Velasquez Dreamed of Becoming Somebody

Nobody is ever happy. Take Diego Velasquez.

He could paint better than anyone. All the painters in Spain envied him.
Here is one of his early works, a boy and an old woman in the kitchen cooking eggs.

Woman Cooking Eggs (public domain photo)

Before he was even twenty-five he beat all the masters in a contest and became the king’s painter. He and his family moved into an apartment next to the royal palace in Madrid and received a royal salary.  Diego hurried out to buy a carriage and hire some servants.
That, when most of the country, including many painters, were living well below the poverty level.

Here is a boy delousing himself  in Velasquez’s hometown, Seville. The painting is by his contemporary Murillo.

The Young Beggar (public domain photo)

And his good fortune didn’t stop there.  He became the very king’s friend. They used to sit and chat. Not even many of the highest nobles could brag about a privilege like that. Palace servants and great nobles alike would watch Velasquez walk right through the palace and into the private quarters of King Philip, the most powerful man in Europe. Or they would see the king make his way to Velasquez’s studio, to watch him paint.

Velasquez made this portrait of his friend, King Philip IV

King Philip IV  (public domain photo)

Yet Diego got used to being gifted and lucky.  He wasn’t satisfied.   He wanted to be a gentleman too. It didn’t matter that he was a world-famous painter and an intelligent and cultivated man. In the Spain of his time you had to be a nobleman to be respected.   He climbed ranks in the palace service. First he became one kind of servant and then another. But that was merely rising in the “firm”.

What he really needed was a title. How do you get a title? You have to show that one of your ancestors was a nobleman. Diego spent a lot of money over many years digging up old papers and getting reports from friends and relatives but he couldn’t find a single aristocrat in his family tree.  When his nobility application stalled, he went to the king.  “Could you help me, Majesty? I’d like to become a  Knight of St. James.”

Though the king was the king and the highest-ranking nobleman, even his good word was barely enough to make the bureaucrats waive the noble ancestor requirement for Diego. And it was only in the last year of his life that he became a Knight.

One of his last paintings was this one, called Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor). He shows himself painting a big portrait of the king and queen (standing where we viewers stand, outside the picture) and surrounded by members of the royal household.

Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) 1656-1657  (318 × 276 cm (125.2 × 108.7 in) (public domain photo)

It is his biggest and maybe his only self-portrait.  He stands full-length. Perhaps now he was finally proud enough to put himself in a picture.
After he died, someone (his son-in-law?) painted the cross of St. James on Velasquez’s doublet.  The great painter was at last a certified gentleman.

Self-portrait of Velasquez in Las Meninas (public domain photo)

This is a  statue of Velasquez at the entrance to the Prado Museum, Madrid:




Posted in art, great artists, painting, Spain, Velazquez | Tagged , , , , | 31 Comments

Oscar Wilde’s Grave

You are a sculptor and Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross asks you to make a monument for his grave. You remember Oscar’s wit as you heard it in his play The Importance of Being Ernest, and a story you read in school about Dorian Grey, whose portrait in the attic mysteriously recorded all the evil of his life. Maybe you know his fairy tales, too. The footnotes to a poem called the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” told you that Oscar had actually gone to prison for “corrupting” a youth, and had died in Paris shortly after his release, a broken man.

(public domain photo)

What sort of monument could you make to such a man—one of the most colorful men of letters of the nineteenth century, a dandy who lived among exquisite things?

Here is what the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein came up with:

Tomb of Oscar Wilde by Jacob Epstein, in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris  (GNU Free Documentation License photo by JHvW (talk)

What the devil?
“I had in mind Oscar’s poem ‘the Sphinx’”, explained Epstein.
A little Egyptian, a little Aztec inspiration. Something as exotic as the sphinx Oscar talks about in that long poem (which almost no one has read).

Few people have ever been pleased with the big stone, though women love to give it a kiss and leave a print of lipstick there (see a page of photos at Google). The sphinx used to be complete with genitals and those were at first covered (even in famously prude-free France) and finally removed. Oscar’s poem did have a heavy erotic air and the work of Epstein mostly did too.

Was Epstein himself satisfied?
Probably not. He experimented all his life with styles—sometimes of the sort that whole cultures produce. “It looks as though this were made by a people rather than a single man,” said one of Epstein’s friends in admiration of Oscar’s monolith. And in fact some of Epstein’s big projects are so derivative or eclectic that his own personality went under. He has no single masterpiece—as happened to so many of the artists of the twentieth century, nor a readily identifiable style.

Except in his wonderful portraits—some of the best that have ever been sculpted. Have a look at his bronze busts of Joseph Conrad, of Churchill, of the singer Paul Robeson, of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and others. Here is a model named Kathlene:

Kathlene by Jacob Epstein (public domain photo)




Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, sculpture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Dürer’s Ingenious Lines

Dürer was famous for his drawings.

He drew complex pictures with lines alone. Woodcuts like this Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse made him famous  all over Europe before he was even thirty:

Durer_Revelation_Four_RidersFour Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer (1498) (public domain photo)

How did he turn everything he saw into lines?  How can that work?  “There are no lines in nature,” says the Swiss art critic Wölfflin. “Any beginner can learn this if he sits down in front of his house with a pencil and tries to reduce what he sees to a series of lines. Everything opposes this task: the foliage on the trees, the waves in the water, the clouds in the sky. And if it seems that a roof clearly exposed against the sky, or dark tree trunk, must surely be able to be rendered in outline, even in these cases it is soon apparent that the line can only be an abstraction, because it is not lines that one sees, but masses, bright and dark masses that contrast with a background of a different color…”

A painter might say that everything is not lines but masses of color.

But Dürer brought it off with lines, all kinds of lines.  “His historical significance as a draftsman lies in his construction of a purely linear style on the foundation of the modern three-dimensional representation of the world.” (Heinrich Wölfflin, in his introduction to his 1923 collection of Dürer’s drawings.)

Dürer wasn’t of course the first to draw with lines. Linear abstraction goes back to prehistoric cave scratches. But he discovered new ways to use those lines. His way of rendering some phenomena has never been surpassed.

One thing that makes his work different from that of other great draftsmen is the double function he gave the lines. They had not only to define form and show movement but also to decorate. They were meant to have an ornamental beauty.
Other great draftsmen use lines to build a picture but their lines aren’t important in themselves: they contribute to the general impression, that’s all.  For example, a group of them intended to indicate a shadow will get the artist’s OK even if, taken for themselves, they are an ugly knot.  Dürer wants them clean, clear, and pretty.

At least he did once he had found his own way. When he was starting out he used the lines the way everyone else did. Look at the non-ornamental pen scratches he used to show the deep shadow of his hand and the pillow:

Self Portrait with a Pillow (c. 1491) (public domain photo)

Sometimes when he was older he even went too far. The ornamental pattern of lines seems to stand like a screen in front of the picture. You have to stare for a few seconds at the complex configuration until, a group at a time, the lines turn into those things they are meant to represent:

Durer  Christ_On_The_Mount_Of_Olives_1521

Christ on the Mount of Olives, 1521 (public domain photo)

Maybe Dürer’s historical significance as a draftsman lies in his line-drawings, as Wölfflin says.  But his best-loved drawings, such as this one, are done with mixed media: watercolors and a brush:

durer arco_dürer_1495View of Arco (1495)  Paris, The Louvre (public domain photo)

See this excellent article on Dürer as a businessman.


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Laocoön  (Height 8′ or 2.4 m.) Vatican Museum, Rome. A Wikimedia photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009)


Works of art often have fascinating histories. And none like Laocoön.

It was carved in Greece, probably about one hundred years before Christ.

Years later a rich Roman bought it for his art collection and put it in his palace in the place of honor. It was surely the best work he or anyone in Rome had. The great Roman writer Pliny saw it and raved about it.

When the barbarians sacked Rome the statue disappeared and stayed missing for a thousand years.

Then in 1504, when Italians were digging in Rome to find old statues, they came across the Laocoön in a chamber deep underground. The old Roman owner had hidden it well from the barbarians.

Michelangelo himself, who was working in Rome at the time, dropped what he was doing and ran to see the great statue lifted out of the ground. He was impressed. Maybe he was jealous. In fact, the Laocoön is the ancient statue that looks most like a Michelangelo. (See Is the Laocoön by Michelangelo?)

Now it is in the Vatican Museum.


In the eighteenth century there was a famous argument between German philosophers and art critics on this statue. Read about it in  Why Didn’t Laocoön Shout?


Posted in art, great artists, Greek sculpture, Michelangelo | 9 Comments

Becoming Goya

This is Goya’s first important portrait—the minister Floridablanca.

It is important not because it is any good but because it was the beginning of Goya’s climb in society and the rise in his self-esteem. Look at the way he paints himself. It is almost embarrassing. He is the minister’s very humble servant. Goya knew he was a good painter but what was a painter? An artisan—a man on a low rung of the social ladder. He makes pretty pictures for the rich and the powerful. He had better be honored to serve a great man like Floridablanca. And he was, clearly.

Next Goya gets invited to the residence of the King’s brother outside of Madrid. Don Luis doesn’t treat him as a servant but as a friend. He takes him hunting. He seems to like Goya’s company. Don Luis asks Goya to paint portraits of his wife and family and Goya came up with this, showing himself at work but keeping a low profile.

Why did he put himself in the picture?

There was a famous precedent in Spanish painting: Velazquez. In his Meninas (The Maids of Honor) he painted his own portrait, and not a little one. Velazquez was the prince of Spanish painters. He was the king’s friend and he lived in the very palace. That was unheard-of for a painter. Yet Velazquez wanted to be a nobleman and he spent years and a lot of money trying to qualify. Just before he died, with the King’s help, he brought it off; and his son-in-law painted the cross of St. James on Velazquez’s big self-portrait to show the world that the guy wasn’t just anybody.

Goya seems always to have had Velazquez and his big Meninas self-portrait in mind. For years he felt he was a great painter but he hadn’t yet proved it, even to himself. Then his career began to resemble Velazquez’s. He too became the King’s Painter and a friend of the King. The greatest people in the realm came to his house to sit for him. Some became his friends. By the time he was given this commission to paint the royal family, he no longer doubted his own superiority, and his rich and important clients had long stopped dazzling him. He stands straight up this time, with his head high, almost as though he were another member of the royal family–certainly the most lucid of the group.

These are two studies, rapid portraits he made in preparation for the big painting. They show the sure sweep of his brush, the quick and strong characterization of his subjects, his bright colors. Spaniards call their princes and princesses Infantes.

La Infanta Maria Josefa

El Infante Francisco de Paula Antonio


Posted in art, art history, Diego Velazquez, Goya, great artists, oil painting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Hans Erni

Hans Erni Verkehrshaus mural

This is not by Picasso but by the great Swiss artist Hans Erni. It is part of a huge mural painting for the Verkehrshaus (Transport Museum) in Lucern. The title is “Man’s Advance into Space”. What the Minotaur is doing there I don’t know. Perhaps he represents ignorance and stubborn tradition and myth. Then Icarus is the adventurer who dared to follow his dream. The figures might remind you of the ones on old Greek vases, especially if you color them red and change the lines to black. Though these are freer they are no less beautiful. He could never keep beauty out of what he painted in spite of all the horror of his time. Erni is certainly one of the great draftsmen of the twentieth century (see this).   At 102 he is still at work.

See a gallery of his works here...

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Why Michelangelo Disliked Leonardo da Vinci

Michelangelo and Leonardo felt “an intense dislike for each other,” says their biographer Vasari. He doesn’t say why.

There is only this story from an anonymous manuscript called the Codice Magliabecchiano:

“As Leonardo, accompanied by [his friend] Giovanni di Gavina, was passing the Spini Bank, near the church of Santa Trinità, several notables were assembled who were discussing a passage in Dante and seeing Leonardo, they asked him to come and explain it to them.

Santa Trinità Church, Florence ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)

At the same moment Michelangelo passed and, one of the crowd calling to him, Leonardo said: ‘Michelangelo will be able to tell you what it means.’ To which Michelangelo, thinking this had been said to entrap him, replied: ‘No, explain it yourself, horse-modeller that you are, who, unable to cast a statue in bronze, were forced to give up the attempt in shame.’ So saying, he turned his back on them and left. Leonardo remained silent and blushed at these words.”   (quoted in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Oxford University Press, 1952,  trans. Irma A. Richter, p.356 )

This makes Michelangelo look like a jealous ass. Perhaps he was. He was quick to take offense. But the story doesn’t say why Leonardo asked him to explain the text or in what tone. Maybe it was provocative, maybe it sounded like ridicule. It may be the reason Leonardo disliked Michelangelo but Michelangelo’s aversion for Leonardo was already there.
Why would he hate such a genius if not out of jealousy?

Leonardo da Vinci (a statue outside the Uffizi, Florence, by Luigi Pampaloni)

He had heard of Leonardo da Vinci all his life. How could he not? Leonardo was revered as the world’s greatest genius.What was his reputation as an artist based on?  What was his great work, his Sistine, his David, his Moses, his Pietà?

That’s easy, you may say: the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

The Mona Lisa is about the size of a small bedroom mirror. Leonardo worked four years on it and still didn’t finish it. Ah, but the size of a work of art shouldn’t matter, you say: many of the greatest paintings are small.  True.

The Last Supper is big—460×880 cm. (181×346 in.). Leonardo spent six years on it before giving up because he couldn’t find the right head for Christ. He drew sketch after sketch and spent whole days staring at the wall.

The Last Supper  by Leonardo da Vinci   Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

He finally spoiled it with some experimental medium mixture.  It began to disintegrate almost as soon as he painted it.

His Sistine Chapel should have been the Great Equestrian Monument for the Duke of Milan. On it he horsed around for sixteen years until the Duke finally made a cannon with the bronze he had saved for the statue.  Leonardo’s clay model stood around for years until it was destroyed. That’s the horse Michelangelo was talking about in the Codice Magliabecchiano story.

But it was an incredibly beautiful clay horse, you may say. Everyone praised it.

Ask a sculptor if a clay model is to be taken as anything more than a first step. A work of art has to be permanent. Clay dries and cracks and disintegrates—it is only a model or guide for the next two or three (or ten!) steps before the sculptor’s idea becomes a statue.

Now, Michelangelo never saw either of those. They were in Milan. What might he have heard about the Master? What was Leonardo’s actual record of achievement? What was he employed to do?

He was good at decoration for pageants and weddings and stuff. He could make big toy lions that ran and growled. He played the lyre and sang like an angel (and dressed like one).

Yes, but wasn’t he inventing airplanes and tanks and bombs and things?

On paper. He did a lot of reading too and devoured books on math and engineering and botany. He was a brilliant conversationalist.  Everyone loved to have him at their party.

He went from prince to prince on the strength of a reputation and he was often given room and board as a distinguished guest—for months. He wowed them with his brilliant talk and the originality of his ideas on everything under the sun. But few or none of his fantastic projects were ever brought off.

Except for Cesar Borgia’s map, what else did he actually do for him, which ingenious project was carried out? And the great bridge over the Bosphorus for the Great Turk—it was only a little sketch. The monument for the Duke of Trifulzi—it was a wonderful sketch. So light, so artistic.  The St. Anne and the Virgin with Christ and St. John—it is a cartoon, not a painting.

He lived in style. “He owned, one might say, nothing and he worked very little,” says Vasari, “yet he always kept servants as well as horses”—the great artist. His patrons were forever after him to paint them a picture. He seems never to have said no.  By the time he was fifty he had half a dozen great dukes and kings and ladies begging him to remember his promise to do a little something for them. But Leonardo was busy. Busy observing, doodling, dreaming.
He planned a flying machine and pictured the glory it would bring him: “The first flight of the great bird from the summit of the Monte Ceceri will fill the universe with wonder,” he wrote in his notebook. “All writing will be of its fame, bringing eternal glory to the place of its origin [and a little to the creator maybe?].”

He got a commission from the City of Florence to paint a mural on the wall of the Council Hall. He finished the cartoon, the first big step—he got that far. But then he started to paint the wall, not in fresco but with oils—a novel thing to do (always the genius!). He tried a new way to make the colors stick by applying heat and it failed—the colors ran. Michelangelo, who was working on a mural in the same Council Hall, perhaps thought it served him right.

So, dust-covered and sore as he was all the time from long hours of sculpting, he must not have enjoyed seeing Leonardo cologned and in fine clothes with a following of admirers and censer-swingers trailing.
“Michelangelo, come over and meet Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest artist in the world! He can do anything.”

Michelangelo, old at sixty by Jacopino del Conte

Michelangelo was someone who, besides coming up with brilliant designs, solved gigantic practical problems to realize them.  He had to go and get his marble in the cold mountains. He had to find it, cut it out and put it on a cart, then on a barge, and bring it to his workshop a hundred miles away. Sometimes he had to build the very road through the mountains to transport it. “We’re almost through,” he wrote from Serravezza. “There’s just one more big boulder to chip away and then the cart can go forward another hundred feet.”  It was dangerous: “This morning one of the workmen fell and broke his neck. I myself was almost killed.”  Another time a chain from which a big block was swinging broke. “We were so lucky,” he wrote. “Any of us could have been killed.”

He was cruelly abused  by his patrons.  Pope Julius sent him to Carrara for eight months to get marbles for his tomb, then cancelled the project. Pope Leo, the next pope, sent him to the hills of Serravezza for three years and then cancelled his project.  Altogether at least five or six  of Michelangelo’s best years were wasted in quarries.

Once he got the marble home, he had to carve it, which is slow, hard work.   He worked all day swinging a hammer and coughing at the dust until exhaustion put him to sleep. If he still had a moment before dropping off he thought about the design for the building or tomb where the statue would go, or about something his patron had said. Thank God the statue was looking pretty.

There was luck so bad it was like a curse. Pope Julius ordered Michelangelo to make a colossal (three times life-size) portrait of himself in bronze and when Michelangelo had finished modelling it after fourteen months the bronze caster spoiled it and Michelangelo had to do part of it over again. He did finish it but four years later it was melted down and made into a cannon: a major work and two of his best years lost.  While he worked in Bologna he had to live at a cheap hotel in a room with four other workmen and he suffered terribly from the discomfort and the lack of privacy.

Nothing was easy for him: there was obstruction after obstruction, with things and with people. Try to actually DO anything in this world.

And you should have seen him at work in the Sistine Chapel.

A fragment of the Sistine Chapel ceiling  (Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license photo by Aaron Logan)

He taught himself to paint in fresco and he put three hundred figures on a  three-thousand-square-foot ceiling.  He didn’t crack. Probably no one who ever lived could have held up but him. He had superhuman stamina and a slave-driving sense of responsibility. He had a job to do and he would do it.

“Explain this passage from Dante for us, Michelangelo,” Leonardo calls over in his charming way.  “They say you know so much.”

Note: This portrayal of Leonardo does not do him justice. It is a caricature used here to justify Michelangelo’s contempt.


Posted in art, equestrian statues, great artists, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, painting, sculpture, Sistine Chapel, the David, The Last Supper | 47 Comments