After Rubens left Spain, Velazquez went to the royal painting collection to have another good look at his work.
He stood before the big equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma, which Rubens had painted years before, during his first trip to Madrid. It had pleased everyone at the time.
What was so good about it? That horse. It was typical of Rubens in many ways. The breast and head of the horse were the realism of genius, but other parts of the animal showed a shocking lack of observation or care. And Rubens led the viewer’s eyes away from these faults with the lushness of the horse’s mane and enormous sentimental eyes.
Velazquez might have thought as follows.
He liked Rubens but thought there were big defects in his style of painting. So much exaggeration of everything, affectation, faulty observation. It seemed to him that Rubens had picked up some of Michelangelo’s faults, such as his restlessness. Every man in his pictures, every thing, simply had to be in movement. That was the Renaissance idea of naturalism. It seemed to them the only way to represent life. A man had to be depicted in action: twisting in his chair at the very least. Their painted tree was bent in the wind; their horse was in full gallop, his mane flying, his nostrils wide. Nothing was static. This finally became tiring to see.
And to Michelangelo’s dynamism Rubens had added some bad of his own. He filled his pictures with too many things. Maybe this was the result of his skill at drawing—that he couldn’t stop it. He drew and drew all over the picture. The trouble was, most of the filler drawings were plain decoration—empty, truthless scrollwork. They distracted from the main figure, destroyed the focus of the picture. It was as if to show a flower Rubens had painted the whole field of flowers around it, and all the grass and weeds—even those that interferred with a clear view of it. And the grass and weeds were painted hurriedly and without care for realism. The result was confusion, not clarity; and frustration or disappointment for the viewer when he sees how small the reward for the time he spent on any of the details of the picture. Could anyone remember a Rubens? All those pictorial accessories robbed his pictures of power.
But Velazquez’s biggest objection to Rubens’ pictures was the pervading sentimental distortion. Michelangelo had never stooped to that kind of appeal—his figures kept their distance. Rubens sweetened his people and all his things. He chose color not to represent truth but to elicit feeling. And so you had those false red and blue shadows everywhere and those golden tints. It was as if he painted while watching the viewer all the time instead of his subject. Velazquez liked truth, clarity, focus. The color of his figures was the color necessary to understand them—there was none added to make you love them. That was an abuse of color. It was a cheap trick. Color had its place in a picture but it had to be bridled or it could run away with you. It ran away with Rubens. It was the most dishonest thing about his work.