The Yomiuri ShimbunThe National Museum of Western Art is currently displaying seven masterpieces by Spanish giant Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), the most ever assembled for a show in this country.
“Velazquez and the Celebration of Painting: The Golden Age in the Museo del Prado” features 70 works, mostly paintings, from the Prado Museum, which serves as a pantheon of Spanish art. They are the best of the museum’s collection of masterpieces from the 16th and 17th centuries, with the artists including Tiziano Vecellio, Peter Paul Rubens and Bartolome Murillo in addition to Velazquez.
Born in Seville, Spain, Velazquez developed his skills under his father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco. Appointed as a court painter in 1623, he earned the trust of King Philip IV and assumed important posts for the Spanish royal family while also creating paintings. His signature masterpiece, “Las Meninas,” is considered one of the best group portraits in the world. (The painting is not among the featured works at the Tokyo exhibition.)
The following are excerpts of an interview with Javier Portus, chief senior curator of Spanish paintings created until 1700 at the Prado Museum, who supervised the show:
There are not many surviving works by Velazquez — just about 120 — because he had to spend much of his time as a court servant. The Prado Museum owns about 40 percent of them.
This exhibition offers visitors a chance to admire more Velazquez paintings than any other show ever held in Japan. All seven featured works are large enough to entice visitors to look at the details, such as “Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback,” which measures 211.5 centimeters by 177 centimeters, and “Philip IV in Hunting Dress,” which is 189 centimeters by 124 centimeters.
All seven, moreover, are essential to understanding Velazquez, a great master who represented the golden age of Spanish art.
For court painters, one of the important duties was to create portraits of members of the royal family. Kings and other major figures were usually drawn without any expression to show they were blessed with strong will and fair judgment, thereby having the ability and qualifications to govern the nation. Moreover, there were strict regulations on which gestures should be included, along with what items they could hold.
Under these tight conditions, Velazquez sought to depict the inner feelings of his subjects. If you look at “Philip IV in Hunting Dress,” for example, visitors probably can sense not just the king’s dignity, but also his humanity from his slightly gentle expression, which is one of the great appeal of the master’s portraits.
The exhibition is divided into eight sections, such as “The Mythology,” “The Court,” “The Landscape,” “The Still Life” and “The Religion.” The seven Velazquez masterpieces are on display along with paintings by other masters who lived during or near the same time, such as Tiziano, Rubens, Murillo and [Jusepe de] Ribera. Also featured are books on art theory from that period.
As a court painter, Velazquez was able to admire various paintings while serving the royal family. From which works did the artist draw inspiration? How did he establish his own style? The exhibition will give visitors insight into these questions.
I also hope they will enjoy a precious opportunity to admire the fascinating aspects of Spanish art, which reached its pinnacle in the 17th century.
■ “Velazquez and the Celebration of Painting: The Golden Age in the Museo del Prado” runs through May 27. The National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo, is closed on Mondays (except for April 30).