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Art; Spain's window on the soul; A rare exhibition at the Prado proves portraits reveal as much about the painter as the painted. It's the face of the country's artistic legacy.
Los Angeles Times - Los Angeles, Calif.
Subjects: Visual artists; Art exhibits
Author: Meisler, Stanley
Date: Jan 16, 2005
Start Page: E.48
Section: Sunday Calendar; Part E; Calendar Desk
Abstract (Document Summary)

Spanish artists and historians have long kept [Diego Velazquez] in an exalted position in Spanish art. His place is much like that of Shakespeare in English literature. Even the greatest Spanish artists pay tribute to Velazquez and set his work as a standard to which they must strive. It is no accident that one-fifth of the portraits in the exhibition are by Velazquez. The fervent adulation for him was made clear by the anguish in Madrid in 1898, when rumors spread that American art collectors wanted the U.S. government to take all the Velazquez paintings in the Prado rather than the Philippine Islands as booty in the Spanish-American War. In the end, Spain lost the Philippines but not the paintings.

A great tribute to Velazquez came more than a century after his death when Francisco de Goya, born near Zaragoza in the province of Aragon, won appointment as a court painter in Madrid. Goya was steeped in the works of Velazquez. He had even created a series of engravings of Velazquez paintings, including "Las Meninas." One of the great treats of the exhibition is to find Goya's group portrait "The Family of the Infante Don Luis" in the same room as "Las Meninas." "The Family of the Infante Don Luis," painted in 1783, was obviously heavily influenced by Velazquez. But it does not imitate "Las Meninas" as much as pay homage to it.

Portrait painting was popular in Spain during the 19th century, and the exhibition features a variety of works from that era. The most notable are probably Federico de Madrazo's "The Condesa de Vilches," painted in 1853, and Ramon Casas' "Santiago Rusinol," painted in 1889. Madrazo knew Spanish portraiture well, for his father was director of the Prado, but the painting owes a great deal to the influence of his friend, the renowned French portrait painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Casas, on the other hand, studied in France but with a teacher who idolized Velazquez. Casas' portrait of Rusinol is in the Velazquez tradition and, in tribute to the 17th century master, the portrait shows a piece of a reproduction of "Las Meninas" on the wall in the background.

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