Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pacheco, his famous pupil, and some comments on "influence"

(cross-posted at Blog Meridian)

Yesterday I was surprised to learn that Peter Harrup, the administrator for the Facebook group "The Genius of Diego Velázquez," named me as an officer for that group: Francisco Pacheco. Wonderful, I thought . . . but, who is he? Way leads on to way in the Internets, and what follows are the results of that wandering, along with some speculation and musing.

I quickly learned via consulting my copy of the catalogue of the 1989 Velázquez exhibition at the Met (which, by the way, is well worth seeking out, especially if you a) love Velázquez and/but b) don't have a lot of money) that Pacheco was Velázquez' principle teacher and, eventually, his father-in-law. Pacheco was an agent of the Inquisition and thus very much a loyal adherent to the values propagated by the Counter-Reformation. Though well regarded as a teacher, his talent as a painter was never more than pedestrian1; however, unlike many other tutors whose pupils outshine them, it appears Pacheco wasn't jealous of Velázquez's abilities but taught him what he knew, especially with regard of the then-emerging tendencies toward realism, and then got out of the way. His book El arte de la pintura is still considered an authoritative source of information from the time.

I probably would not have begun to write this post, though, had it not been for going on to read the Wikipedia article on Pacheco--specifically, this sentence:

Although Velázquez was a student in Pacheco's school for six years, and married Pacheco's daughter Juana in 1618, there is no trace of Pacheco's influence in the work of Velázquez.

"No trace"? That seemed to me a bold claim to make; consider Jackson Pollack, who, when asked what he learned when he studied under Thomas Hart Benton (an odd pairing, to say the least), replied, "How not to paint."2 So, I decided to do some looking around for more takes on Pacheco's influence on Velázquez, and I wound up in a surprising place--a post I wrote earlier this month.

In the course of Googling, I discovered a review of a book by Jane Boyd and Philip F Esler, Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez' "Christ with Martha and Mary" as a Test Case. This was startling because, as readers of this blog know, I had just posted on this very painting. Anyway, in the course of listing some paintings that Velázquez might have seen that may have influenced his painting, the reviewer mentions"St. Sebastian healed by St. Irene, 1616] by Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644, Velázquez's teacher and father-in-law) combining two episodes from the legend of St Sebastian, one seen through a window of the room in which the other occurs[.]"
(Here, by the way, is where I found this image.)

There is no denying the compositional similarities between the Pacheco and the Velázquez, especially if it's the case that, as with the Pacheco, the Velázquez depicts two chronologically-distinct moments. Having said that, though, the Velázquez is no mere copy. The Pacheco has an almost-medieval quality to it in its handling of perspective; as has often been noted, his pupil's painting is a fusion of the religious subject and the genre of the bodegón, itself influenced by Dutch paintings of domestic scenes. Also, the Pacheco lacks any tension between the painting and the painting-within-a-painting: the latter serves to explain the circumstances depicted in the former. The Velázquez, though, is another matter entirely, as I pointed out in my post on it.

So, then: "influence." As a teacher myself, I find my students wanting to give me credit for things they have learned when, in fact, all I had done was give them the opportunity to learn the things they were thanking me for. As it were, I supply the canvas and encouragement, and I have some things to say about the virtues of exploring, of being intellectually curious, but they still have to do the painting, and that they do on their own. What is striking to me about Velázquez's art, quite apart from the brush-wielding, is the intellectual curiosity that fuels it, the willingness to experiment with the tried-and-true. I cannot help but think that it's those qualities that Pacheco encouraged in his pupil; the rest of the time, though, I suspect he alternated between sizing up young Dieguito as a potential match for his daughter and marvelling at his talent, wondering--in a good way--as I myself have had to with some of my students, what he might possibly be able to teach him.

1The Spanish-language Wikipedia article, however, is more generous in its assessment, and indeed includes brief commentary on some of Pacheco's paintings.

2I just now realize that that statement will read differently, depending on one's opinion of Pollack or of Benton.


Monday, May 28, 2007

Yet more housekeeping

Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1634

This still-young blog continues to attract visitors (most of them brought here via Google Images searches--which is fine) and/but more significant, some regular readers, too, as evidenced by the subscriptions to this blog's feeds via e-mail notifications and RSS feeds. Thank you, whoever you regular readers are. As this site increases its content and, yes, adds more images, I hope you'll remain regular readers . . . and, perhaps, consider becoming a co-author of this blog.

Below the fold, two quick surveys: a) changes to the gutter; b) a list of some Facebook groups associated with the Baroque.

I've just finished reorganizing the links sections in the right gutter in hopes of making it easier for visitors (well, okay--for me) to find the sorts of things their looking for. As the number of links grows and I become more adept at adding widgets and HTML, I'll continue to include things that will improve its usefulness for the visitor. Also, I've noticed that a fair number of visitors search this blog via the Blogger labels, so I've also restored the Labels widget to the gutter.

Finally, for those of you with Facebook accounts, I want again to remind you that this blog has its own page (linked to over in the right gutter). Also, a quick survey of Facebook groups revealed the following groups devoted to Baroque artists and writers. Some of them, judging from their discussion boards, seem moribund, some not; all of them are worth your visiting and, if you're so inclined, worth livening up.

The Genius of Velázquez (which at the moment has a nice post up discussing the historical background of The Surrender of Breda).

Don Quixote de la Mancha, dedicated to lively discussions of Cervantes' great novel.

Caravaggio (whose discussion board reveals that even now, his manner of living can stir people up)



Half-Painted Walls and Pearl Earrings: Paint on, Vermeer, Paint on!

Thanks again to all of you for visiting.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Two views of Delft, optical devices, and "art"

Over at this blog's Facebook group page (which, by the way, all of you with Facebook accounts are welcome to join), the matter of the camera obscura has risen in a couple of discussion threads; it is the topic of one, in fact. I figured, then, that via this week's Two Paintings post we could initiate a discussion of the implications the use of such devices may or may not have on the nature of the art that results.

As always, click on the images to enlarge them.

Carel Fabritius, View of Delft with a Musical Instrument Dealer, 1652

Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-1661

I hope visitors will begin the discussion in the comments section.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Women reading letters--two paintings

Dutch Baroque painters were drawn to the theme of letter-writing and letter-reading. Their evocation of intimate communication between sender and recipient makes the viewer simultaneously curious and, perhaps, a bit like an intruder as s/he enters the painting's space. Despite the sense of intimacy, though, the theme of letters also paradoxically expands the space depicted: in each of the paintings below, for example, the letters we see have writers, unseen by us but certainly seen in the respective minds' eyes of the recipients. The viewer, then, has not merely entered a room; s/he has entered an entire world as configured, oriented, by the envisioned writer or recipient of a letter.

As with the other pairings, I hope that passers-by will feel welcome to comment and, if the muse speaks especially strongly, even to write a post--just let me know, and I'll set things up for you.

Gerard ter Borch, Peasant Girl Reflecting on a Letter, 1650-1660

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1662-1665


Friday, May 18, 2007

Exploring the ambiguities in Velázquez's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Click on the image to see a larger version of it.

Since posting this painting a while back, I've spent more time than is perhaps prudent thinking about it. Its title could not be more straightforward, but what is depicted in it is considerably less so. It is filled with ambiguities, as though it's an early proving ground for Velázquez's later, greater paintings and their ambiguities. And the source of its ambiguities is in its excesses.

What I mean by that is this: Luke 10:38-42 makes clear that Martha has no help in attending to her and Mary's guest (though John 11:1-44, which re-presents Mary and Martha as the sisters of Lazarus but within which the Lucan story isn't told, seems to imply that the family is rather better off and thus would likely have household help). The Wikipedia entry for the painting notwithstanding, I don't see how the two women in the foreground of this painting are Mary and Martha--or, if they are, they are not Mary and Martha as depicted in Luke. But it is crucial that we determine who they are if we're going to understand this painting.

I'll spoil for you what's below the fold: I'm not really sure who they are.

I'll begin, though, by stating what I think is not going on here.

In his painting of the supper at Emmaus that hangs in Dublin and which I talk about here, the woman in the kitchen is "excessive": that is, she's not directly accounted for in the story told in Luke 24:13-35; yet, Jesus' hosts being men, we can safely assume at least one woman was present to prepare the meal. In this painting, then, the woman's presence serves to give depth to the Gospel as well as to the space depicted in the painting. As Caravaggio's religious canvases' recurring figures with their dirty toenails and feet remind us, this woman in Velázquez's painting likewise reminds us that Jesus is revealed to all, even to the most humble of us.

However, the present painting's broader theological point is, to put it kindly, harder to get at. Whereas the woman in The Supper at Emmaus works with a busy but otherwise calm demeanor, the same clearly can't be said about the young woman with the pestle in her hand. Perhaps, via her older companion, she hears some cheering words, but we don't see any sign that that cheering is imminent. Perhaps that is part of the point, though: after all, Luke doesn't report Martha's reaction to Jesus' gentle reprimand. Maybe, then, the older woman is meant to uncomplicate the painting.

All these maybes and perhapses. But they do lead me to conclude that the scene in the upper right corner is likelier a painting than a mirror or window into another room. The latter possibility would lead us to infer that the young woman is reacting as she is to something to do with Jesus' presence, which would seem a risky proposition no matter the painting's intended audience. If her unhappiness were in some way directed at Jesus' presence, that would introduce an unmitigated tension in the scene that Velázquez, so early in his career, would have been unwise to brook. My remark in my comment on the previous post to the effect that Martha's now having chosen the better part doesn't get the meal prepared seems now, in retrospect, to be risky as well: however earthily Baroque painters depicted their religious subjects as compared to Renaissance artists, the time had not yet arrived for them to offer up jokey commentaries on the Gospels.

No: what makes the young woman's expression safer in this painting is that she is neither Mary nor Martha and she is reacting to some domestic situation other than having to serve Jesus.

Unless, (again) maybe, she is Mary, and she is grieving Lazarus' death (see John 11:20-29) . . .


Friday, May 4, 2007

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha--two paintings

As with last week's pairing, the intent here is to invite commentary and, if you are so inclined, a full-blown post on these paintings (which I will be more than happy to post here), their similarities and differences.

Here is Luke's account of the scene depicted.

by Velázquez, 1618

by Vermeer, 1654-1656


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Defining the Baroque I

From Ruth Gambles, "Redeeming the Sound . . . "

The Baroque signifies an attempt to bridge the gap between man and things implemented by the mechanism of the scientific revolution[.]

The Baroque as a proto-Romanticism, then? Or, perhaps, a proto-Modernism? Either makes sense within the context of the passage quoted here.

But is this in fact true of the Baroque as a philosophy? Was there at that time a cultural anxiety regarding increased mechanization?

UPDATE: A basic principle behind the idea of mechanization is that people know how things work--not just machines, but the cosmos. Caribbean intellectual Edouard Glissant notes that the Baroque (as artistic expression) emerged as a response to Rationalism's claim to contain and codify all knowledge. Those with a greater knowledge of "the modern scientific view of reality" might have some questions about Glissant's claims (I myself know only enough to wonder if what he says is so):
Imitation of Nature as an objective assumes that, underlying outward appearance and inherent in it, there is a "profundity', an unassailable truth, artistic representations of which approximate more closely as they systematize their imitation of reality and discover its rules. The revolution represented by the introduction of perspective during the quattrocento can thus, perhaps, be seen as part of the search for this profundity.

It was against this current that the baroque "diversion' began to make itself felt. Baroque art was a reaction against the rationalist claim to penetrate the mysteries of the known in one single, incisive, uniform movement. The stone with which baroque art disturbed the rationalist pool was an affirmation that knowledge is never fully acquired, a fact that gives it all its value. Thus the techniques of baroque art were to favour "breadth' to the detriment of "depth'.


The modern scientific view of reality coincides with and confirms this expansion of the Baroque. Science does, indeed, assert that reality cannot be defined in terms of outward appearances and that it has to be examined "in depth', but it also accepts that knowledge is never wholly acquired and that it would be absurd to claim that its essentials can be grasped at a single stroke. Science has entered the era of the uncertainty principle, retaining, nevertheless, a form of rationalism which henceforth abjures paralysing, mechanical, once-and-for-all dogmatism. Its conceptions of Nature are "expanding', becoming relative, problematical. It is moving, that is, in the selfsame direction towards which the Baroque tends.