Since 1899, Room XII has been the Prado Museum's central space for the work of Velázquez - the hall devoted to his output as portraitist to the family of Philip IV.
Las Meninas, flanked by the portraits of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria and Prince Balthasar Charles as a Hunter, form a backdrop before which American art expert Jonathan Brown recalls a heavenly moment. He was just a student when he stood in front of Las Meninas for the first time and nothing was ever the same again.
The 72-year-old Hispanist, who has researched the work of Zurbarán, Ribera, Murillo and, more than any other, Velázquez, has racked up thousands of hours contemplating the great masterpieces of the Prado, which, in his opinion, is the finest museum of antique art in the world.
Now he is returning to tour the newly decorated rooms - with their fresh coat of green paint - feeling the same excitement as back then. The Princeton professor has just received the Bernardo de Gálvez award for spreading Spanish culture around the world, and is now preparing his third lecture series at the Prado, which he will deliver between May and October of 2012.
As soon as he glimpses Las Meninas, Brown speeds up his pace. He has been asked to select his favorite works for the EL PAÍS photographer, and decides to pose in front of the portrait of Balthasar Charles on horseback.
"Velázquez's children are sublime," he says. Afterward he also stops in front of Prince Balthasar Charles as a Hunter.
As a guided tour stops to admire the paintings, Brown recalls that on his first visit to the museum there was nobody else in the halls. "I entered alone and remained alone during the tour. It was like that on many of the visits that I made in those years. Nobody used to come to the museum."
He still finds himself unable to describe the excitement he felt standing in front of those paintings. He was already interested in Velázquez and had the museum in his imagination: "I experienced love at first sight," he gushes. "It was an arrow to the heart." And the love continues, despite the innumerable times he has returned to the museum's halls. "With Velázquez, you never feel that everything has been discovered. His mystery is infinite. You know you will always see something else. He is, as Manet said, the painter's painter, because he always has something else to show you."
His preferred time to visit the Prado and other museums is midday, at lunchtime. "It is the perfect time. I did it at the beginning and I go on doing it whenever I can," he says. It's a way of avoiding the groups, "which make one feel one is on the subway." Despite that attitude, he is not against big exhibitions, having commissioned several of them himself. Although he does have one caveat: "As long as they contribute something to the understanding of the artist and aren't pure spectacle."
Brown speaks skeptically of the new discoveries recently attributed to Velázquez: The Education of the Virgin found at Yale and the portrait of an anonymous man recently unearthed in London. "Every now and then there is a wave of discoveries. You have to do a lot of research before you can give your opinion [on their veracity]. I would not rule out that there are still more Velázquez works to be discovered." When he is asked for names in the scientific community whom he respects in these matters, he remains silent for a long time, before recalling the Spanish professor Diego Angulo (1901-1986), from whom he learnt a great deal, and whose wisdom made a big impact on him.
Brown maintains that controversies and discrepancies have always existed. He quickly points to the portrait of Margaret of Austria that now hangs under the name of Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, but was at one time attributed to Velázquez.
"I always knew it wasn't by Velázquez," he explains, comparing the canvas with the portrait of Queen Mariana of Austria, undoubtedly the work of the Sevillian artist. "The secret is in the brushstrokes. Nobody has ever made them like he did."
He is grateful to Philip IV, "that bad ruler but great collector," for a hall that he considers to be a magnificent temple of painting. He will speak of those royal collections in the Prado lecture that goes under the title of "The Painting of the Golden Age: Personal Perspectives."
And what of contemporary art? Does that interest him? "For me, art ended with Goya. The rest doesn't exist."