Velasquez is top of the line
By Joan Altabe
SARASOTA -- A blush of pleasure should rise to the cheeks of every art-loving Floridian.
You probably know Diego Velasquez' portrait of 17th century Spanish monarch Philip IV in Ringling's collection. But did you know our Velasquez out-Velasquezes those held in New York museums, including one touted as "splendiferous" in the current Frick museum show, "Velasquez in New York Museums"?
The Frick exhibit celebrates the 400th anniversary of Velasquez's birth by presenting its own Velasquez likeness of the king, along with an A-list of other Velasquez works in Manhattan's public collections; namely the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hispanic Society of America.
New York Times critic Holland Cotter cried up the Frick example, using such honeyed words as "splendiferous." I've seen it and he's right. But he should see the Ringling's, which I think surpasses the Frick's as well as the Met's.
The Ringling portrait also is head and shoulders above a version at the Prado. (More about that in a moment).
The Frick portrait is an exacting rendering of the face with an inexact rendering of a silver jacket. With blurry shades of black-and-white patches, the jacket looks out of focus -- which is vintage Impressionism before Impressionism existed.
Ditto the Ringling Velasquez. It's realistic on top and Impressionistic lower down, but with two added advantages. There's more color in the Ringling version (the king wears a vividly colored vest and cape) and there's more of the king. It's a full-length portrait.
Now about that Prado example.
Nearly a decade ago, when the Met showed the Ringling Velasquez with two other royal portraits by the same painter -- one from the Prado, the other from the Met -- the Ringling likeness stood out for its size and color. Next to the better-known Prado portrait, which is brownish and austere, the Ringling, in splashy, loosely brushed colors, stood out like a blinking neon light.
Met curator of European paintings Everett Fahy noticed it and told me at the time that the Ringling portrait differed from the other two in its "free and confident air." Call it the air of modern painting before it happened: When it was just a twinkle in Velasquez's rendering of the king's eye, a flash in the pearl on his hat, the shine of his iridescent silk shirt.
Again and again, your eye will return to that pearl. You'll want to touch it.
And if you think the strokes and shades of the Ringling painting are Impressionistic, you should see the underpainting. X-rays reveal so many swirls that you'd think of Impressionist Edouard Vuillard, not Velasquez.
Also notable: while the top painting shows Philip IV in colorful vest and cape, the underpainting shows him in armor. The reason Velasquez painted over the portrait is unknown. Maybe the king -- a man of the arts -- didn't want to be viewed as militaristic.
Velasquez scholar Joe Guidol has compared the Ringling portrait with other Velasquez portraits of Philip IV (there are 12), and found the Ringling's to be superior. Spatial texture is more complex, owing to an interplay of shadows, and the technique is more spontaneous, he said.
Apart from functioning as a place where timeless images endure, museums are challenged to collect the top of the line. John Ringling, you did well.