logo.gif (3771 bytes) Ringling's Velasquez a local treasure


By Diego Velasquez. On permanent exhibition, Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. $9, $8 seniors, free under age 12. Galleries free Saturdays. Call 359-5700.

By Joan Altabe

Although the Ringling Museum is known for its Rubenses, a work better thought of, by an artist better thought of, frequently goes unnoticed: ``Philip IV,'' by 17th century painter Diego Velasquez.

Nearly a decade ago, when New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art showed the Ringling Velasquez in a room with two other portraits of the Spanish monarch --one from the Prado and the other from the Met's own collection -- the Ringling Velasquez stood out for its size and color.

In fact, next to the better-known Prado portrait, which is brownish and austere, the Ringling example, in splashy, loosely brushed colors, stands as a blinking neon light.

Met curator of European paintings Dr. Everett Fahy noticed it and told me at the time that the Ringling's portrait differed from the other two in its free and confident air.

Call it the air of modern paintings before it happened: When it was just a twinkle in Velasquez's rendering of the king's eye, a flash in the pearl that adorned his hat, the shine of his iridescent silk shirt.

But while Velasquez may have been the better painter, it was Rubens, Velasquez' friend on his move to Madrid from Flanders, who changed the Spaniard's palette, as well as painting technique. The Ringling Velasquez reflects that influence.

It's been said that you can tell people by their friends. In the art world, you can tell people by the artists they influence. When Impressionist leader Edouard Manet saw Velasquez's bright brushwork, he called him ``le peintre des peintres (the painter of painters).

And since Manet's discoveries led to the art of the 20th century, the Ringling Velasquez may stand as one of the most originative examples of modern art.

In fact, if you think the strokes and shades of the Ringling painting are impressionistic, you should see the underpainting that X-rays reveal.

X-rays of paintings usuallly determine the nature of a painting's material. But those of the Ringling work reveal a second painting with so many swirls, you think of Edouard Vuillard, not Velasquez -- the impressionist, not the Iberian.

One might say, then, that John Ringling bought two Velasquez paintings for the price of one. The top painting shows Philip IV in vividly colored vest and cape. The under painting shows him in armor. Reasons why Velasquez painted over the portrait vary. Maybe the king, a man of the arts, didn't want to be viewed as militaristic. Maybe Rubens' influence moved Velasquez to change the clothing from gun-metal-gray armor to gaily color civvies.

Velasquez scholar Jose Guidol compared the Ringling portrait with other Velasquez portraits of Philip IV and found the Ringling version to be superior. The spatial texture is more complex than in other portraits of the kind, he said, thanks to the interplay of shadows, which also give a great sensation of depth.

Guidol also has written that Velasquez's technique is more spontaneous in the Ringling work, which the Prado also has shown.

This means that local art lovers are lucky. They own the treasure, and can see it all they want.


NYT-11-26-98 1510EST