The Frick Collection has been focusing on the art of Spain of late, with two complimentary exhibitions, “The King at War: Velázquez’s Portrait of Philip IV” and “The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya.” These shows bring together some of the most important names from Spain’s grand lineage of painters. In a two part article, OMNP contributor Victoria Romeo takes a look at two tightly focused shows that imbue life into some old classics.
Curators certainly had the art of presentation in mind when they unveiled Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez’s (1599–1660) iconic “Portrait of Philip IV” (see images #1,2) earlier this Fall. The picture practically gleams after its first cleaning in over 60 years, and reveling in it is like the equivalent of seeing a long time friend after they treated themselves to a magnificent makeover. There’s vicarious pleasure in seeing such obscured beauty come to the surface.
The work’s dossier presentation also shares new information discovered during its conservation and cleaning, which took place in the summer of 2009 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Experts removed discolored layers of varnish and wax that had flattened the appearance of the image and dulled the skillful painterly effects for which Velázquez is so acclaimed. Even without a “before” picture, the painting clearly appears fresh and in excellent condition. The details of the figure’s face and his elaborate costume now sparkle all the more in their intricate glory.
In addition, certain details uncovered by X-radiography and infrared reflectography studies have added a new dimension to the painting’s evolution. These processes have revealed underlying paint layers and elements of the work that Velázquez added, removed or altered. Such changes, which are called pentimenti, are semi-visible to the naked eye. If examined closely, we gain a better understanding of the master’s working methods.
Initially, there’s an opportunity to enjoy playing the role of connoisseur and detective, searching the painting for a described bit of cloak removed or the repositioning of the hat and sword rendered in earlier versions. Yet it’s all the more profound to consider Velázquez’s creative decisions in lieu of the portrait’s historical context.
As court painter to Philip IV, Velázquez accompanied the king and his court from Madrid to the Catalonian region of Spain in 1644 on an expedition to recapture the territory from France. Four years earlier, the Catalan people had rebelled in support of the French during the ongoing Franco-Spanish War (1635-59). King Philip planned to oversee a military siege on the northern city of Lérida and thereby return the insurgent province to Spanish control.
As the success of this mission began to take shape, Philip, it seems, desired to have his portrait painted in honor of the victory. Velázquez had a small studio set up just a short distance from the battlefield and between June and July 1644, the king sat for him three times. Normally a slow painter, the artist had to work quickly to complete his commission for its intended presentation at a celebratory religious feast held in Madrid the following month.
The royal portrait was displayed under a gold-embroidered canopy in the largest parish church in the city and was understood as a surrogate image of the King himself. The idea that Philip IV needed to be portrayed at the moment of his victory seems like a very modern concept. In a pre-photographic age, Velázquez acted as the campaign’s image documenter, though he had to work quickly in paint for lack of a speedier method.
As a part of the religious celebration of the King’s victory, a priest, José Laynez gave a sermon attributing the military triumph to the work of God and characterizing Philip IV as a compassionate and forgiving ruler, rather than a rebel-crushing warrior. Velázquez’s portrait parallels this kind treatment. While he is wearing a fine military costume (contemporary viewers would have recognized it as such), his expression is serene and almost humble. His sword, while present, is only partially depicted and appears more as a painterly prop than a weapon of destruction.
This gentler image of the king seems odd, but it fact, in light of the circumstances it makes sense. Because his own subjects had revolted, the King’s powerful control over his kingdom had faltered. The need to re-conquer his own subjects implied that he had been ineffectual. Therefore, Velázquez minimized his military prowess, implying that divine will had brought the rebels back into the Spanish fold, rather than by force of the King’s army. In other words, Velázquez paints Philip IV as the “good guy”, the benevolent ruler pleased to have his kingdom restored by the grace of God.
Velázquez’s makeover of Philip should be considered successful, especially compared to some of his other portraits of the King. Other versions, such as those in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see image #3) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (see image #4) depict Philip in an extremely powerful and arrogant manner, which seems to be more historically accurate regarding his character. It’s hard to think of any figure in art history who appears as smug in his representations as Philip IV.
Of course, without these direct comparisons, the degree to which the Frick portrait differs is understated, but even without seeing Velázquez’s other portraits of the Philip, the king’s visage does read as humble and magnanimous. Velázquez clearly understood how the king wished to be portrayed and executed his wishes flawlessly.
Did Henry Clay Frick, a titan in his own right, see something of a kindred spirit in this powerful, yet “humble” image of the Spanish king? Velázquez’s Portrait of Philip IV remained in the possession of Spanish royal family and did not appear on the art market until 1910. In 1911, Mr. Frick purchased the painting for the staggering sum of $475,000, the most he had paid for a work of art to that date.
Perhaps Frick was looking to access the glory of imperfect men on the daily. There’s a sense of it milling about the space where Philip has been temporary reinstalled. This was a man who was not the most magnanimous or charismatic of royals, yet seeing him as the centerpiece of a room recreates the authority he once wielded in his court. With our eyes freed from the distraction of the masterpieces that usually divert our attention away from him, we experience a refreshing and powerful encounter.