Behind the Brown Velvet Drape

The plain exterior conceals a rich inner beauty
(Photo: Hospital de los Venerables)
The plain exterior conceals a rich inner beauty (Photo: Hospital de los Venerables)

Hospital de los Venerables, (home for elderly priests). Not a name that entices you to visit the place is it?

Its description in a guidebook hints that there’s more “A little gem of a museum/church/gallery.” And mentions that “To the left is a small room housing paintings from Sevillano painters, including Velázquez.”

Including Velázquez! I’d rewrite that phrase given The Metropolitan Museum says he’s “the most admired—perhaps the greatest—European painter who ever lived.”

Behind the brown velvet drape, that little room on the left—the Centro de Investigación Diego Velázquez—was one of the most “OMG” experiences of art that we’ve ever had.

Can you imagine seeing four large Velázquez masterpieces in a small room that Magellan estimates was only three-by-ten metres?

“This is incredible,” Pat said as he took off the earphones of his audio guide for a minute. “Do you have any idea what these paintings are worth?”

I told him my guess was upwards of $100 million each, especially Immaculate Conception. (I may not be far wrong given that Art Wolf puts a value of $80-$120 million on a much lesser Velázquez painting in a private collection.)

The face of the Virgin in Immaculate Conception kept beckoning Dallas and I to return to it. “Did you listen to the bit where they said he was only 19 when he painted this?” Dallas asked. (The audio guide was excellent.) Velázquez’s gorgeous version of Immaculate Conception deviates from the usual religiosity of this subject. It shows a more humanistic Virgin, in a nighttime landscape, wearing a crown of stars and standing on the moon.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in 1599 when Seville was in its golden age. At the age of 14 he apprenticed with the city’s leading painter, Francisco Pacheco. Francisco recognized that his prodigy was a better painter than himself and suggested that Velázquez study in Madrid. Philip IV, King of Spain, soon took notice. In 1623 he granted Velázquez his first royal appointment, one of the many that continued until the artist’s death. To add to Philip IV’s royal art collection, Velázquez travelled to Italy. There, he studied Michelangelo’s work, mastering anatomy to complement his genius for painting faces—the faces of noblemen and commoners, princesses and haggard old women, jesters and dwarves.

The guards (there were three or four of them) kept close watch on the four of us as we revisited the handful of Velázquez paintings and those of his teacher and contemporaries. Most of the time, the four of us were the only observers in the room, to which limited entrance is strictly controlled.

I kept returning to the melancholic portrait of Saint Rufina. As the Centro’s brochure says, the nuance in this painting portrays Velázquez’s “language of realism as a tool of persuasion.” The face of Saint Rufina arouses such natural compassion that that you’re drawn into wondering, “What went wrong in her life?”

“No other artist has taken both the representational and the decorative functions of painting to such dizzying heights. Velázquez’s fusion of truth and beauty can be felt up close, in art’s most caressing and efficient brushstroke,” writes my favourite art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.

“Can you believe what we just saw?” Pat exclaimed after we pulled back the brown drape and left the little room.

“Yeah,” said Magellan. “All those incredible paintings but no sign of any temperature or humidity control. Only the brown curtain keeping out UV light.”

To see Velázquez’s most famous painting, Las Meninas, you’ll have to go to Madrid. (We did, two weeks later.) Commanding a large wall in the Museo del Prado and surrounded by hundreds of people, Las Meninas is truly magnificent. (Picasso was so enamoured that he made 44 interpretations of it.) At the Prado, a red velvet rope may prevent you from peering into the depths of Velázquez’s paintings. But once you’re behind the brown velvet drape at the Hospital los Venerables, you can have the most intimate look at the brush strokes of coloured light in the faces Velázquez enlivened.

Navigation

In “The world’s Best Painting,” Michael Atlee describes Las Meninas.

The Centro de Investigación Diego Velázquez was created when La Fundación Focus-Abengoa (Foundation for Culture) acquired the painting Saint Rufina for the city of Seville.

In “The Reign in Spain” Peter Schjeldahl elaborates on Velázquez painting, as he does in this article, also from the New Yorker.

The Smithsonian on Velázquez.

7 Responses

  1. I’ve never been drawn to Valazquez before. Your intriguing article has piqued my interest. Thank you Gloria. I too keep coming back to Richter…

    1. About a decade ago, we had a tour of the Met in NYC with a guide who started with a Velázquez portrait and then for three hours took us on a history of painting in their collection showing Velázquez’s influence on every artist. It was fascinating. But those large paintings in Seville and Madrid really show Velázquez’s genius in illuminating character.

  2. We live in the world of now, yet we seem to find great solace in History and gifts from the masters.

    Considering the years past, since the masters work, I am saddened by the seemingly lack of artistic materials that have been added to our legacy for future generations.
    Currently we seem to be running out of fresh minds and materials that will seek out this path of excelance, we are content to copy and recoup multiple versions of the same story, film, book, technology is not our friend in this regard.
    I think today’s youth is not interested in working their way to the top, they want to start there. With no experience or practical knowledge how will they survive.
    As always, history and nature will show us the path.

    1. “Is the art world a flashy suburb of Wall Street?” poses Vanity Fair. In the survey they did a few years back on the best living artists, the comment was “Papa painting showed his age.” I’d vote for Gerhard Richter but for me Velázquez still reigns, holding the crown for four centuries.

  3. What an exciting and memorable experience for you all to experience the scale,surface and depth of colours of this esteemed artist.

    1. It was. I was anticipating a few sketches, background info, photographs and maybe a small painting or two. You would have stayed until closing time.

      1. Agreed – who would have guessed the scope of what was behind the curtain. Talk about being up close and personal……..

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