Diego Velazquez is one of the top portrait painters in the history of art. An exhibition of his early court portraits at SMU’s Meadows Museum offers proof. But the centerpiece of the show also lets us in on a secret Velazquez didn’t want us to know:
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Velazquez’s life-sized portrait of Philip IV of Spain towers over the first room of the exhibition. In the picture, the king is dressed in all black and looks as if he means business. He rests one hand on a sword as he holds a piece of paper in the other. Philip wanted to be known for his brains and brawn, and Velazquez put that image into the world.
“There’s something slightly mask-like about his images of the king,” says Gabriele Finaldi of the Prado Museum in Madrid. The painting is on loan from the Prado. “He’s clearly a real person, and no doubt the likeness is very accurate. But Velazquez is very conscious that the king is a person as well as a role. And so he brings those two together in very subtle alignment.”
The exhibition, called “Diego Velazquez: The Early Court Portraits,” includes paintings the artist made of other important figures as well as engravings modeled after his work. But the Philip IV portrait provides the most insight into the artist.
That’s because it shows how Velazquez reworked the painting as he figured out how he wanted to present the king. He painted over most of the stuff he didn’t like. But he didn’t count on some of the lighter paint fading over the last 300 years. And now, if you stare at the portrait for as second, you might say, “Hey – does Philip have a third leg?”
The answer is yes. That ghostly leg isn’t your mind playing tricks on you. Changes like that are known as pentimenti in the art world. And an X-ray of the picture in an adjacent room shows them in greater detail. But you can bet Velazquez would’ve been horrified by the one we can all see.
“I don’t think he would be pleased AT ALL,” says Meadows director Mark Roglan. “In fact, probably he would be erasing those pentimenti – that’s what we call them – he would be erasing them as we speak.”
But Velazquez should take heart – examining those visible flaws are part of why he remains fascinating 350 years after his last brush stroke.