Last week, I discussed the wooden sculpture of San Francis Borgia that Juan Martinez Montañes carved for Francisco Pacheco to paint. This time, I want to refer to Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Martinez Montañes as an example of the ways in which the painter explored both the competitive relation of painting and sculpture and represented the invisible, at the same time.
In June 1635, Juan Martinez Montañes was invited to Madrid to make a likeness of Philip IV in clay so that it could be sent to Florence and serve as a model for the Italian sculptor Pietro Tacca who was working on a large equestrian portrait of the king (now placed at the Plaza de Oriente in front of the Royal Palace). For a Spanish sculptor to receive such an important royal commission was a great honour, particularly as this type of work was generally reserved for imported Italian sculptors.
To celebrate this achievement, Velazquez was asked, either by Montañes himself or by an admirer, to paint his portrait. Velazquez shows the sculptor wearing a smart black cassock with a cloak slung over one shoulder, clothes he is unlikely to have worn while actually modelling. Montañes appears so focused that it is as though we have just interrupted him at work. He looks out directly at us, his right hand holding a modelling tool, while the other supports the clay bust.
Montañes was sixty seven years of age when Velazquez painted him. He was at the height of his career and considered the berst sculptor in Spain. Velazquez’s painting is, what we could call, a visual irony for it is a grave and austere portrayal of the sculptor which communicate a sense of profound respect while, at the same time, undermining his art as inferior to painting. The fact that Velazquez leaves unfinished the corner where the bust of the king is placed indicates that sculpture, as a medium, is inferior to painting for without colour there is no verisimilitude. According to Velazquez, there is an unfinished quality in sculpture as a medium.
It should be taken into account that by 1635, Velazquez was at the height of his career as court painter of Philip IV. This means that any representation of the king (even as an unfinished sculptor, as in the case of this portrait) should be taken very seriously. I am saying this because quite daringly, Velazquez leaves the clay bust on which Montañes is working unfinished -black outlines delineating Philip IV’s features, such as his moustache and prominent jaw are enough to identify him. But there seems to be in that area a second source of light. Let me be more specific.
In this painting there are two sources of light. One is outside the pictorial space and on the viewer’s side. More precisely, on the top left side of the viewer. However, there seems to be a second source of light in that unfinished area where the sculptor is working. In fact, Montañés does not dare touching with his hands the king’s likeness but with a white cloth. As with religious images, a representation of the king is the king himself. There was no difference between likeness and presence. Touching the king (whether unfinished or not) was touching the actual king. That is why that glow indicates a different kind of power, a supra terrestrial one, that makes us wonder whether Montañés is actually protecting the king’s likeness with his left hand or holding to the king to protect himself from that upward thrust. Through incompleteness and absence, Velazquez is representing absolute power. He does that also though the compositional arrangement of the lines. Even though all lines in this painting seem to converge (from the upper left to the bottom right) in the king’s forehead, the source of light (on the right bottom) counteracts the downwardness of those lines by moving the whole painting upwards. It is as if visually, this painting discloses two forces in deadlock: a human one (led by the sculptor’s hand) and a superhuman one (located at the king’s head). J A T