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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spanish Baroque

The Forge of Vulcan, 1630, Diego Velasquez
One of the unfortunate aspects of a single artist in any given country taking on the mantle of "greatness" is that he tends to block from view all the fine work of his colleagues, some of which may have produced several "great" works themselves. Nowhere is this more true than in Spain, during the 1600s and starring role taken on by Diego Velasquez. All too often, what people know about Spanish art begins and ends with this man. And he justly deserves his place as the premier Spanish artist of the Baroque period. His court paintings such as Las Meninas" (The Maids of Honor) hangs today in Madrid, behind bulletproof glass, the proudest possession of the Prado Museum. Nearby are his Christ on the Cross, undoubtedly his best religious work, and his Forge of Vulcan, his best mythological endeavor. Salted among these are also some excellent portraits like that of the dwarf, Francisco Lezcano.

The Lying in State of St. Bonaventura,
1629, Francisco Zurbaran
However, two other Spanish artists of the same period deserve feature billing. The first, Francisco Zurbaran, born the year before Velasquez in 1598, lived and work next to him in Seville. He painted some exquisite still-lifes such as Still-Life with Oranges from 1633, and also a number of religious works, the greatest of which is The Lying-in-State of St. Bonaventura done in 1629. The latter is a masterpiece of Baroque drama, composition, and painting technique, easily matching Velasquez at his best. And perhaps an even greater slight is handed out to Bartolome Esteban Murillo, a generation younger than either of the other two. Born in 1617, Murillo is often judged inferior on the basis of some of his weaker, but quite popular works. But at his best, Murillo often conveys a warmth and believability beyond that which we associate even with Velasquez.

The Holy Family with a Little Bird,
1650, Bartolome Esteban Murillo
The Holy Family with a Little Bird, painted in 1650 is one such work. Unlike most paintings of this type, the toddling Jesus and Joseph are the central figures as the Christ-child plays with a small, white, mongrel dog, seen begging at his feet, while Mary resides in the background, watching benignly over the playful, domestic scene. Balancing the presence of Mary on the left are the tools of her husband's trade on the right. Aside from the title and the first-century Hebrew garments, we might never recognize this delightful grouping as anything other than a depiction of a moment in the life of a typical young family. And in his secular work, such as Two Women at a Window painted in 1670, Murillo is able to capture the gentle amusement of a young teenage girl, perhaps in observing from afar a handsome would-be suitor, while her governess, above and behind her, hides her laughter behind her scarf. In quiet works such these, Murillo easily outshines the often pompous efforts of both Velasquez and Zurbaran.

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