In life Velazquez was celebrated as a great painter, at least in Spain and Italy. But after his death his pictures weren’t worth much. A man sent to Madrid by the Duke of Mantua to hunt for good paintings wrote happily to him that he had found portraits by Velazquez, Murillo, and others. But the Duke turned up his nose: “I don’t think those painters you mention are so famous that it’s worthwhile having them, and it’s better not to bother yourself too much looking around for them.” This was just nine years after Velazquez died.
He wasn’t put back up on the list of greats for more than a hundred years. And then it wasn’t art critics who began thinking about him, but painters. They say Goya re-discovered him. He went to the Prado Museum and copied many of Velazquez’s paintings. Then a little later, the French painters began telling each other Velazquez was good. “He’s just what I was looking for,” Delacroix wrote to a friend from Madrid. “By himself he’s worth the trip here.”
“He’s wonderful,” said Manet. “He’s a painter’s painter.”
“Sly as a fox,” said Whistler, the British-American. “Nobody can do it all with so little means.”
And those painters began imitating him—or so they said.
Now you read art critics calling him the greatest painter of all: the Shakespeare and Phidias of painting. They say his big Meninas (Maids of Honor) is “probably” the best painting in the world. What should we think? We saw that what went down came up; should we expect to see Velazquez’s reputation fall again? “There are cycles,” say the wise, pipe-sucking art historians, “changes in taste.”
But isn’t excellence a fixed thing? Is Velazquez good or bad? It’s a long way from nobody to the greatest artist of all.
It all depends on what you think a painting should be.
See Was Velazquez All That Great II.