Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Gleanings from Spain - Part 3

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Illustrated by Percival Skelton.

Part 2



The journey to Madrid is accomplished by the very line of rail which “Ford” ridicules so unmercifully, speaking with contempt of the gullibility of the “Cit” which could believe in such a project. Part of the way lies through rich valleys, shut in by high-peaked mountains. The villages are bright and gay, and the whole aspect of the country is pleasant to the eye. But nearer Madrid are barren stony plains, parched and arid, broken occasionally by a patch of stunted stone pines, while here and there rises abruptly a conical hill, crowned with crumbling ruins, with a brown mud-built village at its base.

Madrid has no pretension to architectural beauty; save the glistening white palace, it has scarce a building worth inspection. It has an untidy, unfinished appearance, rendered all the worse by the fact, that half of every street is undergoing the process of demolition or reconstruction. The houses are stuccoed and painted in the vilest taste, and the roofs of large coarse brown tiles give them a rustic appearance.

In front of the palace is a large shady square, in the centre part of which, surrounding the equestrian statue of Philip IV., is a small enclosed garden. To this the nurses and children who haunt the place have no admission, but gaze wistfully at the flowery oasis. The children solace themselves for their exclusion by endless gyrations round and round in little carts, drawn by stupid merino sheep, while, as usual, soldiers in plenty are sauntering about, ever ready to amuse the nurses, the most picturesque of the female population of Madrid. Round their heads are tied gay handkerchiefs, knotted at the back with a butterfly bow, another of a different colour adorns their shoulders, and their bright petticoats are striped with black velvet. Their aprons, which have long ends tied behind, bordered with lace, look particularly well when worn with a black dress. Only a few of the wide streets have the glory of trees, for trees in such a dry country involve much care and attention. Round their roots is a carefully-bricked little well, about a foot deep, intended to retain the water, with which they are daily supplied; when full, a little channel conducts the precious fluid to the next tree, and so on till the whole avenue is refreshed. The Prado is the most disappointing place in Madrid. Part of it is a kind of Sahara, with mere saplings on either side. It is inferior to the public promenade of every other great capital city. Here may be seen all the beau monde, differing but little from the same species in every other capital in Europe, save, perhaps, that the ladies’ costumes are more gaudy than a negress’s on a Sunday, and that small by degrees and beautifully less, are the dandies who saunter beside them. Hardly a mantilla is to be seen; all-omnipotent Fashion has decreed that Paris bonnets are the mode. The children strut about in outré French fashions, the little mannikins of two or three supremely ridiculous in manly attire. Comfortable-looking matrons prefer remaining in their carriages, and, if they do get out for a stroll, their small feet (or excessive corpulence) cause them to waddle like ducks. Of beauty there is not much to be seen. The Spanish ladies have lost immensely by giving up the black dresses and mantillas, which won them the rapturous admiration of Englishmen in the days of the Peninsular War. Compared with the hideous dresses then worn in the rest of Europe, the Spanish costume must have been charming. The gauzy setting of the mantilla lends beauty even to the homeliest features, and causes the Parisian bonnet even of “Varennes,” or “Laure,” to appear a grotesque monstrosity; how much more striking, then, must have been the contrast in the days our grandmothers wore hats the size of a millstone, with towering plumes, scanty petticoats, and waists close up under their arms! Save for a few carriages drawn by sleek, shaven mules, the tout ensemble is much the same as Hyde Park or the Champs Elysées. Let us leave the fashionable world and turn into the Museum, which is close at hand.

Polite little officials, with cocked hats on, receive your canes and parasols, and lend you a copy of the catalogue, which is out of print and can no longer be bought. As you stand in the rotunda, filled with daubs, both old and new, you see on either side doors, with the inscription, “Escuela Espanol;” you go in, and introduce yourself to the shades of Velasquez and Murillo.

Diligently all morning, and for many previous days, you have studied Murray’s “Handbook,” Stirling’s “Spanish Painters,” and Viardot’s “Musées d’Espagne.” You are prepared to go into fits of enthusiasm, and rave about the great Velasquez. Why, is this a Velasquez? this drowsy, sulky Virgin? these dauby equestrian portraits?—where the original faulty drawing, unpainted out, gives each horse at least six legs.

“Mon Dieu, Adolphe,” says a spruce little French artist beside me, mounted on a ladder, for the purpose of investigating more closely the beauties of the picture; “c’est l’art de badigeonner.”

Oh! heretic, how dare you disbelieve all the great authorities! Viardot tells you he is the greatest master in the world: you unbelieving infidel, out upon you!

Look at those faithful believers. With eyes fixed on a well-known red book, they wander arm-in-arm through the gallery, stopping where Ford desires them, in his imperative way; they shock no one by rash opinions, but devoutly adhere to conventional belief.

Though at first a disappointment, Velasquez’ pictures gain upon one. The most part are really mere sketches, which the great artist, rendered lazy by court favour and success, never gave himself the trouble to finish. Surrounded by empty-headed fops, who followed the cue given by royalty, and praised indiscriminately, no wonder that he succumbed to the paralysing influence of court life. Most of his pictures require to be seen from a great distance. When you stand close to them, they sadly resemble scene-painting. In two or three, one sees what Velasquez could accomplish when he chose to exert himself. The well-known “Borrachos,” or “Drinkers,” is an example of this. It represents a dozen peasants jollifying after the completion of the vintage; the Bacchic king, half naked, is seated on a barrel, and is crowning with vine-leaves the most jocular of his boon companions, who kneels to receive this honourable distinction. Another of the crew, with a broad grin on his countenance, holds a bowl of new wine, which seems literally to tremble in his shaky hands, and as you gaze, you momentarily expect to see it flow over the kneeler. It is, after all, only a Teniers the size of life; and it is amusing to hear the critics, who despise the low realities of the Flemish school, wax eloquent over this and a tribe of pictures of grinning beggars, because they are the work of a Spanish hidalgo.

The poor Flemings have got a bad name; they are ever branded as coarse and boorish, and unideal; even in the descriptions of the great chef-d’œuvre of Velasquez, “The Surrender of Breda,” they come in for a slap in the face, and we are told to admire the grave, dignified Spaniards, in contradistinction to the heavy, dull Dutch boors. I beg to differ: the Dutch seem to me to have far the best of it; they have honest, good, frank faces; and in the high, narrow foreheads and close-set eyes of the Spaniards, I read cruelty, deceit, and intolerance. Rubens, who is so generally cited as a type of the unideal Fleming, had certainly more imagination, and idealised more, than Velasquez. His “Virgin learning to read,” in the Antwerp gallery, and his “Holy Family with the Parrot,” in the same place, have more grace and delicacy—coarse Fleming though he be—than the Spanish hidalgo’s portraiture of a rough peasant and his wife, whose ugly waddling baby is playing with a cur, is dignified with the title of Holy Family. Distance must certainly have lent enchantment to the view, and the great authorities who have praised Velasquez to the seventh heaven, must have relied on the Pyrenees being too insurmountable a barrier for their assertions to be put to the test by idle tourists. The court dwarfs were favourite subjects with Velasquez, and he seems to revel in giving a true impression of their hideosities and imperfections. Poor little creatures, as one looks at their stunted forms and misshapen features, Luther’s notion of beings with only half a soul, recurs to the mind.

Palace at Madrid.

Velasquez must have wearied with the endless painting of royalty, such royalty as it was. The special clay out of which kings are made, did not turn out particularly beautiful at Madrid. Those heavy features, flabby cheeks, pendulous lips, and small eyes, savour much of cretinism. In every variety of dress and position you see the royal forms, even kneeling at prayers, the posture and clasped hands alone indicating the occupation. Velasquez has been compared to Rembrandt for the force and vigour of his portraits, but to the mysterious effects and delicacy of colouring of the great master of “impasto” he never attained.

Close to the life-like picture of the young Infanta, surrounded by her maids, known as “Las Meninas,” called by Luca Giordano the Gospel of Painting, hangs a picture misnamed “Artemisia,” by Rembrandt, and, thus placed in juxta-position, the respective merits of these great artists can be studied at leisure. The wonderful handling of Rembrandt in this, one of his least-known pictures, certainly eclipses the famous “Meninas.” The magical effect of light and shade, the marvellous opal-like draperies, and the soft round flesh and floating golden locks of the fair dame, who it is supposed is just going to banquet on her husband’s ashes (presented by a little maiden in a vase worthy of Cellini), render doubly apparent the dashing, careless style of Velasquez. Many of his pictures, too, have a mealy, smeared appearance, as if blotting-paper had been pressed on the wet paint; and the paint itself, though thinly put on, after the manner of Titian, leaves much to be desired in way of finish.

Inexhaustible gallery, never-failing source of interest, months might be spent in roaming from one masterpiece to the other. Divine Virgins by Murillo seem to float in a heavenly atmosphere, and the perfect innocence and fascinating grace of the Infant Saviour and little St. John, must be seen to be understood. What Murillo’s pictures must have been before they were scraped and repainted, it is difficult to imagine, as even after all they have gone through they are unutterably beautiful. One rises from contemplation of those transported, ecstatic figures, those faces full of awe and heavenly meditation, with a feeling similar to what one experiences when, in some old cathedral, the organ peals forth its melody carrying the mind far away from the cares of mortality, and lifting the soul to heaven.

There is an excellent portrait of Murillo, by Tobar, his pupil; a kind thoughtful face it is, with a broader, more benevolent forehead, than that of Velasquez, and full, dreamy eyes. Tobar in part followed the style of his master. After the manner of the Roman Church, which attributes all that is endearing to the Virgin, he has represented her as feeding the lambs of the flock, and seated under a tree, with her hand on the head of a lambkin, while she holds out roses to the rest.

The Virgins of the Murillo school are certainly more celestial beings, and less conventional, than those of Raphael. Had that great artist only lived longer, he would assuredly have departed from the stiff monotony of his grouping, which has rendered it so easy to imitate him that doubts have arisen lately as to whether the much-prized “Perla” is truly an original. The art of imitation is indeed carried to extraordinary perfection, as the following authentic anecdote will show. The superintendent of one of the royal galleries, in a part of Europe I need not mention, bought a few years since a Raphael. He traced its history with the most satisfactory results, and summoned a conclave of the wise and learned in such matters to rejoice with him over the treasure he had found. With one accord they all pronounced it a perfect treasure; true, it was a “replica,” but that nowise diminished its value, and was a further proof of its authenticity. It was framed with reference to its great merits, and duly entered into the Royal Catalogue, other pictures being turned out to give it its due proportion of light, and every consideration paid to its claims to distinction. Hardly had it been a month installed with all these honours, when one morning the superintendent was disturbed at his breakfast by the servant announcing that an artist wished to speak to him.

“Let him come in.”

He came, and modestly asked for employment, and the good word of so well-known a connoisseur.

“Why, my good fellow, I can do but little for myself. I buy no pictures, and for the Musée, nothing that is modern is admitted.”

“But I thought monsieur would give me some commission, as I painted the Raphael.”

“The Raphael,” said the dignified official waxing wroth; “how dare you presume to tell such lies? The Raphael is beyond doubt authentic: it had the unanimous approval of the most celebrated ‘virtuosi’ in Europe.”

“Nevertheless, if monsieur will honour me so far as to accompany me to my studio, I will show him another copy, which my mother will certify has been done by me.”

The enraged and mortified critic was with shame compelled to eat up his own words, and to dispossess his treasure from its eminence; and I fear that, like poor Chatterton, the artist gained but little by his fraud.

The possession of forty pictures by Titian would of itself be sufficient to establish the reputation of the Madrid Museum. “The Presentation of Charles V. and his family to the Heavenly Father by the Virgin” shows how strangely ceremony mingled even with the Emperor’s religion. There are many pictures by the Bassanos. “The going into the Ark” is a delightful homely scene, where the sturdy wives of Shem, Ham, and Japhet are depicted on household cares intent, and bending under the weight of featherbeds fastened on to their backs. Juan de Joanes has a “Lord’s Supper,” considered by many to be equal to Leonardo da Vinci’s. In the golden halo surrounding each disciple’s head, the name is inscribed—a needless precaution as regards the loving features of St. John, and the griping, avaricious expression of Judas. One wearies of the endless studies of Ribera from emaciated skeletons writhing in anguish, and looking more like St. Simeon Stylites than Christian saints and martyrs. In damp and gloomy chambers are stowed away a perfect wealth of works of minor Dutch painters, all doomed to certain destruction from want of air and light.

After leaving the museum, it is a relief to the weary eyes and brain to wander among the shady acacia groves of the Buen Retiro gardens; in any other country they would not be highly esteemed, but here verdure of any kind is grateful. The long formal alleys are adorned with statues, arranged regardless of era, and you find the Cid and Madame du Barry side by side. Behind a high railing is a reserved garden, where royalty walks apart from the crowd. Just as we arrive, one of the royal Infantas, who has been there promenading, prepares to depart. The train of carriages, the dignity, the etiquette which surrounds the little creature, recalls the time of the state-loving Philips. A guard of mounted soldiers keep off the crowd, which, however, evinces no curiosity, and hardly a hat is raised to the Royal Highness, who is seated in a perambulator, propelled by bedizened lacqueys towards the state carriage drawn by four black horses. At the door of the carriage, on one side, stands an old gentleman in court dress, covered with orders, bowing, cocked hat in hand; on the other curtseys a fine old lady, arrayed in gorgeous brocade. The lacqueys lift in the pale baby, after it enter two smart nurses, arrayed in costumes of rose-coloured satin and black velvet; away drives the carriage, the tiny infant looking out of the window, and kissing its white hand to the passers-by. The pompous old lady and gentleman follow in another carriage drawn by four mules, behind them rolls an empty state carriage drawn by four bays, in case of any accident occurring to the equipage which has the honour of containing the royal infant. The perambulator is solemnly lifted into a fourgon, the guards close round it, and off they all set to the palace. Is it the nineteenth century, or do I dream? I rub my eyes and remember it is Spain, and, pitying the poor little baby so hedged in from infancy by ceremonial and conventionality, I wend my way to the monkeys, who jump and frisk no less blythely for me than for any crowned head. Poor little royal babies, how can they guess what human nature is like? What wonder they grow up proud and cold when from babyhood they have seen nothing but court ladies and chamberlains bowing to the dust before them!