Art can affect us to the point of obsession. Oil canvases, parchment drawings, bronze sculptures, and computer generated simulations, to name a few, have the potential to compel us—the human spectators—to physically react. With each human breath, the work in question is given renewed life. A representation of the lived past, it pulsates.
This fixed socio-political document unhinges us, disturbing our status quo. It confronts us with that which we cannot grasp. Yet, we do not run. Rather, we stay, seeking to absorb the knowledge of our beautiful and horrific predecessors. Much is left up to the wieldy human imagination. In the case of portraiture, we see real people. Caught in a moment of awe, we contemplate the places these people have gone, the sights they have taken in, and the quality of life they enjoyed. They are us—our ever so distant ancestors. We gain a privileged view into their world whereas they are not privy to enter ours. Viewing such portraits is more somber than joyful. From observing their likeness, will we internalize their follies? Will we gain the keys to their accomplishments? Will we ever be as great as our forefathers? As a single spectator, I have no concrete answers, only an unflinching curiosity to seek them out.
In the past weeks, I have been confronted with a litany of serious, gay, and enigmatic sitters. In Gallery 610 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I encountered seven of Diego Velázquez portraits that command consideration. The small one-room show entitled ‘Velázquez Portraits: Truth in Painting,’ which opened November 4, 2016 and runs until March 12, 2017, features the Metropolitan’s masterpiece, Juan de Pareja (1650), as well as two recently restored works from the Hispanic Society of America, Portrait of a Young Girl (1640) and Cardinal Camillo Astalli-Pamphili (1650-51).
Yet, it is Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man (1630-35) bequeathed by the Jules Bache Collection in 1949 that captivates my attention. The work is familiar. It is the cover piece of Laura Cumming’s critically acclaimed work ‘The Vanishing Velázquez,’ which I had finished the week prior. Swiftly, I approach the canvas, matching the unknown sitter’s gaze. I immediately feel the man’s presence. His identity—a witness to the Surrender of Breda or possibly the artist himself—bothers me not. His truthful demeanor compels me.
While conceived between 1630-35, the work is characterized by a striking freshness. The gestural strokes both blur and form, recording the sitter’s likeness while restricting him to the canvas, which is his physical being. Velázquez restricts his palate; he dabbles in grays, blues, and browns. With these subtle gradations, Velázquez captures the sitter’s singular human experience. However, in recording the singular, Velázquez transmits the universal. His honest emotions and mannerisms transcend time. When viewing the portrait almost 500 years after its conception, I identify with Velázquez’s unknown man. I too shift my weight, set my jaw, purse my lips, and make eye contact with the world around me.
Top Image: Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man (1630-35).