Although this site is mostly all Sight-Size all the time, there are important digressions. This article is one and may be of interest to all representational artists.
Velazquez, Portrait of Innocent X, 1650.
Velazquez’s portrait of pope Innocent X changed my life, artistically speaking. In the Fall of 1988 I was traveling through Europe. I had spent a week in Madrid, where I was ill and was in bed much of the time. Nevertheless, I was able to visit the museums a bit and was not that enamored with the Velazquez paintings in the Prado. Chalk it up to my illness or to the academic-centric outlook I had at the time. Whatever the reason, I just could not get my head around his work. It was not that I disliked it, I was merely neutral.
After Madrid I trained over to Rome. One of my museum stops there was the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj and fortunately for me I seemed to be the only visitor that day. Eventually I made my way to the little room where Velazquez’s Innocent X was displayed. The room had a skylight in the ceiling and the shade was wide open so the light flooded in. I recall that across from the door was a bust of the same pope. I was drawn to it as it had that Bernini-look. And so it was.
Just to my left, I noticed the Velazquez. To date, no portrait has seemed to have so much presence to me. I was momentarily close to breathless. It was arresting. The pope seemed to be seeing right through me, and with a visage like his that was a bit disconcerting, even to a Protestant such as myself!
Photo of both Velazquez’s and Bernini’s versions of Innocent X. Taken by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous.
I stood there for the longest time when eventually a guard strolled by. I asked if I could take a few pictures. He happily agreed and even moved the braided barrier so I could get really close. This was back when photography in museums was generally prohibited and the iPhone had yet to be invented. Anyway, God bless that guard.
Needless to say, that viewing completely changed my impression of Velazquez’s work. I have been back to Madrid many times since and always wonder at how blind I was on the aforementioned first trip.
A Brief History
Velazquez traveled to Italy twice in his life. Innocent X was painted during the second trip, in 1650. Palomino, one of Velazquez’s early biographers, claims that Velazquez felt he needed a warm up before tackling the pope’s commission. To that end, he chose to paint his slave, Juan de Pareja. Juan was also one of Velazquez’s workshop assistants.
On the other hand, some modern-day biographers claim that the pope was unsure of Velazquez’s skill. He therefore requested proof. Whatever the reason for it, Velazquez painted Juan prior to painting the pope.
Velazquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650.
All of the qualities in his Innocent X painting exist in Juan de Pareja as well. That painting, as seen above, is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Before returning to Madrid, Velazquez (or an assistant) painted a partial copy. It is currently in the Wellington Collection, London. You can see it below. The copy misses the mark, and those who regularly paint from life know why. A copy, whether from an original painting or a photograph lacks the connection between the artist and the sitter. I do not mean the connection between two personalities (though that can be a part of it as well). Rather, it’s the connection which develops as the artist makes continual choices based upon his direct observations of life.
Velazquez, Copy of the Portrait of Innocent X, 1650.
The rest of this article takes a closer look at what makes Velazquez’s Innocent X so great and why you should think so too.
My first reason for ranking this painting among the best portraits ever painted is presence. The pope appears to be present in the room, staring directly at you. Why is this? Before you read on (and before I answer the question), scroll back up and look at the full painting again. Note that to see the entire image at once you may need to reduce the zoom from your browser’s view menu. Also, your monitor may show the images in this article too red. That’s partly due to the amount of red in the painting and how the camera adjusted for it.
Anyway, as you look, ask yourself what is the first thing you notice? And the second? How about the third? For me, and likely for you, the first aspect which drew my attention was his eyes. That’s mostly because he’s looking directly at us. My gaze next went to his right hand (where his ring is) and then to his left. Then I go back to his eyes. Part of what pulls me back up is the semi-sharp edge where his mitre meets his forehead.
The relationship of edges is the main reason for the painting’s sense of presence. But it’s deeper than that. It’s their relationship as seen from a specific vantage point. If, when seen in person, you were to step forward or back from that place on the floor something non-specific would just seem off.
That something resolves when returning to the proper vantage point. And that’s entirely due to how Velazquez observed and then turned the edges. You can read more about that in this article here.
What’s more, as in many great paintings the viewer’s path around Innocent X is cyclical. Nothing in it sends you out of the picture. Instead, your attention keeps swirling around from contrast to contrast and from edge to edge.
Some of the softest edges in this painting are on the face: the edge of the nose, the edge of the cheekbone, how the shadows fuse into the halftones. Opposing those lost edges are those that are found, or sharp. The right side of his irises, the right side of his forehead and the upper edge of his ear all contribute to and complete the visual ensemble. More sharps are found on his ring finger and the armrest of the throne.
There is much more to say about lost and found edges. You can read that here.
Did Velazquez paint in Sight-Size? Perhaps. Many have thought so1 and I definitely lean towards that opinion. Those who hold to it do so for one main reason: edges. For an artist to orchestrate an image’s edges so successfully is very difficult. All the more so when he has to scale the painting as one does when comparative measuring. Is that proof? No, and until something contemporary to Velazquez turns up in written form we’ll never possess such proof.
Oil painters know that edges in thick paint are hard to fuse – all the more when the opposing areas are white on one side and red on the other! Although there are thicker areas of paint in Innocent X (primarily in the whites of his skirt and the highlights), most of the surface of this painting is quite thin. One might even deem it stain-like. That is especially true in the background.
This aspect is perhaps the most difficult thing to tell from a photograph. In Innocent X, as in most of Velazquez’s paintings from his mature period, what appears to be thick paint when seen in a photograph is very often paint that is only lightly brushed across the surface of the canvas weave. One can see the weave of the canvas throughout much of the face, hands and background.
You can see some of the thick areas below.
Notice too, that this detail shows a pentimento. Originally, the pope’s leg was farther to his left. Velazquez changed his mind and over-painted the area with a dark, red shadow. That color, which was likely a natural form of alizarin mixed with black, faded over time.
Also of note is that the painting could use a careful cleaning. The brownish tint is old varnish.
Years after that first visit to Madrid I went back again with some of my students. We spent a week in the Prado and this time virtually all I could look at were Velazquez’s paintings. I returned from that trip with two revelations.
One was scraping. Seeing Innocent X a few times after that trip only confirmed it for me. Of course it’s nothing new, but relative to his work I’d not given this aspect much attention before. Many, if not most of the areas of the painting where the weave is visible look as if an under-layer of paint is stained on. But this is modeled paint rather than simply the imprimatura2 (though that is visible too). And yet, over that thinly modeled layer, over-painted adjustments are also visible.
The conclusion most painters come to after seeing this effect is that Velazquez first used an imprimatura which he allowed to dry. Then he thinly painted his lay-in over that. However, before the end of the lay-in session, he scraped it off and perhaps rubbed it with a rag. The scraping and rubbing does not completely remove the wet paint, rather, it leaves a thin layer of modeled paint. The rubbing knocks out any scraping tracks. Finally, he likely blurred the edges of that layer before it dried.
We may assume he followed the same process during the next session: paint > scrape > rub > blur > let dry. And so on, until he was pleased with the shapes and their color notes.
At that point no more scraping or rubbing was necessary. For the final session, or sessions, he would have sharpened the sharps as well as thickly painted the highlights.
Take a look at the more pronounced bumps in the canvas weave shown in the detail above. See how the bumps look far lighter than the surrounding areas? That happens when scraping. Additional proof of all this, for many anyway, is back at the studio. Surely no modern-day artist is a Velazquez but when using this method a very similar surface to his is achieved.3
Few drawings by Velazquez exist and there is a real question of how much literal drawing he actually did. There are times however when he defied nature and drew lines on his paintings directly in paint, similar to what Degas would do some 250 years later. These lines effectively separate forms and help the viewer perceive an illusion of depth on the painted surface.
Despite their prominence in the detail above, in person those lines are not distracting.
A Unity Of Effect
One of the many striking aspects of this painting is how unified it appears from a distance as well as from up close. The entire painting works as a whole unit. How was this achieved?
Well, we have precious little information about how Velazquez actually worked. But we do know how some later painters who idealized him worked. As hinted at before, a common thread from Raeburn to Carolus-Duran to Sargent, among many others, seems to be viewing distance. Using Sight-Size or not, stand back often, for how else can you tell what the effect of the painting as a whole will be. Find the darkest darks and compare all other values to them. The same goes for the lights. Find the sharpest edges and make sure that all the rest are softer in a logical progression.
There is more about relational seeing in this article here.
1 See R.A.M. Stevenson’s Velazquez. Stevenson was a fellow student with Sargent at Carolus-Duran’s atelier. His assessment of Velazquez’s work is but one written example of an artist/author who understood Sight-Size, attributing the approach to Velazquez.
2 An imprimatura is a translucent layer of colored paint which is lightly brushed or rubbed on top of the canvas’ priming. It is then left to dry before actual painting begins.
3 Check out Marc Dalessio’s Minute Painting Lesson #2 as well as a post about Sargent on Stapleton Kearns site for other takes on this idea.