Velázquez: the high, the devastating price of snobbery


The Velázquez show at the National Gallery has reminded me that art history is not only about what was, and what is, but what might have been.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez

This Andalusian from Seville (his father was Portuguese) was a lifelong snob and social climber and later maintained his family were of gentry, if not noble, stock. We do not know and it seems unlikely. What matters about this single-minded and pushy southerner is that he was perhaps the most naturally gifted painter who has ever lived. His training is obscure and was unimportant. Who can teach a genius of the top rank? The way in which he put on the paint, with infinite exactitude and matchless daring, swiftly, surely and with total confidence, has never been equalled. This kind of skill cannot be learned. It comes by the grace of God. Velázquez also had a supreme gift of penetrating the face and bodies of those he saw, and translating their structure, in his mind, from three dimensions into an image in two, and then getting it on to the canvas luminously, as if the blood still coursed under the pigment-mask, and the brain still flickered fiercely behind the glowing eyes. I do not blame Pope Innocent X for saying his portrait was ‘too true’, for there he is in all his shifty, calculating worldliness (the version in the NG show is not the best, which is, naturally, in the palace of Innocent’s family, the Doria-Pamphili, in Rome).

What is notable is that Velázquez was producing masterpieces at the age of 18, and he was only 19 (probably) when he painted my two favourites in his entire oeuvre, ‘The Old Woman Cooking Eggs’ (Scottish NG) and the ‘Water Seller of Seville’ (Apsley House). What is remarkable about these works is not so much the magic of his painted surfaces — textiles, porcelain, stonework, metal, water, grease and dirt, hair and flesh — as the way in which he conveys the nobility and dignity of the poor, which are the most precious characteristics of the Spanish people.

Velázquez was 19 when he used his exquisite teenage wife as model for the ‘Immaculate Conception’ (London NG) and she appears again (I think) some months later in his rendering of ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, a work of such originality and power as to defy belief in its subtleties. Not only is the Virgin a real woman, rather than an icon, but her child is a real baby, the only infant Jesus I know who conveys complete conviction, as well as radiating divinity as he gazes steadily and directly into the eyes of the genuflecting magus. At the same time, Velázquez was creating portrait images which have never been surpassed for insights not only into minds but souls — of Mother Geronimo and the poet Luis de Gongora. These faces, once seen, are never forgotten.

It is fair to ask: what might not this young man have gone on to do, in the service of his art, had painting been his sole ambition? Might he not have become the greatest painter of all, outreaching his older contemporary Rubens and his younger one Rembrandt? The possibilities were infinite. Alas, social ambition was an even more powerful force in his life than art, and when he was 22 a series of events, which he greeted with delight, made it possible for him to gratify it. In 1621 Philip IV became king, and the Sevillian Count Olivares came into supreme power at court. That brought a rush of ambitious Sevillians to Madrid, Velázquez included. Strings were pulled in his favour and in 1623 he got the chance to paint Philip’s portrait. It has since disappeared but at the time it was a tremendous success, and soon after he was appointed Pintor del Rey. Thereafter his life was spent in the royal service and most of his output was dedicated to the visual glorification of the decaying Habsburg monarchy.

It is fair to ask: what might not this young man have gone on to do, in the service of his art, had painting been his sole ambition? Might he not have become the greatest painter of all, outreaching his older contemporary Rubens and his younger one Rembrandt?

Now I am not arguing that the change in his life was without its precious consequences. He was able to paint delightful portraits of the royal personages, especially the wives and children (and dogs: Velázquez was the finest dog-painter until Landseer — observe how the little spaniel steals the show in his ‘Joseph’s Coat Presented to Jacob’). The series on the tragic Prince Balthasar are unique, and uniquely charming, in this genre. Nor was the wonderful imagination and originality of the painter entirely suppressed. His ‘Surrender of Breda’ has no peer in renderings of historic events, being both solemn and panoramic, and intimate; and I need not descant on ‘Las Meninas’, for everyone is fascinated by its mysteries, open and secret. The painter had good reasons for seeking royal employment, too. The alternative in a Spain where lay connoisseurship was still underdeveloped was serving the Church, and that meant painting endless full-lengths of certain saints for monasteries and convents, not only in Spain but in Spanish America, whence it was often difficult to get paid. That was the sad fate of Zurbaran, a few months Velázquez’s senior who, while inferior in talent, was nonetheless a superb artist capable of great things. Velázquez had good reason to fear the drawback of the commercial market.

However, that was not his primary reason for seeking to escape it. He thought painting for money was beneath him. It was trade. Once he was established at Court, he maintained that he had freed himself from the cash-nexus (to use Carlyle’s phrase). He thought, and of course many agreed with him, that it was impossible for a man who painted for money to be a gentleman, let alone rise to higher things. And he wanted to rise not only higher but to the highest. He seems to have set his heart on becoming a member of the Order of Santiago, Spain’s highest order of chivalry, the equivalent of our Garter. He was not eligible because he certainly could not prove that he was noble, nor could he honestly swear that he had never worked for money. But with a certain amount of perjury, and with the help of the king and, in the end, of the pope, the objections of the Council of the Order were overruled and in 1658, after 30 years of intriguing, Velázquez was finally made a Knight of St James.

What this cost him in time, mental anxiety and nervous energy we shall never know. It was not the only brake on his artistic activity. The trouble was that he had before him the constant example of Rubens, who moved in the highest circles throughout Europe and was periodically engaged in diplomatic work of importance. Rubens was a grand señor by nature, and could take it all in his stride. His head was never turned and he made no enemies. But Velázquez had to lobby hard to get such positions as deputy mayor of the palace and assistant master of the wardrobe, which had nothing to do with painting and consumed a lot of time. What valuable, daylight-painting hours he devoted to flunkeyism does not bear thinking about. Still, in emulation of Rubens, he got himself put in charge of the meeting between Philip and Louis XIV of France to hand over the Infanta Maria Theresa as Louis’s bride. This took place on the Franco-Spanish border in June 1660, and the effort exhausted the painter. He died immediately afterwards. What a price to pay for baubles and partying. Snobbery is pathetic in anyone, but it is tragic when the victim of the vice was potentially the greatest master of all.



Paul Johnson. "Velázquez: the high, the devastating price of snobbery." The Spectator (December 30, 2006).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Johnson

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.