The Best Painting in History? Diego Velázquez

One of Pip’s favorite art analysts is someone who calls himself The Nerdwriter and has a series of videos on YouTube. Although his discussion of artwork is excellent, there has been no occasion to mention him on Pigtails until now. Recently, he reviewed a famous painting called Las Meninas and featured center stage was a little girl, a princess of Spain. The Nerdwriter considers this work more worthy of analysis than any other in history. An important distinction between photography and painting is that with painting, the artist has complete control and no element is there by chance so that the presence of the smallest detail can be a valid subject of discussion. The critic engages in the usual discussion of composition but also why the artist chose to depict two of Rubens’ paintings displayed in the background. The solution to a long-standing mystery is also convincingly proposed and, in The Nerdwriter’s opinion, what is great about this piece is that it is a bold statement about the virtue of painting itself. At that time, poets and musicians were highly regarded but not painters. The fact that the Rubens paintings were about the divine source of creativity and that a reflection of the king and queen in a mirror is coming from a canvas at the edge of frame seems to bolster the argument that Velázquez was making a profound statement about the power of the medium. “This is a painting about painting.” says The Nerdwriter.

Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas (1656)

Diego Velázquez – Las Meninas (1656)

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) was one of the most important Spanish painters and beloved court artist under the reign of King Philip IV. In addition to numerous renditions of scenes of historical and cultural significance, he painted many portraits of the Spanish royal family, notable European figures and even commoners. The importance of Velázquez’ contribution was acknowledged by realist and impressionist painters starting in the early 19th Century and included Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon who all recreated several of the more famous works. Philosopher Michel Foucault devotes the opening chapter of one of his books to a detailed analysis of Las Meninas and Philip Roth also referred to that painting as a metaphor for the distracted attraction of courtship.

Velázquez received good training in languages and philosophy but showed an early gift for art. He first studied under Francisco de Herrera and remained with him for only one year. It is probably from this master that he acquired the habit of using brushes with long bristles. At age 12, he apprenticed under the somewhat undistinguished Francisco Pacheco for five years and married his teacher’s daughter, Juana, in 1618. The couple had two daughters.

Velázquez’ first visit to Madrid in 1622 was very timely as the king’s favorite court painter had just died. By August 1623, Philip IV sat for Velázquez for the first time and was pleased. The painter was then offered permanent residence in the court. In 1628, Peter Paul Rubens came to Madrid and met Velázquez, developing a high opinion of him. Rubens’ visit inspired the younger painter to visit Italy to study the works of the Italian masters. Velázquez’ career culminated in what is arguably his greatest work, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) in 1656. It featured Margaret Theresa, the eldest daughter of Philip and his new queen, Mariana of Austria. The artist was given the honor of knighthood in 1659 and it was only through this royal appointment that he was able to escape the censorship of the Inquisition. Otherwise, he would never have been able to release his La Venus del espejo (Venus at her Mirror), the painter’s only surviving female nude. Velázquez’ final portraits of the royal children are among his finest works and include the Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress.

Diego Velázquez - Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress (1659)

Diego Velázquez – Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress (1659)

Sweet Deal!

As I have mentioned before, I watch a lot of documentaries and it often strikes me when a little girl has played some prominent role in the story. In some cases, that means some real life little girl has played a pivotal role in history like Sainte Foy. One of my favorite series is Connections written and hosted by James Burke. His approach is interesting because he looks at history as a tangle of interconnecting threads that shaped our modern world. This requires an interdisciplinary approach which few people can achieve convincingly—much to the detriment of science and education in general in my opinion. One story touched upon in an episode of Connections 2 was about a scholar who made friends with an aristocratic family and especially the daughter, who was in a position later to offer him an important post. All I could think of when I saw that was, “sweet deal!”

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) was a French dramatist, historian, archaeologist, and short story writer. Having studied law, Greek, Spanish, English and Russian, he was the first to translate much Russian literature into French. He loved mysticism, history and the unusual and that was reflected in his various mystery stories set in foreign places, especially Spain and Russia.

(Artist Unknown) - etching of Mérimée (1888)

(Artist Unknown) – etching of Mérimée (1888)

During his travels, Mérimée met and befriended the Countess of Montijo in Spain in 1830 and he credited this encounter as the inspiration for his Carmen story for which he is probably best known and the basis of Bizet’s opera of the same name. Here a reenactment was shot for the program.

James Burke - Connections 2: Hit the Water (1994) (1)

James Burke – Connections 2: Hit the Water (1994) (1)

Mérimée tutored the countess’ daughter, Eugénie, during her courtship with Napoleon III. Considering how this friendship ultimately benefited him, it is surprising to learn that his correspondence indicated that he opposed the marriage.

James Burke - Connections 2: Hit the Water (1994) (2)

James Burke – Connections 2: Hit the Water (1994) (2)

Through Eugénie’s influence, Mérimée was appointed to the post of inspector-general of historical monuments of France in 1834. His efforts over the years led to important archaeological discoveries and the preservation and restoration of about 4,000 French monuments including parts Notre Dame in Chartres. When Eugénie became Empress of France in 1853, he was made a senator. Because of his substantial contribution to French culture, the French national list of heritage monuments is called Base Mérimée.

The Connections series is noteworthy. Burke’s approach can be very insightful even though he sometimes seems to have a superficial understanding of certain details and tends to minimize the impact of the humanities on the course of human events. Nevertheless, I found viewing the various incarnations of his work (Connections, The Day the Universe Changed, Connections 2 and Connections 3) an excellent exercise in understanding the subtle interplay of historical forces.

James Burke - Connections 2: Hit the Water (1994) (3)

James Burke – Connections 2: Hit the Water (1994) (3)

Mérimée biography (here)

Connections series (here)

Base Mérimée (here)

The Brothers Sijben de Maroye

Recently Ray Harris made a post on his Novel Activist blog about Dutch painter Marcel von Sijben de Maroye and I liked his style, inspiring my to research him further.  As I did, I encountered another painter with the same last name, Edmond von Sijben de Maroye.  Initially I thought they may have been the same painter; it is not unusual for European artists, who frequently have four or five names rather than the currently customary three, to be listed under more than one combination of their name.  But I happened across a site that had work by both artists, and it gave birth and death dates for both.  Edmond and Marcel were born in 1876 and 1878 respectively, and if I had to guess, I would place them as siblings, owing to the nigh identical Impressionistic style of their work and the very close birth dates.  The trouble is, there is virtually nothing on the internet about either one—not in English anyway.  So, I’m going to put my (rather negligible) reputation on the line and just say outright that they were brothers.  If anyone else has additional information to support or contradict this, I would welcome it.  Although I was only able to pin down the date on of them, I’m fairly certain all of these works were painted in the early part of the 20th century.

[Editorial update, 2016/06/01: Indeed, Edmond (1876–1970) and Marcel (1878–1962) von Sijben are brothers.]

This first piece is Neoclassical in tone, if not in technique.  It is an idyll, which is a kind of allegory of paradise.  Note the filmy, translucent clothing of the boy and girl at right.

Edmond von Sijben de Maroye – Mother and Children in a Field

Edmond von Sijben de Maroye – Two Children in a Meadow

Marcel von Sijben de Maroye – Girl in a Charleston Dress (Portrait of Princess Juliana) (1927)

Marcel von Sijben de Maroye – Nude Girl

Marcel von Sijben de Maroye – Nude Child