The Prado Museum announced in May that visitor numbers were expected to drop by as much as a quarter this year — but it added that the pending exhibitions might still turn that trend around. At that point, many figured that the Velázquez show scheduled for this fall was the museum's way of dealing with a massive budget cut of 30 percent: it would highlight a major artist with the proven power to attract visitors by the thousands, and simply reorganize its fabulous Velázquez holdings in a new way.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
True, the exquisite Velázquez y la familia de Felipe IV (Velázquez and the family of Phillip IV), which comprises 30 artworks, is not a comprehensive review of the 17th-century artist's career — unlike the historic 1990 show, which broke all attendance records. But it does aim to become a scientific and artistic landmark.
"It will enable us to fill two basic gaps regarding the painter's work for royal collections," explains the curator, Javier Portús, who is head of the Spanish Painting department. "To wit: his portraits of the pope's court that he made in Rome, and the proliferation of female and child figures in his courtesan production of the last decade."
The new show aims to become a scientific and artistic landmark
Four leading examples of the first category will come together in a single room. The first is the version of Innocent X that Velázquez brought back to Madrid, and which is returning to Spain for the first time since the Peninsular War (1807-1814), when it became part of the collection of the Duke of Wellington. There are also two portraits of cardinals on loan from the small British museum of Kingston Lacy and the Hispanic Society of New York. And the Ferdinando Brandani acquired by the Prado in 2003 will hang next to these.
There will also be two notable absences: the versions of Innocent X held at Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj in Rome and at the Metropolitan, both of which are just about impossible to obtain on loan. But the material in Madrid is enough to appreciate the transformation the painter underwent in Rome, where he adopted a more "carnal" approach to portraiture — less distant, less Spanish than before.
As for the second subject matter — the queens, princes and princesses — it is worth noting that five paintings have been loaned by the Vienna Museum of Art History, whose Habsburg holdings are among the best in the world. The list includes portraits of the Infantas María Teresa and Margarita and of Crown Prince Felipe Próspero, who is depicted with all sorts of amulets and good-luck charms; it was to no avail, as the poor child died at age three.
This set is completed by several representations of Mariana of Austria, the queen consort of Spain following her marriage to Phillip IV (who was her maternal uncle).
All of these paintings should be considered more than mere satellites to Las Meninas, the shining masterpiece at the heart of the exhibition. Portús notes that these other artworks provide insights into new techniques adopted by Velázquez: fabrics with all their nuances feature prominently in the portraits, and details such as flower vases, clocks, hair adornments and pets also come to the fore. The works are also proof that art is ultimately a mirror of the political convulsions of its time — in this case, a crown in decline desperately seeking an heir, mired in bankruptcy and in continuing wars against France and Portugal.
Our story begins in 1650, in the midst of all these convulsions. Velázquez was busy with a major project in Rome, being the portraitist of record for the pope and his court. Phillip IV, with whom the painter had had a long and bumpy relationship — "He has tricked me a thousand times," wrote the monarch to Luisa Magdalena de Jesús — had married Mariana de Austria the year before. And even though returning to Madrid was not in the painter's plans, the arrival of the new queen made him more necessary than ever at the court.
"What he produced back in Madrid is not a continuation of his art, but rather the pinnacle: during this period, every one of his works is considered a masterpiece," says Portús, adding that there was a great demand for royal portraits at the time. "Velázquez had the monopoly over that job; but he was a painter who did not paint much. As a result his workshop produced a lot."
Besides exploring the influence that the master had on his disciples after his death — notably Juan Carreño de Miranda and Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo — the exhibition also dissipates more than one doubt regarding the famous Dorset Meninas , a copy that a few critics still attribute to the master from Seville. Although the French museum still believes that it can see Velázquez's brushstrokes in it, Portús is certain that seeing the piece in the context of real Velázquez works will be the definitive proof — "both for specialists and for fans."
For lovers of numbers, all that is left to know is the exact number of visitors the exhibition will attract to the Prado. Georgina Adam, editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper and a columnist for The Financial Times, feels that Velázquez is one of those artists whose mere mention "conjures the masses." Miguel Zugaza, the Prado director, believes that "an exhibition with 20 percent of Velázquez's production is, in itself, quite an event, especially if we consider our fantastic agreement with Vienna. Having said that, we are not in competition for visitor figures. Reality will not let us."
Velázquez y la familia de Felipe IV . October 8 until February 9, 2014 at Museo del Prado, Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, Madrid. www.museodelprado.es