He’s been called a master realist, the first postmodernist, history’s greatest portraitist.
In the words of French artist Edouard Manet, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was “le peintre des peintres” -- the painter’s painter.
Said Dawson Carr, curator of a major exhibition of the artist’s work that opened this month at the National Gallery in London, Velazquez was “a painter who was in tune with his medium -- the stuff of paint.”
The gallery holds nine works by the Spanish master, more than any institution apart from the Prado museum in Madrid.
The Prado has loaned eight works to the show, which contains 46 paintings spanning Velazquez’s career, from tavern scenes he painted as a teenager to a somber late portrait of his royal patron, King Philip IV. The artist lived from 1599 to 1660.
The exhibition reveals Velazquez’s extraordinary eye for detail -- and the amazing economy he used to capture it. A picture of an old woman cooking eggs in an earthenware bowl, painted while Velazquez was still a teenager, captures with a few brushstrokes the moment the egg white turns from translucent to solid.
He applied the same grasp of everyday detail to religious and mythological scenes. In “Kitchen Scene With Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” the figures are glimpsed in a corner of the painting, through a window. In the foreground is the kitchen where two servants work at a table laid with garlic, fish and eggs.
“He finds purity in something most people can identify with,” Carr said.
Carr said Velazquez spent his early career painting “humble subjects -- ordinary people doing ordinary things.”
“He is declaring himself from the beginning to be a realist. Velazquez’s talent allowed him to follow un-idealized nature and use it as the center of his art.”
“Velazquez” runs until Jan. 21 and will not travel.