A Mammoth Paris Show Covers Velázquez’s Career
Museums around the globe provide 119 artworks for the Grand Palais’s exhibition.
One of the most comprehensive displays of works by Diego Velázquez is opening this week at Paris’s Grand Palais. Showcasing 119 artworks from museums around the globe, it will cover the breadth of his career. But pulling together this large retrospective of the influential 17th-century Spanish painter was no easy feat for curator Guillaume Kientz.
Mr. Kientz, the chief conservationist for Spanish paintings at the Louvre, which is jointly producing the exhibition, spent the past two years negotiating with private collectors and museums to assemble some of the Spanish master’s most famous works in what will be the Grand Palais’s blockbuster show of the year.
“The idea was to update the public on the research made over Velázquez over the past years,” said Mr. Kientz, referring to the recent headway art historians have made on identifying the authors of disputed works and on the influence Italian master Caravaggio had on Velázquez. “You can put reproductions side by side in a book; it’s very different to have them together for real.”
Appointed official painter to King Felipe IV in 1623, when he was in his early 20s and Spain was at its height of power, Velázquez became one of the most illustrious painters in Europe. Influenced by the classical works of Caravaggio and other Italian artists, he took art beyond its limits at the time, according to Mr. Kientz. Velázquez transmitted emotions and feelings to the men, women and children in his portraits in a way that no one before him had done. “He could breathe life into his portraits,” Mr. Kientz said. “After a while you feel it’s the painting that is looking at you and not you looking at the painting.”
It’s this virtuosity that has brought Velázquez the admiration of generations of painters. “The Impressionists rediscovered him in the late 19th century,” said Mr. Kientz. “Edouard Manet called him the painter of painters.”
He has continued to fascinate artist throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1950s and ’60s, British painter Francis Bacon made his famous “Study after Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X” series, which turned the Spanish artist’s light-filled portrait into darker, haunted images. The same 1650 portrait inspired Martial Raysse, one of France’s most prominent living painters. “He is one of the finest painters ever,” said Mr. Raysse, who will present a variation of the portrait next month as part of an exhibition held in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. “I have a lot of admiration for him.”
Yet because of the turbulent geopolitics and revolutions of the 17th century, few of Velázquez’s works made their way to France during his lifetime—or after his death. The Louvre owns only one Velázquez, and it is at the Goya Museum in the southern town of Castres. There are two other Velázquez paintings in France—one in Orleans and another in Rouen—both of which will be at the Grand Palais.
In fact, most of Velázquez’s works remain in Spain. The Prado Museum in Madrid, which has the largest Velázquez collection, including the celebrated “Las Meninas,” is lending seven of its 48 paintings to the Grand Palais for “Velázquez,” plus another one currently on display in Seville.
The show, which will run until July 13, is an expansion of one held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna that closed in February. Unlike previous exhibitions at the Grand Palais, where French collections provided a basis on which to build, this time curators had to look elsewhere.
Bringing together works from museums such as London’s National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it includes Velázquez’s early works, his popular portraits of the Spanish courts’ buffoons and dwarves, as well as famous paintings such as the 1650 Innocent X portrait, “Venus at her Mirror” (1647-51) and the 1659 portrait of “Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress.”
Though “Las Meninas” will be absent—Mr. Kientz said it would be rude to even ask the Prado to let it go—the Grand Palais’s exhibition is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The Art Nouveau palace just off the Champs-Élysées doesn’t have an art collection of its own but regularly hosts temporary shows with borrowings from museums. In the past, exhibitions on Pablo Picasso and Edward Hopper have attracted more than 700,000 visitors. Spring exhibitions, however, tend to bring fewer visitors than those held in winter when people prefer indoor activities, said Grand Palais spokeswoman Florence Le Moing.
Still, there are some surprises in store for visitors. Mr. Kientz has included some recent discoveries—such as “The Education of the Virgin,” which sent ripples through the art world when Yale University Art Gallery curator John Marciari attributed it to a young Velázquez in a 2010 article—as well as portraits with somewhat questionable origins such as the Louvre’s 1654 portrait of Infanta Margarita, the same princess depicted in “La Meninas.”
Sent by King Felipe IV to his sister Anne, the wife of France’s King Louis XIII, the painting was for decades attributed to Velázquez. But it was later considered to be the work of assistants at his workshop. After a recent restoration, Mr. Kientz said he had enough elements to identify the disciple who painted the canvas: Velázquez’s son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo.
The exhibition will show the portrait near another one from the same little girl made by Velázquez himself so that visitors can see the differences for themselves.