Painting in Spain at the time of Velázquez 1

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), The Death of Hercules (1634), oil on canvas, 136 × 167 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In the history of painting, it’s all too easy to get blinded by the brilliance of artists working in Italy and France, and forget those of Spain. When we think of Golden Ages, we think of the Dutch one, not that of Spain. Yet for about a century from 1570 onwards, there was a succession of major painters in Spain: El Greco, Jusepe de Ribera, Diego Velázquez, Vicente Carducho, and Murillo are the best-known who made up the Spanish Golden Age of Art.

To put my new series on Velázquez into context, this article and the next look at a very small selection of paintings by these other masters of the Spanish Golden Age, and some painted in Spain by its most famous visiting painter, Peter Paul Rubens, who stayed in Madrid on a diplomatic mission in 1628-29.

El Greco (1541–1614) was Greek in origin – his real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos (Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος) – but was born on the island of Crete when it was a Venetian colony. He trained in post-Byzantine art there, and travelled to Venice in about 1567. In 1570 he moved to Rome, and did not settle in Toledo, Spain, until 1577, when he was 36. Thus his tendency towards colorito rather than disegno may be the result of his Venetian training.

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) (1541–1614), The Annunciation (1614), oil on canvas, 294 x 209 cm, Fundación Banco Santander, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

El Greco’s uniquely painterly style is shown well in his Annunciation, which was one of his last works, painted in 1614, the year of his death. With its very natural gestures, this must have been the most unconventional painting of this very popular motif until the nineteenth century.

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) (1541–1614), The Vision of Saint John, or The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608-14), oil on canvas, 222.3 x 193 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Another of his late works, The Vision of Saint John (1608-14) is just as idiosyncratic.

Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), The Judgement of Solomon (1609-10), oil on canvas, 153 × 201 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Jusepe de Ribera (also known as José de Ribera or Josep de Ribera) (1591-1652) was born near and trained in Valencia, but by 1611 had made his way to Rome, where he worked until 1616. He moved to Naples, which was then Spanish territory, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Ribera’s powerful interpretation of The Judgement of Solomon from 1609-10, when he was still working in Valencia, is emotionally eloquent and shows the influence of Caravaggio in what has become known as Tenebrism.

Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), Allegory of Sight (1615-16), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly before he moved from Rome to Naples, Ribera painted a series of works showing the five senses. Among them, his Allegory of Sight (1615-16) was painted just a few years after the appearance of the first working telescope in 1608. Ribera’s figure is surrounded by these wondrous new inventions, as well as a traditional flat mirror. In his hands is an early telescope, possibly made in the Netherlands (which was also part of the Spanish Empire at the time) or Germany. Next to the mirror is a pair of spectacles, which had been developed from the middle of the thirteenth century.

Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), Penitent Mary Magdalene (c 1635-40), oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Ribera’s Tenebrism lasted to the end of his career, as shown in this painting of the Penitent Mary Magdalene from about 1635-40.

Much of the output from the workshops of Spanish painters at this time was not two-dimensional painting, but polychrome wood carvings which were destined for religious use. Although 2D paintings were very influential on Velázquez and his art, during his apprenticeship he was almost certainly surrounded by carvers and assistants who were making these objects of devotion.

Juan de Mesa (1583–1627), The Immaculate Conception (c 1610-15), polychrome wood carving, dimensions not known, Matthiesen Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Juan de Mesa (1583–1627) was a Cordoban sculptor who trained and worked in Seville from 1606 to his death there in 1627. He was responsible for many of the processional effigies which were – and some still are – featured in the celebrations of Holy Week in Seville. The Immaculate Conception is a fine example of his work from about 1610-15.

The Spanish Royal Collection, much of which is now exhibited in the Prado in Madrid, grew greatly during the Golden Age, and was a particular attraction to many painters. It includes many magnificant paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), whose life centred on Antwerp, then in the Spanish Netherlands.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Europa (copy of Titian’s original) (1628-29), 182.5 × 201.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens was not only one of the greatest artists of the period, but was also an important diplomat, who travelled between the major capitals of Europe between 1621-30. In 1628-29, he stayed in Madrid, where he made copies of two of the greatest paintings by Titian, which were in the Royal Collection at the time.

Rubens’ quite faithful copy of The Rape of Europa is in rather better condition than Titian’s original, and was known to Velázquez.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Fall of Man (after Titian) (1628-29), oil on canvas, 238 x 184.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ version of The Fall of Man made at this time is more liberally-interpreted, with changes in Adam and the addition of a parrot, for example.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Adoration of the Magi (1628-29), oil on canvas, 355.5 x 493 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens also painted some original works during his eight month stay, including his superb Adoration of the Magi. Rubens and Velázquez became good friends, and intended to travel together to Italy. However, Rubens was called back to Antwerp, leaving Velázquez to make his own way to Italy.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Saint Margaret of Antioch (1630-34), oil on canvas, 163 x 105 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1903), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) was a contemporary of Velázquez who came to Seville to train as a painter in 1614, only three years after Velázquez had started his apprenticeship there. Zurbarán concentrated on religious work for almost his entire career, largely on the strength of an early contract with the Dominican monastery in Seville.

Typical of his commissioned religious works is this full-length portrait of Saint Margaret of Antioch, from 1630-34.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), The Death of Hercules (1634), oil on canvas, 136 × 167 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

However, Zurbarán was commissioned by King Philip IV of Spain to produce a series of paintings showing the life of Hercules. The king was a major patron of the arts, the work of Velázquez in particular, and this series was most probably part of his attempt to impress his royal grandeur with the construction of the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid from 1631 onwards.

Later Philip became actively involved with religious mystics, and it is possible that his unconventional beliefs may have included Christianisation of some heroic figures like Hercules, but in the way that Botticelli had interwoven classical myth and Christian beliefs.

Zurbarán’s painting of The Death of Hercules from 1634 is unusual both for its obvious Tenebrism, and for showing what can only be a Christian martyrdom, with its victim staring up to heaven, commending his soul to God.

Tomorrow I will show examples of the paintings of Velázquez’ teachers, and of his successor Murillo.