Las Meninas and John Singer Sargent

I visited the famous Prado art museum in Madrid with my sister in March of 2010 and was fortunate enough to view the temporary pairing of Las Meninas by Velázquez with The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent.  The Sargent painting was on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and it was really interesting to see them hanging near each other.  I had never connected the two works on my own, but seeing them together made for a very interesting and unique comparison.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas,1656
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid 125.20 x 108.66 in. (318 cm x 276 cm)
Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita and her maids of honor) might be one of the most famous paintings in the world and also one of the most unique.  Diego Velázquez was the royal court painter, during his career he was responsible for painting dozens of portraits of the Spanish Royal Family during the reign of King Philip IV.  This was painted near the end of his career and at a time when he had been painting for the court for over 30 years.

It is perhaps the familiarity he had with the royal family that let him to this type of portrait, a big departure from the typical formal portraits more people at the time, especially royalty.  It is as if someone had taken a candid photo in the artist's studio while Velázquez was painting and the young princess and her maids were caught unaware in a moment in time.

It is a painting that seems purposely enigmatic, what exactly is going on here?  Diego Velázquez shows a foreground with the young princess and her maids, Magarita's pose is rigidly formal while the others move more naturally around her.  Velázquez creates a long vertical axis with the edge of the painting he is working on.  Is he painting a self-portrait?  He has given the viewer a self-portrait within a portrait.  Or instead is he painting a portrait of the princess and at this moment perhaps she is taking a break from her pose?  Or perhaps he is painting a portrait of the king and queen, who can be seen in the background reflected in a mirror.  On second look are the king and queen reflected in a mirror or is that meant to be a painting of them hanging on the wall?  It almost seems as if Velázquez is painting us, the viewer and drawing us into his daily life.
Velázquez has given the viewer some insight into a day in the life of the royal family, its busy court and his own important role as the royal court painter in the midst of everything. 
John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (221.93 x 222.57 cm (87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in.)

John Singer Sargent was an American painter who spent most of his life in Europe.  He was trained as a painter in Paris, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, and in the Ateliers of both Carolus-Durand and Léon Bonnat.  Sargent is probably best known for his many beautiful and original portrait paintings as well as his landscapes.
Sargent's painting on loan at the Prado was a portrait commissioned of Boits’ four daughters, from left: Mary Louisa (eight), Florence (fourteen), Jane (twelve), and Julia (four).  While he was likely commissioned to paint a more conventional type of portrait, Boit was pleased with the work and Sargent's more contemporary approach allows each of the girls personalities to show through.
As Erica E. Hirshler writes of the work:

"Its unusual format was inspired by the art of both the past and the present, a characteristic approach that Sargent employed to make paintings that seemed simultaneously traditional and modern. The historical precedent for the Boit portrait can be found in the work of the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, an artist greatly admired in nineteenth-century France. Sargent had traveled to Madrid in 1879 to make copies after Velázquez at the Museo Nacional del Prado; among the paintings he studied was Las Meninas (about 1656), a large and famous portrait of the young Spanish infanta with her maids in a great shadowed room. Sargent adapted Velázquez’s mysterious space, his dark subdued palette, and the manner in which his self-possessed princess directly confronts the viewer. At the same time, Sargent must have been thinking of the unusual portraits and oddly centrifugal compositions of his French contemporary Edgar Degas. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit shares some of Degas’s strategies: the asymmetrical composition with an almost empty center, the sense of disconnection between family members, and a feeling of modern life interrupted." 1

Las Meninas by Velázquez and Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit  can be compared and contrasted with one another in several ways:
Both are large paintings and both are group portraits of young women shown in an informal and unique way.  Each artist breaks from a traditional portraiture style and also has more than one figure looking directly at the viewer. 
There are figures in both sets of foreground and middle ground and also both have a darker background, the depth of which is difficult to discern.  Each painter uses long vertical lines to break up the composition; in Las Meninas we have the edge of the frame on the left and in Sargent's work the painting and figures are divided by a doorway.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Sargent
Las Meninas, Velázquez

There are many differences between them too, the biggest one being that they were painted over two hundred years apart and for very different reasons.   Velázquez was the painter in the royal court of Spain, during the height of the country's colonial period in the mid-17th century.  Sargent was a well known American portrait painter living abroad in Paris who was commissioned by a fellow expatriate and painter Edward Boit to paint a group portrait of his young daughters.  While in Las Meninas the focus is on other members of the court including the artist himself, the Boit portrait focuses only on the children.

When seen together we can note the contrast between the palate and technique of each painter.  As was the style of the time Velázquez was using a darker and more monochromatic palate and has created his painting with many layers of oil paint.  The brushstrokes are smaller and well blended with many tiny details painted into the work.

Sargent is painting at a time after the French Impressionists have been exhibiting their work for a decade.  His palate is subdued but is still brighter, lighter and contains a wider variety of color and pigments than the earlier work.  The brushstrokes are looser and more painterly and several bright highlights are not blended in, these effects bring his subjects to life. 

Still even with these differences, it seems apparent that Sargent was looking back towards of the work of Velázquez and that he was influenced by the Spanish master in this and other of his own paintings.

It has been a few years since I saw these artworks hanging near each other, but I still think of this pairing each time I see a reproduction of either painting. In the last few years the Prado has had several pieces as part of its "Invited Work" series where a well known painting from another museum is hung near a work at the Prado. I think starting these types of conversations about art is a large reason that I am so drawn to all aspects of art history.

1-Erica E. Hirshler, Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting [] (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009)

Italian Mannerist Painting

The period after the High Renaissance is known as Mannerism, this style occurred in the early to mid-16th century.  Mannerism can be identified by several features: elongated bodies, contorted poses and also by tumultuous compositions which lack a central focus.  Mannerism can also be associated with unnaturally bright colors which are often bold pastels or colors such as acid yellow, chartreuse, magenta, bright pink, baby blue and sea foam green.

 Descent from the Cross, Rosso Fiorentino, 1521

Let's start with Fiorentino's Descent from the Cross which was an early example of the mannerist style.  The fact that the artist has so many figures crowded in the space and swirling around the edges of the composition takes away from what should be a powerfully moving subject.  Instead is is hard not to focus on the fact that everything looks out of proportion and rather unworldly.

Descent from the Cross, Jacopo Pontormo, 1526-28

The sense of other worldliness is heightened in the Florentine painter Pontormo's version of the same subject which still hangs today in Santa Felicita in Florence.  This is a large work (313 × 192 cm/ 123.2 × 75.6 in) the bright nearly acidic pastels that Pontormo used seem to glow.  Pontormo's intense colors and swirling floating figures are so different from other devotional works, there is a great sense of emotional despair in this painting which seems to resonate with viewers.

The Libyan Sybil, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Michelangelo

One of the largest influences on Mannerism was Michelangelo.  Central Italian painters were borrowing his ideas, however not necessarily the ideas that make the strongest composition or painting.  As we can see from one of Michelangelo's figures on the Sistine chapel ceiling he did use some bright colors and sometimes posed figures in a rather unnatural way.

However Michelangelo constantly worked from figures models and life drawing and this wasn't always the case with the various painters who were working in the mannerist style.

Madonna with the Long Neck, Parmigianino, 1534-40

I have written many blog posts about art that I love, honestly this may be the first post I am writing about art that in general I truly dislike.  In fact I recently described Italian Mannerism as "the visual equivalent to nails on a chalkboard," but I still feel it is important to write about as it came directly after the High Renaissance and directly influenced Italian Baroque painting. 

The painter known as Parmigianino painted many other works, his portraits were quite realistic, but today his most famous painting is a work which has come to be known as the Madonna with the Long Neck.  I have seen this in person in the Uffizi gallery in Florence and it is quite jarring.  Mary's neck is disproportionately long as are her fingers and her head is disproportionately small.  The body of the infant Christ looks like he would be as tall as a much older child.  What is going on in this work is not clear, and perhaps the most puzzling part for me is the presence of a tiny man in the bottom right corner.  Is he meant to be in the far distance?  Or instead is he meant to be a symbol for something and if so for what?  This may be one of my least favorite paintings and I find it a huge step stylistically backward from the High Renaissance.  However upon seeing Parmigianino's portraiture it is obvious that he could paint in a naturalistic style and was choosing to paint in such an oddly unrealistic way.

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, Bronzino
San Lorenzo, Florence, 1569

Another trademark of this style is using figures to fill in every conceivable spot in a composition, a term art historians have come to call horror vacui.  Literally it means the fear of empty space and Bronzino's fresco of the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence is a perfect example of this idea.  There are so many figures and so many simultaneous events going on that the work loses both its impact on the viewer and its ability to tell a clear story.

While I don't personally care for this style, at the time mannerism was considered very elegant and refined.  It looks as if Bronzino was trying to emulate Michelangelo's use of many nude figures in his Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel in the above work.

Pisa attacked by Florence, Giorgio Vasari, 1555-72
detail of larger fresco from the Sala di Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio

The hallmarks of horror vacui, unnatural colors and contorted poses can also be found in the paintings of Renaissance man Giorgio Vasari.  Vasari wrote the series of books- The Lives of the Artists as well as created hundreds of paintings and designed many architectural works.  He truly considered Michelangelo the greatest artist to have lived and modeled his own works in his style.  However due to the above mentioned characteristics of Vasari's painting style he didn't create any particularly groundbreaking works or develop a strong style of his own.  His fresco cycle in the Sala di Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence contains so many hundreds of swirling figures that his compositions read as a jumbled mess of people lacking a clear narrative.

If perhaps one factor contributing to this style was the work of the High Renaissance painters, another may be that it came into favor as the Republic of Florence was ending and the Medici Duchy in Florence was beginning.  Gone were the days when the major guilds of Florence held competitions and various artists were breaking new ground artistically.  Now that the Medici court were the definitive rulers of the Florentines artists were conforming to the unusual new style of Mannerism.