were repeated in Manet two centuries after were an extraordinary grasp of vision for all that was luminous and a strange sensitiveness to all that was crude and violent in nature…’47

Figure 6: Manet, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1881–2,
Oil on Canvas, 96 x 130 cm, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London.

To illustrate the importance of Velázquez’s work to Manet I will discuss Manet’s last major painting, ‘Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère’ of 1881–2, (Figure 6). The first thing that struck me were the muted colours and the tranquility of the painting: these elements are often comment on in Velázquez’s paintings. The orange, green and dull red in the foreground play against the other colours but instead of taking over they emphasize the subtle hues behind. The stillness shows a concentration on, and an empathy with, the barmaid as she is seen, both distanced from and fixed to her surroundings. This is in her eyes and in her isolation from the ‘impressionistic’ background; from the people reflected in the mirror. She is detached from her reflection and from the man portrayed as looking at her. This disjunction is repeated on the left of the painting where the reflected bottles are in completely the wrong positions and seem to emphasize her detachment.

Much is written about the use of mirrors and the implied and real spectator and comparisons are often made with Velázquez’s major work ‘Las Meninas’, (Figure 7). However the most important similarities for me are the reflection of Manet on the feelings of the figure and his direct, free use of paint, the wonderful colouring, and the nuance of touch; elements which pervade all of his work.

Figure 7: Velázquez, ‘Las Meninas’, 1656,
Oil on Canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo del Prado.

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

‘What does it mean… for a painter, to paint “after so-and-so” or to imitate someone else? What’s wrong with it? On the contrary, it’s a good thing. You must always be trying to imitate somebody else. But the fact is, you can’t!… You would like to! You try! But you make a botch of the whole thing… and it’s at that point that you make a botch of everything you are yourself.’
Pablo Picasso.

During his final years Picasso turned to the great artists of the past, among them Velázquez, Delacroix, Rembrandt, Ingres, Manet and Van Gogh. Klaus Gallwitz suggested this was because many of his artist friends, such as André Derain, Matisse, Léger, and Braque with who he had learnt much, had died and in order to carry on with his artistic dialogue he ‘cleared the ground for a spontaneous, far reaching study of masterworks of painting’.48

Figure 8: Picasso, ‘Las Meninas, after Velázquez’, 17th August 1957,
Oil on Canvas, 194 x 260 cm, Museu Picasso, Barcelona.

Between 17th August and 30th
December, 1957, Picasso painted a series of fifty-eight paintings in an upper room of his château ‘La Californie’, (see Figures 8 and 9), forty-four of which were inspired directly by fellow Andalusian Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’, (Figure 7). Only eight represent the entire painting while the rest are of small groups or single figures. Fourteen of these portray the Infanta Margarita. The others include paintings of his dovecotes with views out of the window and landscapes.

The first painting in the series, (Figure 8), explores the spacial relationships in ‘Las Meninas’ in grisaille. He opens the windows on the right of the painting and floods the room with light. Michel Leiris writes of Picasso making himself at home ‘when he moved in with Velázquez’.49 Gallwitz believes ‘His recapitulation of his own arguments through the arguments of great masterworks is one of the most important processes in his late work’.50 Marie-Laure Bernadac calls it an ‘extrapolation of Synthetic Cubism’ but adds that he has ‘extraordinary freedom of brushwork, an unquenchable enthusiasm, and the licence to manipulate his figures as he chooses’.51

Figure 9: Picasso, 'Las Meninas, after Velázquez', 19th September 1957,
Oil on Canvas, 162 x 130 cm, Museu Picasso, Barcelona.

Hilton Kramer in an article ‘Trashing “Las Meninas”’52 calls these works the documentation of ‘a very great talent in ghastly decline’ and expresses horror at their ‘abysmal’ aesthetic quality. He believes Picasso was ‘determined to bring this historic masterwork down to the level where his work was now marooned’ and calls him an ‘academic disciple of a style he had himself created in the period of his greatest glory’. At the age of seventy-six Picasso was not about to alter his approach to his work, the paintings are all ‘Picassos’ although they are constantly changing, full of humour, a delight in colour, shapes and the richness of paint. John Richardson states that ‘much of [Velázquez’s] genius resided in the sheer glory of his paint; and Picasso was out to appropriate Velázquez’s alma española, not his facture’.53 I do not feel that the dignified serious tone of Velázquez’s ‘spirit’ is captured in these works. There is not the sense of distance and tenderness of a Velázquez although I feel this side is revealed in the last portraits of the Infanta in the series where the paint is freed from the drawn line. It can however be seen, as David Sylvester pictures, ‘Doing those series must have been like performing in a very heady jam session, where a player is inspired to improvise variation upon variation…’54

What does Picasso leave us with these paintings after a reproduction of ‘Las Meninas’? They are distanced from reality in that they are reproductions of a reproduction of ‘Las Meninas’ painted in a different age and place but they exude their own reality as paintings. They suggest an artist looking inwards at his own art and questioning it in relation to another’s and in the end he asserts his own freedom and creativity in paint. There is also the poignant feeling of a defiance in the face of death and artistic loneliness.

Figure 10: Veláquez, 'Pope Innocent X', 1650,
Oil on Canvas, 141 x 119 cm, Galeria Doria Pamphili, Rome.

Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

Francis Bacon came to prominence in the late nineteen forties and early fifties with, as Sam Hunter describes, ‘his obsessive grimacing and screaming popes and related work of a similar visionary force’.55 Francis Bacon has said of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, (Figure 10), ‘I think it is one of the greatest portraits that have ever been made and I became obsessed by it… It just haunts me, and it opens up all sorts of feelings and areas of – I was going to say – imagination, even, in me’.56 It is difficult to know exactly why this portrait especially attracted Bacon. David Sylvester suggests this obsession is connected to ideas of the tragic hero, ‘The tragic hero who is necessarily somebody who is elevated above other men to begin with’.57 Perhaps there is more than just this simple identification apart from the purely emotional response? Janet Hobhouse describes this portrait as ‘a still-fearful image of worldly power… [Velázquez] had no difficulty in distinguishing the man from his holy office or in setting down the temporal burdens and willfulness of the infallible Prince of the Church’.58 Perhaps this ‘fearful image of worldly power’ speaks to us at a deeper level?

Figure 11: Bacon, 'Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X', 1953,
Oil on Canvas, 153 x 118.1 cm, Des Moines Art Centre,

In Bacon’s ‘Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ of 1953, (Figure 11), Bacon combines the portrait of the pope with a screaming head after an image of a screaming nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ of 1925. With its thin veil of paint over bare canvas it conveys a sense of the momentary and the power, but also the weakness, of symbols, Hunter describes Bacon’s paintings after ‘Pope Innocent X’ as ‘sensational images of hysteria and nightmare in paint, which spoke so eloquently to our postwar distress’.59

Lawrence Gowing believes the ‘pictures of popes gain a momentum from history’, from their ‘painterly richness of the realization’, and from their stand against pure abstraction and disrespect for the papal tradition. And he calls the ‘borrowing and recreation of the traditional papal image … one of the most fertile audacities of modern art’.60 This is similar to Picasso’s studies after traditional paintings and perhaps reflects a need in the artist for the support of tradition as one searches for, or tries to make sense of, one’s own language in paint?

Francis Bacon has particular ideas about Velázquez’s portraits as outlined in his quote at the beginning of this essay. ‘But’, thinks Bacon, ‘so many things have happened since Velázquez that the situation has become much more involved and much more difficult, for many reasons’. He feels photography has taken over the recording of images and also that artists such as Velázquez were still ‘slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities’, which man ‘has had completely cancelled out for him’. Therefore for Bacon ‘all art has now become a game by which man distracts himself’.61

Bacon admits himself that Velázquez’s paintings, as well as being an illustration, ‘unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel’.62 Velázquez speaks to us of the lives of the people around him, and this is in no way diminished for us today. I find Bacon’s position difficult to accept as I continue to question his premises and I find in his work an emotional urgency expressed in his use of paint which speaks of a particular human response. Gowing believes ‘the poetry of Bacon’s faith in the emotional life and liveliness of paint is one of the truest things in modern art’.63


‘There is no plurality in art. Primitive art, the art of Egypt, Greece, our own—it is all, I think, one and the same art throughout, an art which remains itself throughout thousands of years. You can call it an idea, a statement about life, so all-embracing that it can’t be split up into separate words; and if there is so much as a particle of it in any work which includes other things as well, it outweighs all the other ingredients in significance and turns out to be the essence, the heart and soul of the work.’
Boris Pasternak in ‘Doctor Zhivago’, 1957.

There are many other artists who acknowledge the influence of Velázquez, from the realist Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) to the abstract artist John Walker (b.1939) whose painting ‘Labyrinth III’, (Figure 12), of 1979–80 at the Tate Gallery, London, has obvious connections with ‘Las Meninas’ through its sense of interior space and the arrangements of the shapes within that space. Velázquez makes such a complete statement in his art through paint about human expression and feelings that many artists are drawn to different aspects of it and benefit from their separate experiences of it through their own work.

Figure 12: Walker, ‘Labyrinth III’, 1979–80,
Oil on Canvas, 246 x 299 cm, Tate Gallery, London

Many things remain unanswered. I still do not fully understand the attraction of Velázquez’s art for myself. Perhaps I feel I am at a point of disillusion with, or have a lack of understanding of, my own direction as an artist and am attracted by a strong sense of achievement in Velázquez’s art? Each artist I have discussed has responded to Velázquez’s paintings at different moments in their development, but I believe they all take similar things from his work. Particularly Manet and Bacon who seem to respond to his particular way of painting and the way his paintings go beyond mere appearances and look at human nature. Picasso is using Velázquez’s work more as a fixed point from which to experiment with his own approach to painting. I find it difficult to know whether an artist like Bacon is really expressing a universal emotion or a purely subjective one; the borders are difficult to define.

One of the most important things I get from Velázquez’s work is the strong sense of a development of his perception and his handling of that perception in paint. From the early works where he is both looking closely at his subjects and trying to make the paint do what he wants, to his later works where these two elements fuse together and become much richer, there is always the feeling of a man exploring and learning from his experience of the people around him. This is something which also comes across strongly in Manet’s paintings but in Picasso´s and in Bacon´s early painting there is a feeling of distance from other people and a turning inwards, or an identification with particular emotions which are only resolved in paint.

I am wary of my position with respect to my analyses of Velázquez’s art and see in my own approach, and that of many present-day critics when discussing art, a very subjective response to the subject of each painting: the illustrative side of the work. There is an emphasis on the intellectual and not on the purely visual. Even in Bacon’s ideas on Velázquez’s portraits he refers to the readings of human emotions, or truths, in his work and I see a lack of understanding of how the paint conveys these ideas. This is passed over with a respectful silence, This understanding, I feel, is best achieved through one’s own exploration of paint, and with the example of Velázquez one knows the possibility of expressing something meaningful in paint.

There is a particular enjoyment of paint and its possibilities which runs through each of these artist’s paintings. There is a painterly directness and a lightness of touch combined with a concentration on the expressive qualities of paint which, particularly in the work of Picasso and Bacon, comes to the fore; the paint begins to take over, to speak for itself. In Velázquez’s handling of paint I find an enjoyment of paint which is more connected with the visual world around him; the two elements become insoluble.

Ortega y Gasset suggests that Velázquez, as ‘perhaps the greatest connoisseur of the artistic past existing in his day’, probably looked at ‘its huge bulk… as being on a par with, say archaeology.’64 He only uses the art of the past to take what he needs for his own work, and in his work he is constantly referring to the present. This brings me to the question of the ‘weight of history’ bearing down on the modern artist. When I look at each of these artists I find that this is absent; they look back but are so involved with their own experience of the world—in Picasso’s case the world of his experience of art—that I feel this ‘weight of history’ has become one of today’s misleading myths. Ideas even of ‘historical progress’ in art also tend to fall apart. These artists are each responding in their own way to the world they live in. Their is practically no discernible difference in the materials they use to convey their ideas. I feel it is only really both the critical approach to their paintings and the worlds they each inhabited that are different.

The quote above has particular relevance to all these questions, especially in our day when ideas of ‘pluralism’ in art are prevalent, The attraction of Velázquez’s art is hidden in the paint for those who, through their personal experience of the visual, sensual nature of paint and its ability to convey meaning, wish to experience for themselves something of its truth. Pasternak speaks of the impossibility of language to reveal the ‘essence’ of a work.65 This ‘statement about life’ is rather the personal statement of the painter about their particular insight into life and Velázquez, I believe, expresses his vision extremely vividly.


1. From a lecture by Professor John H. Elliot of Oxford University, ‘The Spain of Velázquez’, The National Gallery, London, 20th November 1993.
2. Palomino quoted by Jonathan Brown, ‘Italy and Spain 1600–1750 Sources and Document’, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, p.182.
3. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Velázquez, Goya, The Dehumanization of Art and other essays’, Studio Vista London. 1972, p.85.
4. J. Brown, ‘Italy and Spain…’, p.182.
5. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Velázquez, Goya…’, pp.96,97.
6. Carducho quoted in J. Brown, ‘Italy and Spain…’, p.174.
7. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Velázquez, Goya…’, pp.97.
8. J. Brown, ‘Italy and Spain…’, p.183.
9. Quoted in a lecture by Dr Peter Cherry of Trinity College, Dublin, ‘Velázquez’s Bodegones and “The True Imitation of Nature”’, The National Gallery, London, 20th November 1993.
10. From a lecture by Gabriele Finaldi, ‘Velázquez and Italy’, The National Gallery, London, 20th November 1993.
11. Enrique Lafuente Ferrari, ‘Velázquez’, Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1960, p.9.
12. Lecture by Prof. J. H. Elliot, ‘The Spain of Velázquez’.
13. E. L. Ferrari, ‘Velázquez’, pp.11,13.
14. Lecture by G. Finaldi, ‘Velázquez and Italy’.
15. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Velázquez, Goya…’, p.91.
16. Ibid.
17. Antonio Domínguez Ortiz, Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, Julián Gállego, ‘Velázquez’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Exhibition Catalogue), 1989, p.22.
18. AS Byatt, ‘Author’s Choice’, The National Gallery News, November 1993.
19. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Velázquez’, Collins Publishers, London, 1972, p.XXXIII
20. Allan Braham, ‘Velázquez’, (Themes and Painters in the National Gallery, Number 3), The National Gallery, London, 1972, pp.12,13.
21. E. L. Ferrari, ‘Velázquez’, p.35.
22. Lecture by Dr P. Cherry, ‘Velázquez’s Bodegones…’.
23. A. Braham, ‘Velázquez’, p.19.
24. Lecture by Prof. J. H. Elliot, ‘The Spain of Velázquez’.
25. Quoted by Milton Esterow in ‘He never fusses’, ARTnews, January 1990, p.38.
26. A.E. Pérez Sánchez, ‘Velázquez’, p.23.
27. From a lecture by Zahira Veliz, ‘Less is more: The Development of Velázquez’s Oil Painting Technique’, The National Gallery, London, 20th November 1993.
28. Fred Licht, ‘Velázquez at the Metropolitan Museum: Unadorned Oaths to the Truth’, Art International, Spring 1990, v.10, pp.82,83.
29. Pierre Courthion and Pierre Cailler (Editors), ‘Portrait of Manet, by himself and his contemporaries’, Cassell & Company Ltd., London, 1960, p.14.
30. Ibid., p.57.
31. Kathleen Adler, ‘Manet’, Phaidon, Oxford, 1986, p.32.
32. Hilary Taylor, ‘James McNeill Whistler’, Studio Vista, London, 1978, p.20.
33. James Laver, ‘Whistler’, White Lion edition, 1976, p.58.
34. K. Adler, ‘Manet’, p.19.
35. Ibid., p.21.
36. Ibid., p.33.
37. Ibid., p.32.
38. Ibid., p.40.
39. A. Braham, ‘Velázquez’, p.5.
40. P. Courthion and P. Cailler, ‘Portrait of Manet…’, p.15.
41. K. Adler, ‘Manet’, p.40.
42. George Heard Hamilton, ‘Manet and his Critics’, Yale University Press, 1954, p.29.
43. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Velázquez, Goya…’, p.22.
44. K. Adler, ‘Manet’, p.172.
45. Ibid., p.29.
46. G. Hamilton, ‘Manet and his Critics’, p.63.
47. K. Adler, ‘Manet’, p.77.
48. Klaus Gallwitz, ‘Picasso at 90: The Late Work’, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971, p.116.
49. Michel Leiris’ essay ‘Picasso and Las Meninas by Velázquez’, 1957 reproduced in Marilyn McCully’s (Editor), ‘A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences’, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1981, p.257.
50. K. Gallwitz, ‘Picasso at 90: The Late Work’, p.118.
51. Marie-Laure Bernadac, ‘Picasso 1953–1972: Painting as Model’, from ‘Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953–1972’, The Tate Gallery, (exhibition catalogue), London, 1988, pp.61,62.
52. Hilton Kramer, ‘Trashing “Las Meninas”: The vulgar spectacle of Picasso’s artistic revenge’, Art and Antiques, February 1989, v.6, pp.87–88.
53. John Richardson, ‘L’Epoque Jacqueline’, from ibid., p.20.
54. David Sylvester, ‘End Game’, from ibid., p.138.
55. Sam Hunter’s essay, ‘Metaphor and Meaning in Francis Bacon’, in, (with Lawrence Gowing), ‘Francis Bacon’, Thames and Hudson, 1989, p.30.
56. Quoted in David Sylvester’s ‘Interviews with Francis Bacon’, Thames and Hudson, 1975, p.24.
57. Ibid., p.26.
58. Janet Hobhouse, ‘Power and Flesh’, ARTnews, November 1989, p.114.
59. S. Hunter, ‘Francis Bacon’, p.30.
60. Lawrence Gowing’s essay, ‘Francis Bacon: The Human Presence’, in ‘Francis Bacon’, p.16.
61. D. Sylvester, ‘Interviews…’, pp.28,29.
62. Ibid.
63. L. Gowing, ‘Francis Bacon’, p.23.
64. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Velázquez, Goya…’, p.104.
65. Boris Pasternak, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, Collins Harvill, 1988, (first published 1958), p.256.