Oil Portrait Masters 2
The seventeenth-century Spanish painter Velazquez was a court painter.
However, aside from his more formal portraits of the Spanish royal family he
painted other figures, including Pope Innocent X.
What kind of man could make such a portrait? Its sketchy execution reveals
both confidence and dexterity, and it is likely that all the more important
details were captured in one sitting. The painting also implies little deference
to the Pope's authority. This is not a portrait of God's ambassador on earth,
but of a man who though powerful is human nevertheless. Yet as court painter to
the richest and most powerful monarch in the world, the Spanish king, Velazquez
considered himself the Pope's equal at some level. If he had not, how could he
have portrayed Innocent X with an honesty that the Pope himself dismissed as 'too real'?
Velazquez restricted his palette to reds, browns and white. The opulent dress
and surroundings were all dismissed and reduced to rapid brushstrokes which
allow our eye to wander over the painting without distraction. Only the face
holds our attention; it is worked in far greater detail than any other part of
the painting. Despite the dexterity of Velazquez's execution, if we cover the
face the painting ceases to engage our interest. It is the eyes that are truly
riveting, their malevolent intensity emphasized by the pin-prick highlights.
There is a testy arrogance to the Pope's stare and to his tight lips; he looks
both at us and through us. But as the portrait itself shows, that stare has been
acknowledged and returned by the artist. This is the true focus of the painting,
the key by which Velazquez proclaimed himself equal to the Pope, man to man. As
such, the painting tells us as much about the artist as about his subject.