Velázquez at the Grand Palais, Paris
Returning from Madrid in 1865, Manet asked Baudelaire why anyone bothered trying to paint because, next to Velázquez, “the greatest painter there ever was”, all others “seem completely like fakers”.
Now Velázquez comes to Paris for the sort of full-scale, radiant, irrefutable retrospective that the Grand Palais does more effectively than any museum in the world. It cannot borrow “Las Meninas” but its loans are rare and outstanding. Rome’s great “Pope Innocent X”, wily, inexorable, a whirl of flesh and blood, which the subject declared “troppo vero”, is here, and the Prado’s “Pablo de Valladolid”, the court clown caught mid-breath, mid-gesture, striking a pose. This was the favourite of Manet, who noted how “the background disappears. It is air that surrounds the man, dressed entirely in black and full of life.”
The play-off between these two portraits of dramatic self-invention — neither came to London for the National Gallery’s 2006 Velázquez show — is alone worth the trip to Paris. In this city of modern art, Velázquez looks more effortlessly cool, nimble, sparkling and tender-ruthless than ever, and there isn’t an idea in painting that he hasn’t explored and perfected.
The show’s poster girl is “Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress”, depicting the same pale child with the heart-stopping gaze who stands at the centre of “Las Meninas”. There she was five, and playful; now she is a composed eight-year-old, and Velázquez’s glittering portrait, commissioned for her fiancé, Emperor Leopold I in Vienna, reflects her double life as treasured little girl — inbred Habsburg children seldom survived infancy — and diplomatic pawn. She scrutinises us with an innocent lightness of being but her body is imprisoned in the courtly armour of a spectacular deep-blue hooped crinoline, which gives her volumetric, stately presence.
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