WORDS BY PHIL GRABSKY
Phil's chosen painting this week is...
PORTRAIT OF POPE INNOCENT X
BY DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ
This is one of those paintings that you stand before and wonder at just how an artist achieved such mastery of paint. This might seem a conventional state portrait of a Pope but take your time to look more carefully – and prepare to be amazed. The artist – from a middle-class family in Seville, southern Spain – was just over 50 when he was commissioned for this work. Velázquez had risen to be the court painter in Philip IV’s Madrid and was an obvious choice for the Papal portrait when he came to Rome.
Velázquez turns the Pope away from us to emphasize the gap between us ordinary mortals and this representative of God yet at the same time the frown and quizzical, almost self-conscious, look in his eyes affirm his human nature. The Pope was an impatient 76-year-old when this was painted and you can almost sense his preference to be back at his desk reading the letter in his left hand.
When Pamphili saw the painting he remarked ‘troppo vero’ (too true) and it has remained in his family ever since (in their wonderful gallery in Rome that I thoroughly recommend). There is more to appreciate than just biography. Francis Bacon called this ‘one of the greatest paintings ever made’ and it is the artist’s extraordinary skill with paint that impressed him.
Not without good reason this has been called a symphony in red. As so often with Velázquez there is a limited palette: black and hints of white create a thick velvet background, smoother strokes of white create a hat and cape of sensual satin, and a thinner grey and white ground deliver the illusion of the pope’s alb (a long white dress worn under other clothing). Look up close and everything becomes a blur but from a short distance everything comes into focus and almost 5 centuries dissolve away and we are in the presence of one of the most powerful men alive at that time. Pigment, canvas, wood, nails, oil…in the hands of a master like Velázquez come together in a stunning work of art – that I, for one, could stare at for hours.
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Thanks for reading! Catch us next week with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo4