Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pacheco, his famous pupil, and some comments on "influence"

(cross-posted at Blog Meridian)

Yesterday I was surprised to learn that Peter Harrup, the administrator for the Facebook group "The Genius of Diego Velázquez," named me as an officer for that group: Francisco Pacheco. Wonderful, I thought . . . but, who is he? Way leads on to way in the Internets, and what follows are the results of that wandering, along with some speculation and musing.

I quickly learned via consulting my copy of the catalogue of the 1989 Velázquez exhibition at the Met (which, by the way, is well worth seeking out, especially if you a) love Velázquez and/but b) don't have a lot of money) that Pacheco was Velázquez' principle teacher and, eventually, his father-in-law. Pacheco was an agent of the Inquisition and thus very much a loyal adherent to the values propagated by the Counter-Reformation. Though well regarded as a teacher, his talent as a painter was never more than pedestrian1; however, unlike many other tutors whose pupils outshine them, it appears Pacheco wasn't jealous of Velázquez's abilities but taught him what he knew, especially with regard of the then-emerging tendencies toward realism, and then got out of the way. His book El arte de la pintura is still considered an authoritative source of information from the time.

I probably would not have begun to write this post, though, had it not been for going on to read the Wikipedia article on Pacheco--specifically, this sentence:

Although Velázquez was a student in Pacheco's school for six years, and married Pacheco's daughter Juana in 1618, there is no trace of Pacheco's influence in the work of Velázquez.

"No trace"? That seemed to me a bold claim to make; consider Jackson Pollack, who, when asked what he learned when he studied under Thomas Hart Benton (an odd pairing, to say the least), replied, "How not to paint."2 So, I decided to do some looking around for more takes on Pacheco's influence on Velázquez, and I wound up in a surprising place--a post I wrote earlier this month.

In the course of Googling, I discovered a review of a book by Jane Boyd and Philip F Esler, Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez' "Christ with Martha and Mary" as a Test Case. This was startling because, as readers of this blog know, I had just posted on this very painting. Anyway, in the course of listing some paintings that Velázquez might have seen that may have influenced his painting, the reviewer mentions"St. Sebastian healed by St. Irene, 1616] by Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644, Velázquez's teacher and father-in-law) combining two episodes from the legend of St Sebastian, one seen through a window of the room in which the other occurs[.]"
(Here, by the way, is where I found this image.)

There is no denying the compositional similarities between the Pacheco and the Velázquez, especially if it's the case that, as with the Pacheco, the Velázquez depicts two chronologically-distinct moments. Having said that, though, the Velázquez is no mere copy. The Pacheco has an almost-medieval quality to it in its handling of perspective; as has often been noted, his pupil's painting is a fusion of the religious subject and the genre of the bodegón, itself influenced by Dutch paintings of domestic scenes. Also, the Pacheco lacks any tension between the painting and the painting-within-a-painting: the latter serves to explain the circumstances depicted in the former. The Velázquez, though, is another matter entirely, as I pointed out in my post on it.

So, then: "influence." As a teacher myself, I find my students wanting to give me credit for things they have learned when, in fact, all I had done was give them the opportunity to learn the things they were thanking me for. As it were, I supply the canvas and encouragement, and I have some things to say about the virtues of exploring, of being intellectually curious, but they still have to do the painting, and that they do on their own. What is striking to me about Velázquez's art, quite apart from the brush-wielding, is the intellectual curiosity that fuels it, the willingness to experiment with the tried-and-true. I cannot help but think that it's those qualities that Pacheco encouraged in his pupil; the rest of the time, though, I suspect he alternated between sizing up young Dieguito as a potential match for his daughter and marvelling at his talent, wondering--in a good way--as I myself have had to with some of my students, what he might possibly be able to teach him.

1The Spanish-language Wikipedia article, however, is more generous in its assessment, and indeed includes brief commentary on some of Pacheco's paintings.

2I just now realize that that statement will read differently, depending on one's opinion of Pollack or of Benton.

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