DIEGO RODRIGUEZ DE
SILVA Y VELÁZQUEZ
(Seville 1599-1660 Madrid)
Portrait of a gentleman,
bust-length, in a black tunic and
white golilla collar
Oil on canvas; 47 x 39 cm (18 ½ x 15 3/8 in)
The artist, Matthew Shepperson (1787-1874) and thence by descent to his family; Sale, London, Bonham’s, 07 December 2011, lot 63.
Dr. Peter Cherry, ‘Poniéndole cara a un Velázquez, Face to face to a new Velázquez portrait”, Ars Magazine (Madrid, October 2011), pp. 54-65, 147-151, ill. p. 55, 57 and front cover.
Susie Hodge, Velázquez, His Life and Works in 500 Images, Leicestershire, 2012, ill. p. 137.
Excerpt from Dr. Peter Cherry’s article, Page 148:
The head is lit from a high point and the front, in a manner consistent with Velázquez’s Madrid-period portraits. Its convincing foreshortening – projected in perspective as a three-dimensional form – shows that Velázquez had not forgotten the drawing lessons of his master Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644). The ear, the physiognomic feature furthest away, is deliberately reduced in size. Crucial in achieving the illusion of volume is the non-linear handling of the contours of the head; the cranium, for instance, is a thin, flesh-coloured stain in the canvas weave which registers optically against the darker background. The face itself is the most brightly lit area is brought to a relatively high level of finish. Thicker, relatively opaque flesh tints are applied here with impasto and deft brushwork, while glazes of thinner, more diluted paint are used in the extremities. The viewer’s attention, therefore, is focused on the face and gaze of the sitter, with the proper left cheek and ear somewhat out of focus, as in life itself. This particular form of aerial perspective, which imitates optical reality, can be seen throughout Velázquez’s portraiture. It is an effective device too in endowing the painted sitter with something of the presence of a real person before the viewer.
The vivid appearance of the sitter is partly due to the artist’s description of his particular complexion the warm pale grey, optically light ground – discussed in detail below – maintains luminosity and colour in the flesh tints and warm shadows. The flushed cheeks of the sitter, created with vermilion and some well-preserved red lake, contrast markedly with cooler flesh tints of other areas of the head, created by the addition of azurite.[i] A grayish wash applied to the sagging flesh of the jowls gives a particularly realistic appearance to this area, and can be seen in earlier portraits.[ii] The shaded areas in the eye sockets, under the chin and in the proper left-hand side of the head appear to show a thin brownish tonal under-painted layer of the first stage of the portrait, exploited in the final result, over which pinkish glazes were applied to model forms, particularly in the cheeks, ear and chin.[iii] A pentimento at the top of the ear shows that this was lowered somewhat. A canvas grain appears to play a part in modulating the tone of thinner paint layers, as well as conveying something of the texture of flesh. While the use of canvas weave is a characteristic technique of Velázquez, the full extent of its use in the case of this portrait is very difficult to gauge in its present condition.
The range and confidence of the paint handling is one of the most distinctive features of the portrait, showing wide variations of densities of paint, touch and levels of “finish.” The area of the face is modeled with relatively separate, ragged patches of light-coloured pigment pulled around the physical features, whose correct chromatic interplay is resolved in the eye of the viewer. A variety of freely applied, single touches of the loaded brush highlight the eyelids and pouches under the eyes the nose, lower lip and ear. The direct application of the impasto in wet-in-wet highlights on the nose – articulating its projection by means of the sharpest points of light in the face – is particularly masterful. The extremities of the head are modeled with softer brushes and pigment diluted with greater amounts of oil, which blend the colours together to a greater degree. The fluid highlights of the ear, for instance, are in keeping with its somewhat unfocused character. This way of describing the different planes of the face retains something of the structural modeling of Velázquez’s portraits from the Seville period. The approach can be seen in other portraits from the Seville period. The approach can be seen in other portraits by Velázquez painted soon after his first trip to Rome, such as that of Diego de Corral. In his portraits of the following decade, the pigment is extended out in broader areas, with less abrupt transitions between different areas of colour and handling. The treatment of the eyelids and their uneven highlights in the portrait under discussion here are particularly noteworthy, since the brushwork cannot be said to describe the contours or form in a linear sense. Indeed, the brushstroke of the lower lid of the proper left eye actually invades the under-painted white of the eye itself. Just such a free and painterly approach to these features characterizes most of Velázquez’s portraits after his first trip to Italy.
The rest of the portrait setting is deliberately executed in a generalized manner. Velázquez has emphasized the straight edges of the collar with a white highlight; that on the right0hand wing of the collar is formed by one brushstroke starting from the lower point and another brushstroke starting from the upper point, whose differing directions do not permit them to join in the middle. Such an essentially optical approach to articulating this edge, seen in a tentative form here, is radically developed in later portraits. The grey-white ground can be seen exposed at points along the left-hand side of the collar. In the background, the light ground is washed over unevenly with a diluted warm brown colour, lightest, it seems around the head itself and which deepens towards the extremes of the canvas area. The variable glow of the light ground seen through this thin, smudgy layer successfully creates the illusion of atmospheric light in a nondescript space and is at its most compelling when the viewer’s gaze is focused of the head itself.[iv] It is a technique which can be seen in other portraits by Velázquez, notably in a more developed form in the patchy brown paint over the light ground of the Portrait of a Man (London, Apsley House), painted in the 1640s.
[i] The use of blue in the flesh tints of Velázquez has been documented by: Garrido, Carmen. Velázquez: tècnica y evolución. Madrid: Museo del Prado, 1992, pp. 32-33; and in a number of pictures from the 1630s, such as The Forge of Vulcan (p. 243), Christ on the Cross (pp.284-5), Philip IV as a Hunter (p. 391), see Keith, Larry. <<Velázquez’s Painting Technique>>. In: Velázquez. By D. Carr et alii. London: National Gallery, 2004, pp.85y89, note 62) notes the addition of smalt in Velázquez’s flesh tints in order to increase the range of cool and warm colours.
[ii] See Garrido, 1992, pp. 244-45 on the grayish washes in the flesh tints of the figures in Velázquez’s Force of Vulcan, painted in Italy
[iii] See Keith, 2004, p. 79 on this process. Caution is advisable here, as the naked eye easily confuses this layer with later repainting with translucent brown. Conservation will clarify this point.
[iv] See Garrido, 1992, p. 22 on Velázquez’s use of the ground to give luminosity to his backgrounds. A possible role of the canvas weave in articulating the sense of atmospheric space around the head is unclear in the present condition of the painting.