I recently visited the Prado Museum in Madrid – it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage. At last I met face to face with great towering spectres from my earliest imaginings. I used to save my pocket money to buy little, inexpensively bound ‘Dolphin World of Art’ books from Easons in Dublin when I was just seven years old. Perhaps those books scarred me for life, drawing back the veil on a world of strange and often cruel circumstance – a million miles from the Disney dreams of my peers. My book on Bruegel had a whole chapter on ‘The Triumph of Death’, a large canvas in which a terrifying lanky army of skeletons pillage their way across an arid landscape killing all the humans in ultraviolent fashion. Close-ups of the canvas showed me bloated corpses floating in the millpond, or terrified cowering men having their throats slit. Another book, meanwhile, introduced me to the hallucinatory weirdness of Hieronymous Bosch, whose ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ depicts naked people cavorting with oversize fruits, or cocooned in the seed pods of plants.
Later in my childhood I came to love the work of Velazquez and Goya, two giants of Spanish court art, both of whom made a long dead royal family feel real enough to touch. My love for Goya in particular quickly transcended all normal categories. This man, struck deaf in his 40s by a mysterious illness, seemed later in his life to have acquired a strange, almost supernatural talent for drilling into the souls of other humans, perhaps because he could no longer hear the self-justifying nonsense that emanated from their mouths. The wall labels at the Prado acknowledge this creepy effect, in particular with reference to his large state portrait of Ferdinand VII. This King, loathed by liberals for his lack of integrity, looks like a fraud. He appears before us like a self-deluded interloper who’s been playing with a dressing up box, donning the robes of royalty when he really has no right.
This assertion is thrown into focus as I wander the corridors of the Prado and glance across, between this and other grand portraits of the same era. The picture sticks out like a sore thumb in its unnatural feel and technique. A few feet away sits a remarkably fresh, comfortable and lively society portrait by Meissonier, the lacy trim of the fabric painstakingly rendered. The contrast with Goya’s Ferdinand could not be more stark. The gold trim of Ferdinand’s gown is dashed on hurriedly with the end of a hogshair brush – splat, splat, splat. The King has a conceited, haughty and slightly threatening face. Goya isn’t afraid to meet it and show it, for he paints him with barely veiled hatred. A few years later the artist fled this regime to live out his final years in France.
Although this is what one hopes to experience in an art gallery – a real emotional connection with the artist – it can be rare. Look into the eyes of a thousand society portraits and the chances are that aside from bald technique you may find precious little to admire in clone-stamped faces which honour polite conventions and respect those financial transactions of society portraits which assure flattery. This is why portrait painters like Moro and Mengs, though well represented in the Prado collection, are not household names.
Diego Velazquez, unsurprisingly, stands as another remarkable voice within the displays of court art in the halls of the Prado. I get the strange sense that, centuries after his death, he still has something to say to our modern sensibilities, far away from the cobwebs of history and dry connoisseurship. The room containing his portraits of court jesters and buffoons alone is surely sufficient to justify his enormous reputation. They are extraordinary. His portrait of Sebastian Morra depicts a dwarf owned by King Philip IV – one of many such characters kept at court, often subject to the open mockery of the household. Morra looks real enough to touch, and there is complexity in his posture and face. He meets us with confidence and undoubted defiance. His clothing (and twirled moustache) suggests a proud, slightly flamboyant character. It’s an unusual pose – does Velazquez demean Morra by portraying him seated on the floor, his already short legs foreshortened pictorially and stuck out in front of him in a comical fashion? Clearly not – for this picture does not contain the flavour of mockery. It is we, the onlooker, who find ourselves under scrutiny from Morra. His face doesn’t smile or beg our approval, and his expression does not invite us to join in amusement at his posture. We put him here, we are the spectators, and he defies us to see his humanity, and maybe extend a hand and help him to his feet.
If this picture doesn’t seem too radical to our modern eyes, we need only glance to a visual forebear, painted a hundred years previously – Bronzino’s quite astonishing double-sided nude portrait of Morgante the court dwarf. Morgante became a particular favourite of the Grand Duke of Tuscany – eventually granted land and honours. Yet he was also humiliated for the amusement of courtiers, and on one occasion forced to publicly fight a monkey, naked. Whilst it’s impossible to deny that this portrait is a great artwork, and a thing of curious beauty, it’s clear that it was painted in an entirely different spirit. Morgante is naked for our amusement, the better that we can marvel and laugh at his unusual proportions. We see him front and back as he is spun round before us, a mere possession of the Duke.
Can we ascribe the difference in these two portraits to the fact that Velazquez lived in slightly more enlightened times? Not entirely. The Prado collection contains a pair of portraits which give the lie to this theory. ‘The Monster’ by Juan Carreno de Miranda, a contemporary of Velazquez, depicts a seventy kilogram six year old who was brought to court and paraded around like a freak. In a companion piece, she is portrayed naked. This example of 17th century fat shaming wouldn’t look out of place on a Channel 5 documentary. The humanity and empathy is nil.
Elsewhere in the gallery, I encounter Josef Ribera’s ‘Bearded Woman’, painted just ten years before Velazquez’s portrait of Morra. Thankfully this piece has some humanity, too. It is one of the Prado crowd pleasers, attracting a permanent row of bemused onlookers cupping hands over mouths and whispering ‘wtf’. It is unusual but somehow mesmerizing. An inscription on the right of the picture gives us the context. Magdalena Ventura is pictured with her husband. They had three children together before, presumably at the menopause, she unexpectedly sprouted a full beard. The presence of an infant suckling at Magdalena’s naked breast feels somewhat sensationalist but, to be fair, it is an unavoidable pictorial device. The sitter is too old to really nurse a child, yet without it we might very easily miss the fact that she is a woman. It may not exactly contain the direct power of Velazquez’s Morra, but this image undeniably provokes empathy. There is a reassuring, supportive calm to Magdalena’s husband, whose kind presence emphasizes the domesticity and normality of her life, aside from this hormonal quirk of fate. Magdalena’s face, meanwhile, expresses neither shame nor brash defiance – just a wise, resigned, ‘seen-it-all-before’ stillness.
As I wander back and forth between Ribera, Goya and Velazquez, something occurs to me. If Magdalena has the demeanour of a Buddhist monk, if Sebastian Morra possesses fierce intelligence, individuality and spirit – then what do these intensely honest artists have to tell us about the Spanish royalty? Goya’s Ferdinand, we have already seen, was a vapid excuse for a human being. Now as I wander into the room of Velazquez’s royal portraits, I’m met by the sight of Queen Mariana. It’s tempting to instantly dismiss this person as a spoilt cow with a face like a slapped backside (there are shades of this) but I feel Velazquez is sympathetic to her – and sees the truth of a predicament which lies beneath the majesty of her royalty. Since a degree of awe and grandeur is required, this is by nature a stiffer, more posed portrait than those of the court buffoons. I saw this picture for the first time as a child, in a book, and it fascinated me. I’d never seen such ridiculous sartorial insanity.
‘How does she go to the toilet?’ was the first question I asked my Mum.
‘Well’, Mum ventured, ‘I assume her servants have to lift up the dress and help her…’
I was astonished by the notion that someone could be this imprisoned by their clothing, and it still seems hard to believe. Forget dwarves and bearded ladies, perhaps, after all, the real 17th century freakshow was playing out in the Spanish Court itself. Mariana was forced to marry her forty-four year old uncle (King Philip) when she was just fourteen. It was a loveless marriage – her husband was unfaithful from the start, and Mariana was immediately under pressure to produce a male heir. She had little personal freedom, she couldn’t leave the palace for a stroll and she needed a gaggle of servants just to help her have a piss.
Look again at Mariana in this portrait – she seems sad, trapped within the matrix of her wealth and the accident of her birth. Her expression is not particularly regal, nor is it demure, nor can it muster any defiance. She is lost, literally hemmed in by blue velvet and silver brocade, unable to move. Velazquez didn’t pity Sebastian Morra – it looks for all the world like he saved his pity for the Spanish Queen.
Museo del Prado, Paso del Prado, Madrid. Open Daily.