Marcus B. Burke, Senior Curator of Paintings and Drawings, Hispanic Society of America
The three masterpieces by Velázquez at the Hispanic Society of America—the two featured in this exhibition (above), plus the full-length portrait of Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares—represent the artist's career from his first years at court in Madrid, in the 1620s, to his later work in Rome, from 1650 to 1651, on the cusp of his final period.
Of the three, Portrait of a Young Girl (ca. 1640) is undoubtedly the most beloved by our visitors. Jointly purchased from the famous British art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen by the Hispanic Society's founder, Archer Milton Huntington, and his widowed mother, the picture was formerly covered by an unusually thick layer of varnish typical of Duveen's trade. The recent cleaning in The Met's Department of Paintings Conservation has made it possible to understand the sitter's sketched-in dress and even the faint smile on her lips.
We know little about the sitter, but a picture of a similar subject was among Velázquez's possessions when he died. Although there is no intervening documentation, the Hispanic Society canvas is the only extant work by Velázquez that matches the inventory description, and it may be presumed to be the picture in his collection. What is clear, however, is that the painting represents an unusually intimate and direct portrayal of someone perhaps close to the artist. Since the studies of Aureliano de Beruete at the turn of the 20th century, scholars have suggested that she was the child of Velázquez's daughter, Francisca, who was married to Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, the artist's pupil and studio colleague. If one expands the possible dates of the picture to as late as 1644, she could possibly be a girl named Inez, who would have been six years old. Whoever she was, the young lady has a hypnotic presence.
Two aspects of the conservation history of Camillo Astalli, Known As Cardinal Pamphili (1650–51) need to be underscored, as they have markedly affected our appreciation of the work. Unlike Portrait of a Young Girl, which was still dimly "readable" under the varnish, the portrait of Astalli was highly disfigured—albeit without this being readily apparent. The recent conservation revealed Velázquez's extraordinary alla prima brushwork, which mixes paint wet-into-wet at high speed. Both on a small scale, as in the nose, and in broader strokes seen in the explosive hair, Velázquez achieved something akin to the "action painting" of the mid-20th-century New York School.
The second aspect of the picture that has changed our understanding is the fact that it had been cut down at the left and the bottom, perhaps due to being placed in an oval frame in the later 17th century. Like the portrait of Juan de Pareja also on view in this exhibition, Astalli's portrait was originally asymmetrical in composition, yielding an image of a papal courtier stepping back in obsequious deference to his uncle, the Pope, while the angle of his biretta evokes a cocky sense of self-confidence. Prior to recent cleaning he appeared like a dumpy Victorian gentleman, but now the energy of the brushwork and the subtle veils of color on the red cape (mozzetta) and collar give him a new and worthy presence.
Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez) (Spanish, 1599–1660). Portrait of a Young Girl (detail), ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 1/8 in. (51.5 x 41 cm). The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY