No Comment, Quotation — September 13, 2009, 7:51 am

Venus of the Golden Age

sorolladesnudo velazquezvenus

Ya el oro natural crespes o extiendas,
O a componerlo con industria aspires,
Lucir sus lazos o sus ondas mires,
Cuando libre a tus damas lo encomiendas,
O ya, por nueva ley de Amor, lo prendas
Entre ricos diamantes y zafires,
O bajo hermosas plumas lo retires,
Y el traje varonil fingir pretendas,

Búscale Adonis por su Venus, antes
Por su Adonis te tiene ya la diosa,
Y a entrambos los engañan tus cabellos;

Mas yo, en la misma duda milagrosa,
Mientras se hallan en ti los dos amantes,
Muero por ambos y de celos de ellos.

Whether thou curl, or braid thy native gold,
And workst it pliant into every forme,
Or leavst it by thy maids to be unrolled,
Falling about thy neck like Danae’s storme:
Or whether richly ‘tis enameled
With cheerful emeralds, and blue sapphire veins,
Or crowned with tossing plumes, which hide thy head,
Hunting the hart over the shining plains,

Venus mistakes thee for her rural Lover,
Whom late Adonis for his Venus tooke;
Whilst change of dresses doth by turns discover
A lovely swain, and goddess in thy looke.
But I, to whom they both united seeme,
In love with her, grow jealous straight of him.

Bartolomé Leonardo de Argensola, Ya el oro natural crespes contained in Rimas (1634)(transl. R. Fanshawe, 1650)


On an early morning visit to Madrid’s Museo del Prado a few days ago I made the acquaintance of Joaquín Sorolla, who might be described as Spain’s one-man answer to the French Impressionists. The museum mounted a massive “anthological” exhibition of Sorolla’s works this summer, and it proved an effort that merits the voyage, as the Guide Michelin would say. Some of the things that immediately strike the viewer are Sorolla’s prodigious output, often filling enormous canvases, his masterful treatment of light in paintings, his obsession with the sea and innocent pleasures at the seaside. It seems almost an indulgence: how can a painter create works that are so full of happiness and pleasure—that regale in the human experience of life? Several times before I had passed by Sorolla’s works without paying them much attention, but this collection was enrapturing.

Walking through the exhibition, one work fascinated me: it was a reclining female nude. The technical mastery of the work (which does not reproduce particularly well) is stunning, especially in the luminousness of the soft pink sheets on which the body rests, in the airiness of a piece of gauze thrown over the end of the bed, in the sensuousness of the human torso, her back turned against the viewer as she examines a precious ring, in the graceful curves of her black hair, tied in a rich indigo ribbon. It is an indoor scene, but Sorolla fills it with light surrounding the body—and at the same time manages to focus our attention on that body, which radiates a duller luminosity all its own. This is without a doubt a very great masterwork.

It is also an act of homage to Diego Velázquez, the great Spanish painter of the Golden Age, whose work clearly was a steady inspiration to Sorolla. In the exhibition we see a number of Sorolla’s attempts to copy, perhaps to update, Velázquez, mostly from his student days. But this painting was a clear effort to reconceptualize one of the great Velázquez masterworks, Venus at Her Mirror. The exhibition notes tell us that in 1902, as Sorolla conceives this work, he makes a special trip to London for purposes of viewing the Velázquez work, then in the Rockby Collection (and now at the National Gallery). He writes a postcard from the showing. “Velázquez magnificent,” he writes, “but Venus has too much clutter.” But in his reclining nude of 1902, we see how Sorolla recasts his Venus. First, indeed, he has dispensed with the clutter—gone is the mirror and its supporting cupid. Instead, Sorolla’s Venus is fixed on a ring—which takes the place of the vanitas theme provided by the mirror without the distracting complexity of the reflected view. The draping and sheets in Sorolla’s paintings are much lighter, and indeed Sorolla uses the sheen of the silk as a light source in which to envelope his nude. But Sorolla’s treatment of the skin, his exceptional colorations, the subtle use of blueish-gray shadows in the small of the back and around the fingers, the luminousness of the left shoulder and right hip all combine to present an astonishingly life-like figure, especially when compared with Velázquez. These are two very great works, still it is hard not to see Sorolla’s as the more immediately appealing, elegant and voluptuous. It may come as something of a surprise to learn that this loving, sensuous portrait is of Sorolla’s wife Clotilde, then the mother of three and approaching forty years in age.

It seems to me that we could use these two works—and one that falls between them, namely the Maja of Goya—to describe the trajectory of Spanish allegorical portraiture from the Golden Age to the Twentieth Century. They treat a subject which could in the time of Velázquez and Goya be approached only with great caution because of the disapproval of the Holy Office—this explains why Velázquez turns his female nude away and portrays her as a figure from Greek mythology and why Goya’s painting was so carefully shielded. (It’s curious by the way that the clothed Maja is a far better painting in terms of technical execution than the nude.) By the time of Sorolla artistic freedom was much greater, of course, but he finds advantage in the more modest posing of Velázquez over the fully revealed lounging Maja.


Listen to Julian Bream perform Enrique Granados’s La Maja de Goya from Tonadillos (1910):

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

1

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today