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!

August 1, 2010


Filed under: Drawing,Painting,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Rob Adams @ 3:15 pm

Well here we go, portraits. One of my favourite subjects for paintings in the work of others. I love the humorous and often wry series of self portraits by Rembrandt, the touching family paintings by Rubens. Others I enjoy are the wonderful bravura brushwork of Hals, Sargent or Zorn. The portrait is still with us the BP award happens every year, but most paintings have some stylish quirk that serves the painter rather than the subject, others are plainly from photos taken on a wide angle and too close, but the judges are too poorly educated in the nature of seeing to spot them, (I don’t give a damn about using a photo but use a good one for heavens sake.) in amongst all however there are some lovely things on show. Just one fine sincere painting in a show makes the whole thing worthwhile.

What is it this thing a portrait? There is a difference you see between a study and portrait, in a study you seek the form, but in the portrait you seek the person. Of all sorts of painting I think portraiture is the hardest, the most freighted with the possibility of failure. Skill and dexterity are all for naught if the feeling of a thinking being is absent. Indeed the more perfect your rendering the more lifeless it is likely to become. The paint must allow room for the moment to moment interpretation of the marks on offer, in a similar way as the perception of a real person is made up of quicksilver reinterpretations of the person before us. We may see perfection as say in a Vermeer portrait but look closely and you see softening of edges diminution of detail in the shadows etc that gives the space for mystery to breath.

No wonder the prospect of attempting such alchemy is an unsettling idea. Once started however I find them exhilarating and frustrating in equal degree. The tiniest alteration around the eyes can transform the result entirely, but perfect accurate copying of the same feature will lack life. The only way I ever get the result I seek is to paint and if failure results, scrape out or obliterate and start again, for freshness is of great importance it has to look as if it “just happened” as indeed people do. I’ll post a few below I’ve done over the years, some better than others my hit rate of even partial success is very low in this area I fear. Not that I need be shamed by that, a quick image Google for oil portrait brings up very few arresting images. Even if you discount the badly drawn the success rate is very low. Even Sir Peter Lely a hugely successful portraitist in his day painted very few mugshots worth a second glance. Frans Hals though the author of some of the most masterly examples of the genre is hugely variable in quality.

I am much attracted by the wizardry of Sargent, who has an almost pre-natural mastery of his medium, but such bravura work required him to paint every part in one wet into wet pass, so although it looks as if he dashed a portrait off in a moment of casual brilliance he actually often scraped out and repainted a head many times before being satisfied, with his work requiring many sittings. Though I love his sheer brilliance, it rarely digs deeper than the surface gloss and glow of a living thing. His wonderful landscapes and “holiday” paintings which, though many people don’t realise it, make up the bulk of his work are sadly barely known.

Rembrandt is another matter, he works over and over, building up the image with all the searching and seeking on display, he displays (especially in later life) little certainty, but a huge degree of sympathy which I feel elevates his portraits above any others I have seen.

Rubens too, his paintings and drawings of his wife and children are an incredible display of pride and tenderness.

Photographic portraits are now the norm but ones that catch a revealing moment are very few and far between and never I feel reach quite the heights that a painted work can do… but then I am biased.

You note I don’t put any illustrative images from the artists mentioned above. Well how could I? My poor offerings would be swamped and have no room to show whatever small charms they might possess in such company.

painting monk oil

This is a painting from the late 80’s. It was done as a prop in a photograph and was my first attempt at a portrait other than drawings, it was later used as a book jacket. I remember struggling mightily to get it to work almost giving up in frustration a few times.


self portrait painting

A self portrait painted not long after in the early 90’s I would guess from the long locks. I painted three or four of these as I recall painting them one after the other spending about an hour on each, this is the best of the two survivors. It was an improvement I feel with lighter handling, but really only a sketch.


portrait painting

This is the first portrait from life where I did drawings and photos in preparation. I had been struck by how beautiful my friend Jane looked with the light streaming through her window. Her flat was on the third floor and a large tree grew outside through which the light was filtered. Being very shy it took me some while to pluck up courage to ask her to pose.


Self portrait painting oil

There is always one person willing to pose and that’s yourself. I only had a small shaving mirror which I perched on my easel next to my painting. I did several in a row with different expressions, this is one of the only ones that does not look like an entry into a gurning competition.


Sofa portrait papers

Jane again, quite a few years on from the previous one, I fed her so much dinner she had to retire to the sofa. I was struck by the black of her clothes and the richness of the cushions against the blandness of the rest of the room. I don’t think it took more than an hour.


Portrait painting

My good friend Richard had just bought a new camera, and I took this snap while we were testing it. Afterwards I was struck by the composition and felt it would make a painting. I tried to focus the whole thing by controlling the handling of the paint from broad strokes to finer but retaining as free a quality of mark as I could manage.


Portrait self painting

A final one I thought I should do another self portrait. It’s an odd thing but doing a self portrait is more like painting a stranger than a friend, also there is no pressure to flatter!

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