Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

June 5, 2017

Innocent X by Velasquez

Filed under: Art History,Italy,Painting,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:43 pm

I intend to do a series of posts on paintings that knocked my socks off and thereby influenced me. Some famous others less so. I start with a famous one…

A decade or so ago I had a job painting a ceiling in Rome… no not that one, the ceiling of the Hard Rock Cafe which I had to cover in flying rock stars reimagined as cherubs. Working in Italy was great fun, the builders after initially being a little suspicious called me “Maestro” and brought me lovely coffees and treats. So I spent several weeks lying on on my back up on a scaffold tower being wheeled about by my long suffering helper Paul. In Italy work starts early but finishes at 4pm which gave me ample free time to float about Rome painting and looking at all the wonders.

One of those visits was to the Palazzo Doria Pamphili. I am embarrassed now by my ignorance, but I had not heard of it. I had just visited the Pantheon which was bombed out by hoards of tourists and was wandering home when I saw the sign and the entrance. It had that grand palazzo thing where you ascend a stone staircase to the piano nobile. To my surprise I was one of only a few visitors so could wonder around in peace. The place is absolutely stuffed full of paintings and every square inch frescoed and tromped. There are a many wonderful pictures, but I was after several rooms astounded by how much really bad painting had been done over the centuries! On average the decorative painting was better than the stuff in frames.

So I wasn’t prepared when I entered a fairly small room and there it was. I had no idea that the picture was there so it hit me right between the eyes. To say the painting had presence was an understatement. I nearly said, “Whoops, excuse me!” And tiptoed out again.

The picture of course is Velesquez’s great painting of Innocent X.

Velasquez, portrait, Rome, painting

A few details, painted about 1650 and 141in by 119in. The Pope was apparently suspicious of painters in general and Velasquez in particular and reluctant to be painted. He got Velasquez to paint his barber first to check him out. I suspect he was mainly concerned how any picture might reflect on his perception by others. In the event the picture was kept private by the subject in his own lifetime. There are two other versions that are probably studies. We don’t know but presumably these were done from life. There is an amazing consistency between all three in the likeness. Here are the other two:

Velasquez, Innocent X, portrait

This one is just a head study and is in the Washington Met.

Velasquez, Pope, Innocent X, painting, portrait

This is a head and shoulders and is in Apsley House in London

Though the studies are wonderful they don’t have quite the impact of the Rome picture. This is perhaps because of Velasquez brilliant structuring of the larger picture. Side to side the figure only just fits, indeed the paper held by the Pontif which holds the artist’s signature is cropped by the frame. The gilt work frame of the chair is broken by the Innocent’s head which both places the head in 3d space and anchors it in two dimensions. The background is an indeterminate russet then the chair fabric is a tad redder and then finally the Pope’s vestments a brighter red still. This progression pushes the figure towards us. All three reds are much the same in general hue which in turn gives harmony and subtlety.

The white of the rest of the vestments is where I feel Velasquez has had to work hard, I suspect they got painted and repainted a fair few times. The brief crisp shadow of the red papal fanon on the white makes the pope’s upper torso appear the float. The clever shadow of the right hand and the arm of the chair fixes the casually posed hand in space. There is the merest hint of lace to suggest opulence but not excess.

The hands describe a man who is relaxed. We cannot somehow imagine them fidgeting. They rest imperturbably on the fore-square arms of the gilded but rather severely formed chair.

Velasquez, Innocent X, Pope, Portrait

So to the head. Innocent was a lawyer and had been a representative abroad to both France and Spain for previous pontiffs. Here is a face that has seen much and would be hard to surprise. Worldly, he had a mistress, but not prone to any excesses although occasionally cruel and capricious he was a politician through and through.  He was not I suspect much of an art fan. Although Bernini was closely associated with Innocent’s enemies the Barberini he was left in charge of the works in St Peters and did a fine bust of Innocent. So although reportedly paranoid and suspicious, a calculating, worldly and pragmatic man. Velasquez catches this by having the head held forward little, not tense but wary. The eyes consider us with, if we can believe the mouth, a wry edge of amusement.

There is tremendous control of the edges. The hat is sharp and cuts across the forehead except as it approaches the ear where it is softened by hair. To the right of the brow there is a darkening of the gilt of the chair to pull the head forward. The line of the cheek is softened and wonderfully subtle. The shape of the chin is hidden by the Pope’s wispy beard. The collar cuts the neck sharply tone wise but the drawing indicates it is softly turned. The ear is strongly lit and describes the very slight turn of the head towards us. Velasquez has arranged it so the the eyes are turned further still which gives animation to the  square on pose of the body.

The features in themselves are ordinary, the fleshy nose the wispy beard, Velasquez has made no attempt to flatter. There is no real record of the Pope’s reaction to the painting, though rumour has it he commented, “It is all too true.” In any case the picture was hung in his family home where it still is today.

Finally a detail of the Washington study.

Velasquez, InnocentX, portrait, detail

Many layers of refinement are visible but the whole remains fresh. He decides what should be clear and what obscure what marks of making should appear and which blended.

For the sake of interest here is Bernini’s bust of Innocent.

Bernini, Innocent X, Sculpture, marble

He is given a more youthful air, Bernini hopes to flatter I suspect. This bust also stayed in the Palazzo and was not for public consumption.

Another by Alessandro Algardi who was Innocent’s favoured artist:

Alessandro Algardi, bust, sculpture, Innocent X, bronze

This image was I suspect more how Innocent preferred to imagine himself, more in the mode of an apostle weighed down by his office.

Algardi also got to do the official sculpture:

Alessandro Algardi, statue, Innocent X

Now this one was definitely for public consumption!

June 1, 2014

A visit to Florence

Filed under: Drawing,Italy,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 4:20 pm

A very quick visit to Florence is my first trip abroad for the year. Once travel was deducted then we only had 3 days, not long for one of the world’s most famous and beautiful cities. I had been anticipating the paintings I would do, the piazzas, the magnificent buildings and the iconic views of the Arno. I knew in my heart of hearts of course that 3 days was not long enough for very much to get done.

The first thing that occurs is that the reality entirely overwhelms the previous imagination. I had been to Florence before but only for a day. You soon realise that to pick a picture out from this wealth of material is not as easy as it should be. There is also the problem that once you have spotted a likely subject then being able to position yourself so as to be able to paint it is nigh on impossible. In Florence with its narrow streets and thronging tourists all the more so.

So eventually the paints hardly came out at all. Fortunately my current love affair with pen drawing came to my rescue. With the necessities so simple and portable the medium was ideal for snatching a few glimpses of what surrounded me. With the sort of architecture on display in Florence almost nothing is simple though. Classical buildings of whatever sort need careful drawing. If you get those proportions wrong then it will always look terrible.

Also a large amount of time is needed for just wandering and looking. How artists managed before photography is a wonder… or you think it is until you look at the paintings done before. Turner’s “on site” sketches are are a marvel of brevity. He does not even attempt to do a finished work. He just notes the basics and then essentially makes it up when he gets home. Rembrandt does quick calligraphic drawings in reed pen and ink, he does no complete rendering. Even Sargent surely the master of topographical sketching keeps his work simple and fluid. Sargent mind you was well within the age of photography and his painting of Paul Helleu and the existing photo of the scene make it likely he used the medium as reference more than we might think. For an artist not to be interested and influenced by the photographic image was already unlikely.

I have a rapidly approaching visit to France so I need to establish my strategy. Last year I spent a fair amount of time painting oils, none of which I liked, so this time I wonder whether to take oils at all. The risk is they are more of a distraction than a help. I certainly did not miss them on this trip, though I do hope to get a few oil studies done from the many photos I took.

There is another strangeness that life presents one with. I took 482 photographs on the visit, assuming a 10hr rubbernecking regime that is about 16 an hour or about 1 every 4 min. Yet after going through them my “possible” paintings folder contains 9 images. So if the past is anything to go by this will translate into 3 or so pictures, which means a rate of well over a hundred snaps per final painting..!

Drawing, Florence, Italy, St Croce, Dante

First day and we were on the impressive Piazza San Croce. Avoiding the main view of the church I sat in the main doorway and sketched the view to the right. The lions are guarding an immense statue of Dante. I liked the figures passing to and fro. Every now and again a scrum of people queueing would completely block my view and I would have to work on the few bits I could see!


San Croce, Piazza, Florence, Italy, drawing, watercolour

San Croce again, I must have been mad to take on this at 5in by 7in… I was forced to use gouache to sort out the facade. Once again my view was very restricted with tour guides mustering their troops just in front of us. They could plainly see we were painting the church but stood directly before us blocking the view anyhow.


Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy, drawing, pen

In the evening I walked out of the tourist zone and found the Piazza Santo Spirito. I would have liked to return to paint but time didn’t allow.


Florence, drawing, dome, pen, Italy

The next day we escaped the city and went up to San Miniato al Monte which stands high above the city. Nearby is the Piazza del Michelangelo where all the tourists go. Only 300 mtrs away but very few of the tourists could be arsed to walk to the Abbey and preferred to stay in the Piazza which is essentially a coach park with gazillions of huxters. Nice for us, but makes you sad for mankind. The abbey had graves either side of the steep steps leading up and I thought they made an interesting lead in to what is an iconic view.

Florence, italy, duomo, watercolour

Ok so I couldn’t resist the view. It came out fairly well at the second attempt. The first time around I got the trees too dark so had to abandon it. 8in by 10in watercolour.


Piazza di Santa Trinita, florence, italy, drawing, pen

Back to my trusty pens in the evening! This is Piazza di Santa Trinita. There is a large column with the figure of Lady Justice atop it. I liked the changing perspectives of the triangular piazza and the people congregating at the column’s base.


Florence, italy, statue, bronze, drawing

On the final day I went walkabout to see as much of the city as I could. I only paused for a couple of times to sketch details. This is the head of a bronze saint on the Tabernacle of Santa Maria di Tromba. I did the wash first and the pen later, I needed a few touches of white to sort out that beard!


Italy, Florence, knocker, drawing

Later this took my eye, there were many grand lion headed knockers, but this one was especially silly. Pen and wash.


People sketches, florence

From my seat in a restaurant I sketched other diners and passers by.


Ponte Vecchio. florence, italy, drawing

Last morning and we sallied forth just after dawn to draw the famous Ponte Vecchio. Florence is a mad rush of delivery vans preparing for the next deluge of visitors first thing. You take your life in your hands if you try to cross any piazza as lorries drive at top speed from all directions.

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