Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is often sited as the greatest European painter to have ever picked up a brush. His technical skill is nothing less than superb (putting it mildly), but technique alone does not an artist make. What separates Velázquez from the rest, is that he is one of those special painters who doesn’t just deal in light and flesh, but in truth. Vincent Van Gogh sought truth in every brushstroke he ever laid to canvas. Art for him became the only truth in a world that constantly fed him terrible lies. The greatest lie of all was that his truth was worthless and misdirected. When the avalanche of lies turned into doubt; it became too much for him to bear and he ended his brief and tenuous life. Both Van Gogh and Velázquez are painters of the highest order and unrivaled merchants of truth, but who is the greater artist?
Velázquez announced his arrival with a single painting Waterseller of Seville. He was barely in his twenties, and the most powerful family in Europe at the time, gave him an opportunity to prove himself. Velázquez rose to the occasion and entered the court of the king and then never left. His first real job was to be the official painter for King Philip IV of Spain. Not bad for someone who was discouraged by his family from pursuing the lowly profession of artist. Velázquez was the educated son of a lawyer and art was viewed as a pedestrian pursuit unworthy of his station. Velázquez’s talent couldn’t be suppressed and in no time flat he found himself not only working in the palace of the king, but living there as well.
It is probably safe to say, Van Gogh never set foot in anything remotely close to a palace. The closet Van Gogh got was a little four room house in Arles in the south of France. He lived in poverty his entire adult life, having to be supported by his art dealer brother Theo. After being rejected by the church he turned his focus towards painting and spent a frantic ten years seeking the truth in paint. He completed 1000 paintings in that time and near the end of his life completed 70 works in 70 days. He worked like a man possessed. It was in his ‘Studio of the South’ where he totally abandoned his dark somber palette and embraced the vibrant colours of the sun.
Velázquez’s talent for colour is that he can do so much with so little. Reds and blacks sing with minimal brushstrokes and expert handling. His Venus is an excellent example of this, certain areas are built up into subtle variations of tone where others are barely knocked in at all. Velázquez directs our gaze and always keeps the viewer in mind. He peaks our interest by not revealing all and situating us in relation to the subject as she stares directly out at us. We become part of the painting. The Rokeby Venus (as it is now called) was originally solely meant for the male gaze, intended to be displayed in the 17th century version of a man-cave. It eventually made its way to England where another King (can be bookmarked in the story of Velázquez) helped to purchase it for the National Gallery at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1914, a suffragette named Mary Richardson attacked the painting in a protest that women couldn’t have the vote. She ended up slashing the painting five times with a small axe. The media of the day portrayed the incident like it was an attempted murder.
Over the years, many sensational stories have been told of Vincent’s breakdown, self mutilation and manic behaviour. This is part of the legend that is Van Gogh. No matter how little interest people may have in art, they’ve heard that story, and no matter how many times you hear it, it is still disquieting. This was an extreme act that defies reason, the act of a mad man, but Van Gogh was not mad. A mad man couldn’t control paint like that. An unhealthy combination of drink, depression, passion and rejection can produce huge lapses in judgement but a delusional mind can’t produce a painting like the Chair. The absolute harmony of colour is nothing short of breathtaking. It literally blazes from the gallery wall. Van Gogh suffered horribly from his inner demons but it’s impossible to look at one of his paintings and not feel a sense of joy. There’s a pleasure in challenging the gods, even if you know you can never win.
Arachne was turned into a spider for her crime of challenging the gods to a weaving contest. This is the theme of Velázquez’s The Spinners; painted near the end of his life. By this time, Velázquez had enjoyed a long and illustrious career; having been promoted to run the King’s household and not only produce artwork for the palace, but to go on buying trips to acquire it as well. He filled rooms with Titans and Tintorettos alongside his own works. Velázquez placed himself in the canon of art history long before the rest of the world caught up.
It took some time for the rest of the world to realize the mistake it had made with Vincent. The world rejected Van Gogh’s work when he was alive and only embraced it after his death. It took a while for the rest of us to catch up to him and understand his genius. The story of Van Gogh resounds so deeply because it is the story of vindication. He was right and the world was wrong. Everyone needs to believe that truth, to know that the world isn’t always right in its treatment of you and that anyone can prevail against insurmountable odds. Unfortunately for Vincent it came far too late and the tragedy of his life helped fuel the pathos of his genius. It is almost impossible to divorce the man from the work but the work speaks for itself and we are left with masterpiece after masterpiece.
A masterpiece to rival all others would have to be Les Meninas by Velázquez. It is the crown jewel in the painter’s oeuvre. It is the ultimate court painting, again bringing the viewer into the action. We are standing in essence where the King and Queen are standing indicated by their reflection at the back of the room. We are frozen in time as the morning sun illuminates the maids of honour. Velázquez himself stares out at us from this palatial room. It is both intimate and distancing at the same time. Royalty is the domain for the few and the elite and tends to keep its distance. Velázquez spent a lifetime preserving that distance by depicting the cultural divide of the more fortunate. He was tremendously gifted at flattering an extremely awkward looking man but they are not among his best works. Where Velázquez truly shows his genius are in his portraits of the attendants and commoners that peppered the King’s court. This is where his truth shines brightest.
Everything Vincent attempted sings true; he distilled painting to its purest form. Van Gogh’s truth is that of colour and movement and the nobility of a worn out pair of shoes or simple chair in the corner. Life was hard for him but his pictures don’t get bogged down by his hardships. Van Gogh’s paintings are the essence of art and lucky for us, a gift to the world.
Winner: Van Gogh