Poetry Porch: Prose


The Prado with Goya and Velázquez
by Gail Moran Slater

I spent a day at the Prado intending to dwell on Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco. They are A-list stars, and I have always been star-struck. I would divide my time: Goya, first, and then the others. I was excited about all the art and worked my way through the rooms alert and aware that I might never visit them again.

Introduced to the Prado by the British TV series The Forsyte Saga, I reread John Galsworthy’s six Forsyte novels one winter, waking an hour early every day until I finished. Afterwards, I missed those books as you do vibrant house guests who have moved on.

Galsworthy depicts how when Soames Forsyte visited the Prado, his eye fell on La Vendimia, a tapestry painting by Francisco Goya of a young woman in traditional Spanish dress balancing a basket of grapes on her head. She looked so much like his daughter Fleur that Soames commissioned a copy of the image for his own collection. Goya’s La Vendimia also appealed to the younger Forsyte generations, like an image of beauty traveling through time, and I wanted to make a note of the painting in person. But what surprised me was how much I was taken by the work of Velázquez.

The flagship painting for the Prado is the Velázquez portrait Las Meninas, and it is to the Prado what The Mona Lisa is to the Louvre. Posters of Las Meninas hang on street lamps all over Madrid while the real thing rests on a wall in the round room at the Prado. All day long visitors come and go en masse.

I waited for a space to open in the crowd and straight away was pulled into the charm of Las Meninas, considered the greatest work in Western art by many historians. I intended to view the painting a total three times, the way I like to read a poem three times: to get the overall feel, to pick it apart, and then to gather all the pieces for a final absorption that would make it my own. Upon seeing the gathered family, I decided that I wanted to live with this masterpiece for the rest of my life as I have with the Botticellis I once fell in love with in Florence.

Las Meninas has a depth of field more like a film than a flat canvas. Nine characters have gathered in Velázquez’s studio at the Royal Palace where the painter is at work on a portrait of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana. The couple seems to be sitting where I am standing outside the frame of the painting. With a cunning self-portrait, the artist has placed himself inside the frame. It is 1656, and he is the court painter-in-residence, used to interruptions in his day. He looks out at the museum crowd but will not react in front of his important sitters. The king and the queen are reflected in a smoky mirror hung on the back wall of the atelier. The figures are shadowy but leave no doubt that they are the Royal Majesties.

To the right of the self-portrait stands the five-year-old Infanta Margarita Maria, the King and Queen’s only child. As Fleur Forsyte is to her father, the Infanta occupies the center of her parents’ lives as love object and heir to the throne, especially after the loss of a young son. She is layered in the sumptuous folds of a dress unsuitable for a kid; stiff corsets stand her body upright. It must have been hard to move around, but she seems a child who doesn’t play much. Her long blond hair is crimped and flowered. I wondered how many hours and tears had gone into preparing her for display that morning.

The Infanta travels with her handmaidens, Las Meninas in Portuguese, two doting young women. The princess’s duenna and a bodyguard stand in the background, he so ghostlike that experts think the figure might have been added after Velázquez died. The maids on either side of the child hover over her, one offering a drink on a tray, but the Infanta only has eyes for Mamma and Pappa. To the right are a dwarf named Maria Barbola hired from Germany for royal amusement and an Italian midget who is a child himself. Nicholas Pertusato is prodding a large dog with his foot. If he gets a rise out of the mastiff — persuades him to chase his tail — maybe the princess will laugh, and everybody will be pleased.

At the back of the studio is the vanishing point of the perspective where the queen’s chamberlain stands waiting at the door for Her Majesty. A tourist behind me says, “That’s his job, opening doors,” but I can’t figure if the chamberlain is coming or going. He is also named Velázquez, not related to the painter, and from talk I overheard in the round room, they are drinking buddies at court.

Suddenly Maria Barbola seemed to be staring at me. Her gaze was so frank and unsettling, I felt a need to walk away and wandered into a gallery hung with a number of Velázquez’s fine portraits of dwarfs. In all of them, the look in the eyes reminded me of J. Alfred Prufrock’s complaint about women he meets at tea parties with eyes that leave you “pinned and wriggling on the wall.” Maybe it is Maria Barbola’s habit to gape at oglers like me. I wondered if she ever had cause for complaint.

The next room featured a Velázquez entitled The Death of Jesus. A young art student was copying the painting while I stood transfixed. The body of Christ with his soaking wet hair falling over the right half of his face is thrilling to see. His vulnerability and agony are beautifully rendered, but the picture’s gorgeousness would only allow me a stop on the way. I wanted to return to Las Meninas for greater study and thought.

In the round room, tour guides were arriving with large groups of students; I eavesdropped on the ones who spoke English. I heard how Las Meninas had been damaged over the years, and the left side of the Infanta’s face was restored. The framed pictures on the back wall of the artist’s studio included copies of Rubens by Diego Velázquez’s son-in-law. I tucked these bits inside my memory. One day I may go on Jeopardy.

It was fun to hear different opinions about the action down front of the composition. Some art historians think neither king nor queen was painted that day because the size of the artist’s canvas was too large for a portrait. The two figures in the rear view mirror might have been added later as metaphors, royalty having to be present in some form at all times. I love a mystery.

I shook my head when I overheard the guide say that the Infanta has been summoned by her parents to break up the boredom of a long sitting. I didn’t believe it for a second. That young woman has always gotten her way. Whatever airs and graces the handmaidens might have tried to impart to this future monarch could not detract from her self-confidence. She knows her place in the world, the position of her family, their divine rights. In that regard, she almost doesn’t need her entourage. She is her own version of the Toddlers and Tiaras reality series, taking all titles by default. Not for her the lot of preening and plastic smiles! She has decided to drop in on the folks today, and her attendants have fallen in line behind her.

In picking the painting apart, I recalled reading about Velázquez’s technical training as a young man in Italy, reflected in the horizontal and vertical planes of his work. In Las Meninas, the square shapes eluded me. I was proud, however, to spot the triangle in the placement of the child and her women.

After a gazpacho lunch, it was on to the Goyas. While viewing his 14 Dark Paintings (also known as The Black Paintings), my thoughts returned to the novelist John Galsworthy and his invented characters. Though Soames admired Goya’s technique, it’s hard to believe the Spanish artist’s subjects would appeal to an upper class Englishman who came of age in the 1880s, what Galsworthy called the height of civilized living.

It is also unlikely that he embraced Goya’s world view, which grew more and more grim as the artist got older. In mid-life, Goya lost his hearing, and the differences in his art before and after his deafness are radical. Some of his later work is standard horror show, as in Witches Gather for the Sabbath. Some of it is all too real as in Saturn Devouring His Son. The image is just what the title says, but I could only give it a glance.

I’ve read that Goya painted this monstrosity on his dining room wall while recovering from serious illness. Saturn was never intended for public display, but all the Dark Paintings were transferred from mural to canvas, and the Prado won the lot. One viewer labeled Saturn Devouring His Son as odd. I wish. It’s much worse. Salvador Dali’s work is odd, but I have never turned away from one of his installations because my stomach had turned.

In the later 1700s, Goya was hired as royal painter-in-residence to King Charles IV. It seems the artist was popular with his employers as he kept his job after he finished a certain family portrait modeled on Las Meninas. Goya posed a dozen royals next to his own self-portrait. Everybody is as costumed and bejeweled as can be, but they resemble an SNL sketch starring Will Ferrell. The king has a vacant look in his eyes. The queen, who referred to herself as “ugly,” was not given an extreme makeover by Goya. No document exists to prove the royals protested against the way the artist rendered them; they accepted the explanation that he painted what he saw. His colors in those days were lighter and brighter than the ominous shadows of the execution picture May 3 1808. By then, Goya was totally deaf.

There is so much more to the Prado that I can’t imagine John Galsworthy lingering in these galleries. In my wanderings toward The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, I was delayed by Caravaggio and Joshua Reynolds. I regretted not locating La Vendimia but the museum has more stars than a Hollywood opening, and it was late afternoon with all those El Grecos to see.

Perhaps my sore feet were the reason, but I found I was not in the mood for his pictures with their elongated figures and crowded canvasses. I know El Greco is a big influence on modernism, but his paintings seemed flat and two-dimensional that day, and I had to return to the intimacy and order within Las Meninas.

The crowds held, so I would have no private viewing nor chance to say goodbye. I smiled to rejoin the familiar figures inside the frame, and I was touched by their humanity. Now I was amused that the king and queen stood outside the painting next to me. For a second, the painter seemed to notice me before going on with his work, as though I had time-traveled with Velazquez to watch a 17th Century royal family having a routine and normal day sitting for their portrait while he advertised his own high status at court. He would lavish a gossamer glow on his subjects while the Infanta Margarita Maria continued to enjoy the protected world of childhood thanks to her maids and all the others. At that moment, I became their guest, and they would live on in my memory as ethereal and elegant hosts.

Copyright © 2016 by Gail Moran Slater.


Museo Nacional Del Prado:          Las Meninas.          La Vendimia.         

The essay was inspired by the following sources:

    Connell, Evan S. Francisco Goya: A Life. New York: Counterpoint, 2004.

    Hughes, Robert. Goya. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

    Kahr, Madlyn Millner. “Velázquez and Las Meninas.” Art Bulletin 57.2 (June 1975), 225-246.

    Lubow, Arthur. “The Secret of the Black Paintings.” The New York Times Magazine, July 27, 2003.