Velazquez’s Pablo de Vallodolid (1636-7)

Velazquez's portrait of the king's jester Pablo de Vallodolid was described by the French modernist Edouard Manet as the most astonishing piece of painting ever created.1 He praised the representation of air surrounding the figure and the way the background disappears. These craft issues alone are unlikely to have triggered Manet's superlatives; there must  have been something even more interesting in Velazquez's meaning for Manet to have praised it to the skies. What is it that so attracted Manet beyond its material construction?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Velazquez, The Buffoon Pablo de Vallodolid (1636-7) Prado, Madrid

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Manet, after seeing Velazquez's portrait in Madrid, painted an actor in a similar pose and setting (near left). The model was also an artist, torn between his two professions. Artists, remember, have often imagined their role as a performer on stage, as an actor in front of their canvas.2 We have shown before how Manet's Actor is both a scene on stage and a canvas.3 Manet was clearly pleased to see similar meaning at work here. Note how the sword, shadow and left leg of his actor forms an M while Pablo's similarly implausible shadow spells V for Velazquez, as both artists intended.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Velazquez, Buffoon Pablo de Vallodolid (1636-7)
Right: Manet, The Tragic Actor (1866)

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There are even links between the actor's face and Velazquez's only confirmed self-portrait twenty years later. Faces in an artist's oeuvre often have a family resemblance beyond stylistic similarity for reasons explained elsewhere. Here they share the same heavy eyelids; the form of the eyebrow on the left; the highlight on their similar noses; and, notably, a bulging lower lip. However slight, such similarities are not coincidence. They help lead the alert observer away from a literal reading of the scene to the hidden, internal view of the artist's mind.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Self-portrait in Velazquez's Las Meninas (1656)
Right: Detail of Velazquez's Buffoon Pablo.. (1636-7)

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Some self-portraits depict the artist with his brush-hand near the edge because the mirror needed for reflection is set perpendicular to the easel. The jester's right arm, then, would remind a well-trained artist of a painter's pose, either one he used or had seen in portraits. Now we too see for the first time how Velazquez's portrait is constructed like Manet's. The "artist" turns away from painting his self-portrait on an unseen easel (on the left), the painting we see. That is why the background or "air" is the color of canvas: it is what it is, the canvas on which "Velazquez as the king's jester" paints his own "self-portrait".

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Captions for image(s) above:

Velazquez, The Buffoon Pablo de Vallodolid (1636-7)

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If one compares his pose to that of Anton Raphael Mengs' in a self-portrait from a century later, the similarity is clear. Each brush-arm reaches towards the picture's edge. (Mengs, painter to the Spanish king, may even have used Velazquez's portrait as his source.) The jester's other arm, incidentally, is bent as though holding a palette. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Velazquez, Buffoon Pablo de Vallodolid (1636-7)
Left: Mengs, Self-portrait (1774) Casa de Alba, Madrid

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Manet's construction of his actor's portrait has helped us deconstruct Velazquez's and, once seen, Velazquez's Pablo de Vallodolid is such a marvel that we can, for the first time, truly appreciate why Manet praised it so. It was not just how Velazquez had painted the "air" but why as well. This helps demonstrate that the words of a great artist should not be taken at face value and that just as we, lay people, get an indescribable aesthetic buzz every time we unlock the meaning of a masterpiece so do great painters. In that moment we are at one with the great master, regardless of gender, and our eyes will have opened.

For more on Velazquez's Pablo de Vallodolid, see the conclusion of Manet's Faure as Hamlet.

Notes:

1. Manet's 1865 letter to the artist Henri Fantin-Latour: "the most astonishing example in [Velazquez's] splendid oeuvre, and perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting ever done, is the painting listed in the catalogue as Portrait of a Famous Actor in the Time of Philip IV. The background vanishes, and atmosphere envelops the good man, a vital presence dressed in black." Cited in Manet 1832-1883 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 1983, p. 231

2. A few examples must suffice. Charles Moffett noted that "the portrayal of actors in their roles has a long history in French art stretching back at least as far as the seventeenth century." Manet, op. cit., p. 231. Modern critics have long been in general agreement that Watteau's Gilles, a portrait of an actor which Manet also held in high regard, is a surrogate for the painter himself; Gowing has described Turner as having "an even stronger instinct for art as a performance." Lawrence Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York: Museum of Modern Art) 1966, p. 43; Johanna Drucker wrote that the main theme in Picasso's oeuvre is his awareness of art as a theatrical performance. Drucker, Theorizing Modernism: Visual Art and the Critical Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press) 1991, p. 116

3. See our entry on Manet's The Tragic Actor

4. I think I am correct in saying that no-one has noted the letter M before. At least I can find no reference for it. I can be absolutely certain that no-one has ever noted the V in Velazquez's painting. I should also note in this regard that the composition of Velazquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas, is also based on a giant V.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 11 Oct 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.