Notes on Velasquez, Rubens y Vermeer

Published on February 5, 2019

Painting is a trick of the mind, a perceptual set up that allow colours in a canvas to show us different realities. There is something heterodox in Velasquez that always mark his paintings apart from his contemporaries in the walls of the museums. Rubens is the tempestuous scenographer of bodies and colours, while Vermeer is the intruder’s gaze in a quiet Dutch house in a calm afternoon. Rubens' works are industrially monumental, while Vermeer's are discreetly small. Velasquez somehow succeeds in translating that intruder’s gaze in the big format of the Spanish royal painting.

Much of the baroque painting reveal in the realism of the details in the fluids in the flesh of the human body as much of the ones of any depicted object. A sensorial gaze overall. In this, Vermeer, Rubens and Velasquez find their identities as painters of their time.

Sometimes I think these details were a way for Rubens to infuse life into his studies of cold marble Roman sculptures. In that, Peter Paul fuses the resources of two Michelangelos, Buonarroti and Caravaggio. The detail in the images could be interpreted as an appeal to the viewer to feel the reality of the painting, as a certificate of veracity. But it also allowed the painter to make the most of the drawing for which he relied on a knowledge obtained in session after session of drawing marble sculptures, mostly classical ones, which did not relish in the mundane details of the flesh, as they were tending more to an idealisation of the real world. In this sense, the details of Rubens faces and bodies are the equivalent of the feats that Bernini sculpted in the flesh of his creations. All of this, of course, all very much in the spirit of the baroque and the spirit of the Contrarreforma.

While both Rubens and Velasquez drink from the source of Caravaggio's tenebrism, both did it in different ways. In Rubens, the learning he made in Italy is marked by the shadow of Michelangelo's suffering bodies, being the viscous details of the flesh something we can point to the tenebrist painter. In Velasquez, his assimilation of the Italian tradition started in his Sevilla days, within the Caravaggio's idea of light and detail, to evolve later under the influence of Titian, something he had in common with the Flemish master. But while to establish the connection between Rubens and the Sevillian master is a clear link, since they both meet personally, the path to the lightness and mystery of Vermeer is something more of a different tone, of thinking, of a way of seeing. And where Velasquez approaches Vermeer, he distances himself from Rubens and the sculptural qualities of the figures of the Flemish master. Las Meninas, the ultimate work of the Spanish master, has more in common with The Letter from Vermeer or even Van Eyck's mirror than with Saint George Killing the dragon. Maybe this could be attributed to the familiarity with the royal collections. It could be said that this quirkiness, this non-classical- almost contemporary-spontaneity can also be found in Rembrandt. But the master of the Jewish Bride exudes a theatricality and lyric quality when painting in the big format that does not let his work stay in the realm of the domestic and prosaic, where is were Vermeer and Velasquez place their quiet and thundering reflections on mortality, death, glory and life.