Awakening from the nightmare of history

Velasquez, The Surrender of Breda

When anyone speculates on who might be tagged as the greatest painter in Western history, Velasquez always finds himself at or near the top of the list. And Las Meninas is always ranked as the Spanish master’s greatest work. But The Surrender of Breda is in many ways a more awe-inspiring technical achievement, an incredible fusion of artistic influences, an enormous canvas, twelve feet wide, in which a numbingly complex and protracted conflict has been simplified, unified and turned into an ironic image of tenderness. Velasquez takes what James Joyce called “the nightmare of history” and transforms it into a vision of warmth and humanity. At the same time, he’s also representing a small act of courtesy as the best we flawed creatures can hope for: kindness, compassion and humbling gestures of respect in the midst of the world’s ceaseless carnage and cruelty. And there’s a second universal truth here, maybe not entirely intended, given the reality of historical events that ensued: with the passage of enough time, all our victories are Pyrrhic.

Spain lost Breda only a few years after the surrender and went on to lose the entire war in 1648. This moment in 1625 was only a brief setback for The Netherlands. From here onward, the declining Spanish Hapsburg empire gradually ceded its primacy on the world stage to another rising imperial star: the Dutch. This brief, temporary victory for Spain followed a rogue siege of the town, unauthorized by the crown, organized and executed by a remarkable general: Ambrolio Spinola. The Surrender of Breda celebrates how Spinola forced surrender from an equally esteemed Dutch commander, Justin Nassau. Spain had been steadily losing the Eighty Years’ War against the Netherlands, which had begun two generations earlier, at the end of Pieter Bruegel’s life, who depicted the early days of the conflict in his own historical paintings in the Low Countries.

No other painter in history was better situated than Velasquez to paint the life of empire and the tenuous nature of political power. It’s always amazed me how securely Velasquez was installed inside the court of Philip IV. He was never at a loss for commissions and connections and seemingly had access to anything and anyone he wanted, being friends with both King and Queen. He was an insider’s insider. So it’s no surprise that Velazquez knew Spinola personally. He had sailed to Italy with the commander, and become a close friend during the voyage, only a year before the man’s death. Yet Velasquez, like Bruegel, used this privileged position to create images that would both satisfy the empire’s need for glorification and yet, at the same time, in subtle ways, convey his own emotionally subversive vision.

The painting was commissioned as one of a series of paintings to glorify Spain’s power in the world, yet—as Bruegel did repeatedly in the previous century in the Netherlands—Velasquez structures the scene as an ironic and skeptical vision of military power. It appears to be a painting about Spanish supremacy and noblesse oblige, yet it’s a testament to individual friendship. In the scene, Velasquez honors his friend’s charm, his character and nobility—Spinola’s military skill and Spain’s triumph are pushed into the background, literally, shown only in the scorched earth stretching away toward the horizon. By choosing to depict Spinola’s act of compassion and courtesy he suggests it’s more meaningful than the vast wasteland of smoldering post-war ruin receding into the haze beyond.

Velasquez shows how Spinola had forbidden his own victorious combatants to mock or abuse the defeated Dutch. Eyewitnesses said Spinola dismounted in order to greet Nassau as an equal and saluted him as he approached. It was reported that he praised Nassau’s courage and his people’s endurance, during the siege. Spinola’s behavior would seem to be history’s noblest act of what we’d call good sportsmanship. There were no victory dances in the end zone here. Only a scene in which the victor humbles himself before the vanquished.  Of course, Velasquez knows it’s all window dressing, a thin gloss of good manners to hide the brutality of the power struggle—yet the expression on Spinola’s face, which is a wonder of painterly skill, the look in the eye, the tilt of the head, all of it is perfectly rendered to radiate the man’s warmth and charisma. It’s as genuine and heartfelt as anything ever painted. And it communicates a spirit of love. Spinola here is a man who actually cares about this fellow he has taken down. You can bet that look on Spinola’s face wasn’t a contractual term of the commission to glorify Spain which Velasquez received from the Spanish court.

Last month, Peter Schjeldahl published a wonderful essay on Velasquez in The New Yorker, framed as a review of a new book, Velasquez and The Surrender of Breda, by Anthony Bailey. Ever since I read that article, I’ve been studying this painting and it’s been one of those cases where, when you first look at the image, it seems to be a jumble of activity that makes little sense—and yet there came a moment when it all instantly achieved focus for me and I recognized what Velasquez was showing me. Schjeldahl gets it exactly right: “(The painting) inflects a representation of brute power with ordinary humanity and an elegiac grace note of chivalry. Both epic and intimate, the big painting centers on a slight, kind gesture.”

Formally, the painting also represents a fusion of European influences, a sort of symbolic Euro-zone  of several traditions in painting—seemingly the only canvas where Velasquez attempted this. I’d like to believe, because Spain ruled over the Netherlands and Velasquez was a traveler, that he had access to Bruegel’s great historical paintings, many of which can be interpreted as condemnations of the Spanish occupation, thinly veiled as religious subjects, three quarters of a century earlier. One of Bruegel’s paintings in particular shows what appears to be the Duke of Alba, Spain’s regent in the Netherlands at the time, invading the country—eventually to occupy Breda. In this painting, The Conversion of St. Paul, Bruegel situates a horse almost in the same place as the horse stands in The Surrender of Breda. It’s possible Velasquez was offering a little homage to Bruegel by placing that rear view of a horse just about where his counterpart has placed the earlier one—maybe as a way of saying, you were right, Pieter, empire is not only a horror, it’s usually kept alive through the power of a horse’s ass. But the placement of that horse also seems a way of honoring Bruegel’s brilliance—and his side of the story. Yet this painting also gives a nod toward Italy.

I’d seen reproductions of The Surrender of Breda before but had always given it a quick glance and moved on, more intrigued by the comparative formal simplicity of Las Meninas or the psychological penetration of his portraits. But the saturated color of the reproduction in The New Yorker was stunning: the intense and varied color of the scene is unlike anything else Velasquez painted. Usually, his images tend to thrust outward toward the viewer, emerging from a background sunk in murk, in typical Baroque fashion—yet this scene invites the viewer into the depth of a receding horizon. You can see for miles. It dispels all shadow, fully lit by the sun, and even that ruined landscape glows in blues and greens under a violet ceiling of clouds. It’s a hopeful, cheerful image that feels more Italian than Spanish, with areas of glowing color from Renaissance fresco—showing the influence of the visit to Italy the artist made with Spinola himself only a few years earlier. Blues, greens, pink, orange, red, it was as if he were trying to import the vivid colors of the Sistine Chapel into Spanish painting. And though you can’t see it clearly in the magazine’s reproduction, or almost anywhere else on the web, Wikipedia has a large image of the painting that shows every last detail in crisp resolution. Click enough times on the image, and it will expand to reveal all of the painting’s remarkable facial expressions and even what looks like the head of a snoozing dog in the lower right corner under an open letter snagged in the rocks and foliage. Surrounding the key is a glimpse of the remote garb of onlookers in the background, motley as jesters, standing in bright sunlight while the clouds break overhead, and this row of color forms a small rainbow, a parallelogram of symbolic peace, at the formal and intellectual heart of the painting. That prismatic aura around the key, seemingly a port into another world, underscores the compassion expressed by Spinola’s act of laying his hand on Naussau’s shoulder, encouraging his opponent to stand up straight and be proud of his courage during the siege. You can almost hear him saying, “Don’t bow down to me, friend. We are one and the same, you and I. Our enemy is everything that’s happening around us.”

The painting isn’t anything remotely like a celebration of Spain’s military power. It’s as if Velasquez is saying to his patrons, his rulers, Here’s what you can do with your concept of big, historically important paintings. Here’s what you can do with your institutionalized barbarism and your Inquisition and all the rest of what keeps your civilization running. Here’s a painting of one lone human being showing compassion to another. Here’s what was supposed to be a celebration of military victory that’s actually a painting about a tiny, humble gesture rooted in love. As paintings go, it’s something of a miracle.


1 Response to “Awakening from the nightmare of history”

  1. Now that’s a restoration at represent

    […] that hair. Maybe it’s just the way the canvas is lit. I wish. And it’s just a study for The Surrender of Breda. Thin under-layers of paint with hardly a second or third application. You mistake the weave of the […]