Original Copycat: The Great Painter You’ve Never Heard Of

Even if you’re reasonably familiar with the history of art, the name Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind, when you think of Old Master painters from Spain: El Greco, sure, Velázquez, absolutely, and even Goya, if we consider him the end of the Old Master period and the beginning of the Modern Period in art. But the intriguing thing about del Mazo is, not only was he a brilliant artist, but there may be well-known paintings of his, hiding in plain sight, that have yet to be identified.

I’m fortunate enough to own a pen-and-ink drawing by British artist Rupert Alexander, specifically a study of a portrait of Spanish Admiral Don Adrián Pulido Pareja, which is now in the National Gallery in London. For much of the portrait’s known history, it was thought to be a work by Velázquez. However an increasing number of scholars now believe that it is by del Mazo, who was not only Velázquez’ primary studio assistant, but also the great painter’s son-in-law. In 1633 del Mazo married Velázquez’ youngest surviving daughter Francisca and, interestingly enough, through their daughter Teresa – who married into a German noble family – are descended most of Europe’s kings and queens, including Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, King Felipe VI of Spain, and King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Because his father-in-law was extremely busy, as the principal court painter to King Felipe IV of Spain, much of del Mazo’s time was spent making copies of the original paintings executed by Velázquez. In a time before photography and commercial reproduction methods, copying served several important purposes for the Habsburgs, for whom maintaining close family ties was extremely important. One such purpose was to allow them to have more than one copy of their favorite pictures of family members on display for their multiple homes, without having to pack up their pictures and move them every time they went on a journey.

An example of this is the hunting portrait of Cardinal Don Fernando de Austria, showing the younger brother of King Felipe IV with his favorite dog. The original, by Velázquez, was part of a series of portraits of the family in hunting attire that decorated the Torre de la Parada, a now-demolished royal hunting lodge in the mountains outside of Madrid. The copy by del Mazo, as analyzed here by art expert Philip Mould, decorated a different royal residence in Spain, and differs only slightly from the original in the placement of the dog and the absence of the tree.

Cardinal

Another purpose for del Mazo’s copying was that it allowed the family to send these copies as gifts to geographically distant relatives, which they loved to do and in fact all of the Habsburgs did for centuries. Think of this in the way that you might send copies of your family Christmas photos to Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charlie out in California, whom you haven’t seen for many years, just so you can keep in touch and so they can see what you look like today. In addition to parents and children missing each other, or siblings wanting to keep in touch, the Habsburgs also tended to marry other Habsburgs, and so these pictures were sometimes used for negotiating marriages between different branches of the family.

Sometimes the original portrait was sent and the copy was retained, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes the original was so well-liked that the recipient requested multiple copies for, again, displaying in multiple homes. Velázquez’ portrait of the Infanta (Princess) Margarita wearing a blue velvet court dress ended up in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna after the fall of the Habsburg Empire; its rediscovery in the 1930’s is a remarkable story in and of itself. But even while it was lost, it was known to scholars because copies of it were executed by del Mazo for decorating the various Habsburg residences in Austria and Hungary, such as this one which ended up in Budapest (and is in desperate need of a good cleaning.)

Infanta

This skill in copying was something which del Mazo worked on throughout his life. He spent many years making copies of paintings in the Spanish royal collections, which included not only the portraits executed by his father-in-law, but also dozens of masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, and others, most of which later formed the nucleus of the collections at The Prado and at El Escorial. The end result was that he came to deeply understand and employ the techniques used by these artists in his own, original work, when he was able to paint it.

We can’t be certain of many one-off compositions by del Mazo himself, but one that most scholars are reasonably sure about is unquestionably his masterpiece, “A View of Zaragoza in 1647”, which is now in The Prado. This enormous painting, which is almost 11 feet long and nearly 6 feet tall, was long thought to be by Velázquez, but most scholars now agree that it is by del Mazo, possibly with some assistance from the painter’s more famous father-in-law. It’s a picture you’ve probably seen illustrating European history texts, but nothing you can see in print or in electrons prepares you for the sheer size and grandeur of this thing.

Zaragoza

This is a picture to get lost in, and you never tire of looking at it and taking in all of the details – not just all the interesting figures in the foreground, but also the wealth of architectural detail in del Mazo’s representation of the city itself. The towers, pinnacles, rooftops, and chimneys that define the skyline of the city are clearly delineated. If we look more closely, we can see even more minute observations by the artist, such as red tapestries flapping from balconies, tiny green treetops peeping above the walls of enclosed gardens, and even newly-washed white laundry drying out on the rocks of the opposite shore.

At present, only a handful of paintings are currently known or believed to be by del Mazo. He spent so much time making copies of other artists’ work, that he probably didn’t have a great deal of free time to come up with his own, original compositions. Yet with advances in technology that allow art historians to examine details of paintings which are invisible to the naked eye, I suspect that in the future we will come to identify more truly unique works by this supposed copycat artist, which will make him, while not the equal of his father-in-law, an important addition to the history of Western art.

The Assumption: One Miraculous Event, Two Different Artistic Visions

Today as many Christians commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a hugely popular theme in art history, I wanted to share two interesting images of this subject with you. Even if you don’t believe in this dogma, or aren’t even a Christian, I think you’ll be able to appreciate both the beauty and the very different approaches that these artists take in looking at the same subject, albeit two centuries apart. The paintings not only demonstrate the development of Western art, but they also show how individual artists can take a common theme and re-interpret it in very different ways, and in so doing can speak to our own individual thoughts, preferences, and emotions.

The Assumption commemorates the belief, maintained in the Catholic, Orthodox, and certain Protestant churches, that at or shortly after her death, Mary the Mother of Jesus was received into Heaven, body and soul. It’s a belief of far older origin than most people realize, and commemorations of it are documented in 500 A.D. We’re going to focus on the art, not the theology, but you can do some more reading about the latter by following this link. [N.B. This is not the place for those of you who don’t believe in this dogma to get into it with those who do, so let’s just look at the art this morning, shall we?]

Beginning in the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, the most popular model followed by Western artists combined the death of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption into one scene, whose content was informed partially by pious legends and apocryphal stories which brought all of the Apostles back together in Jerusalem for her funeral. This was the model followed by many artists, including Raphael, El Greco, and perhaps most famously, Titian in his altarpiece for the Franciscans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Over time, and perhaps in part due to the influence of the Counter-Reformation, this artistic model gradually fell out of favor, and artists began to depict the Assumption as an event which was primarily witnessed by angels, or by those already in Heaven, rather than by people left on earth.

Among the most richly-decorated depictions of the earlier model is that painted by the Early Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico around 1430-1434 for the Dominicans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It’s now in the Gardner in Boston, and if you get to visit you’ll want to take some time to soak in the magnificent colors of this Late Gothic/Early Renaissance painting:

Angelico

If you’ll remember my post from last week about the origin and value of pigments in art, you’ll realize that this smallish panel – which is only about a foot and a half wide and two feet tall – must have cost a fortune to produce. Just the upper triangle with the figure of Jesus reaching down to receive His Mother alone would have been incredibly expensive to paint, given all of the blue which Fra Angelico used in this section. Yet despite all of the bling in this picture, there’s something wonderfully touching about details such as this tender and eager reunion of a Son with His Mother.

Notice also the individualized angels in Heaven playing their instruments, and the Apostles getting ready to carry the body of Mary to her tomb. I love the detail of how white-haired St. Peter is rushing over to the head of the bier, so that he can grasp one of the poles for carrying the body. In doing so he is catching up to St. John who, as in the Gospel account of the Resurrection, got there first but is waiting in deference to the Prince of the Apostles. I also love the figure of the Apostle whom I assume to be St. Jude, who is shown dressed in red and black and carrying a club, the instrument of torture with which he was martyred. His crazy-curly, unruly hair is something I can greatly sympathize with.

A completely different interpretation of the Assumption, painted two centuries later by the great French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin in about 1630-1632, exemplifies the later model adopted by artists in depicting this event. It’s currently in the collection of the National Gallery here in Washington, and although not prominently hung it is worth seeing out, for it’s a jewel of a picture. At first glance this is a deceptively simple image, since the only concrete elements of the composition are the Virgin Mary, the chubby little angels, and the classical architectural setting – no host of earthly witnesses here:

Poussin

For me what’s particularly engrossing about this painting, apart from its glorious state of preservation and fresh colors, despite being almost 400 years old, is how it draws us in and convinces us that what we’re seeing is taking place in a three-dimensional space. The clouds wrap around the figures and draw them and our eye upward toward Heaven, a place that Mary is seeing for the very first time, with an expression of awe and wonder on her face. I also love it because despite the sense of swirling, upward movement portrayed by Poussin, this is really a quiet picture. We are privileged to see Mary returning to Her Son, but we are merely bystanders, not participants: this is a reunion that does not require an audience.

These two examples of very different interpretations of the same event show us how creativity in Western art was encouraged, rather than stifled, by the imposition of conventions, rules, and ideas. Illustrating something which was believed, but undocumented, was something of a challenge for these artists, since they had no contemporary descriptions of what the Assumption was like. And yet here we have two excellent examples of how each managed to approach the same subject in their own unique, very personal ways, creating works of art that played within the rules and yet brought out different aspects of this miraculous event for us to ponder upon, these many centuries later.

Blacker Than Black: Technology And Color In Art

For most of us, paint colors are something we think about only when we’re engaged in home improvement projects, or when we’re judging renovations made by other people on television. For artists however, selecting the right color of paint can make an enormous difference in the way that their work is perceived, and indeed valued by their patrons. In the past, naturally-occurring materials like gold and gemstones were used to create the most costly pigments. Today however, there is a major battle raging right now over the creation of technologically advanced black paint.

Now, we’re not talking any ordinary, ho-hum, Henry Ford you-can-have-any-color-Model-T-you-want-so-long-as-it’s black, black. Rather, this is a black which is unlike anything you’ve seen before: one that acts in much the same way as a black hole does in space, sucking all light into it, and creating what to the human eye appears to be a two-dimensional surface. In recent years, the search for blacker-than-black paint has become something of a grail quest in the world of Contemporary Art.

Back in 2014, a British tech company called Surrey NanoSystems came up with a carbon nanotube-based fabric, whose color was described as “the new black to end all blacks.” Called “Vantablack”, its creators originally intended for it to be used as a material with military and aerospace applications. As you can see here, an object covered in Vantablack seems to virtually disappear, since the surface of the treated object reflects almost no light whatsoever.

Vantablack

In 2016, sculptor Anish Kapoor signed an exclusive deal with the creators of Vantablack, becoming the sole artist in the world permitted to use Vantablack in his work. This caused an uproar in the Contemporary Art community, which wanted to gain access to this blacker-than-black substance. A hashtag campaign was undertaken on social media called “#ShareTheBlack”, trying to convince Vantablack’s manufacturers to allow wider use of the material. Ultimately, this descended into the childishness that one has come to expect from social media.

Fortunately for the Contemporary Art world, despite its regular criticism of capitalism in an effort to bite the hand that feeds it, free-market competition has come to the rescue. For now an American company, NanoLab, Inc., has come up with its own version of carbon nanotube black, called “Singularity Black” – and unlike Vantablack, it will be available to anyone to use. On its website, NanoLab describes how the pigment works, which I won’t even attempt to explain it to you because I don’t fully understand it myself. Those of you who have science backgrounds will no doubt appreciate the technology at work here, whereas for my part, being a giant nerd, I appreciate the fact that it was most likely named “Singularity” for reasons related to Star Trek.

While the technology involved in the creation of these new pigments is new, this is not the first time that the art world has obsessed over the production of a particular paint color. If you’ve studied any art history, then you know that purple was highly prized by the Ancients: particularly that which came from Phoenicia, where there was an entire industry dedicated to the creation of what was known as “Tyrian Purple” from the labor-intensive processing of a particular species of sea snail. It was so costly and taxed so heavily under sumptuary laws, that its use was normally reserved to monarchs. One of my favorite objects in art history featuring this pigment is the magnificent Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a 6th Century illuminated Book of the Gospels that was created for the Byzantine Emperors.

Purple

Later on, the color blue came to hold enormous importance in Western art, from the Middle Ages up through the Baroque era. Although there were many ways to obtain blue from readily available sources such as indigo plants, the most prized and costly type of blue was typically called “aquamarine”. It was made from ground-up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that had to be imported to Europe, primarily from present-day Afghanistan. Aquamarine was so expensive to produce, that many archives still preserve the written contracts between patrons and artists executed during these centuries, specifying the amount, quality, and cost of the highly prized blue pigment to be used in different parts of a particular commission.

The quest for the perfect blue made works such as Philippe de Champaigne’s “Jesus Among The Doctors” (1648), shown below, very expensive to produce. Notice how the blue mantle of the Virgin Mary is a very different hue than the blue of the sky behind her, which would have been painted using a less costly pigment. If you see an Old Master painting like this, where there are figures dressed in blue, and the blue garments seem to glow and stand out from the other blues in the picture, it’s almost certainly a lapis lazuli-based blue paint that you’re looking at.

Finding

With the arrival of the Modern Age, we also arrive at the color dominance of black. If purple was the most prized pigment of the Romans and Byzantines, and costly blue helped to define Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art, then without question black is the single most important color in Modern and Contemporary Art. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the more prominent movements in art history over the last century have relied heavily upon black paint. For example, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” (1937) – arguably the most important painting in all of 20th century Art – is essentially a monochromatic painting, dominated by the color black.

Picasso

Certainly Modern and Contemporary artists have looked to other colors as well, and individual artists are often associated with their use – both Marc Chagall and David Hockney loved blue, for example, albeit very different shades of it. But whether you examine the work of important artists painting in the styles of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, or Pop Art, they’re all relying heavily on the use of the color black – as these examples show:

Magritte

Pollock

Rothko

Warhol

As artists begin to play with these new, incredibly dense blacks, which are unlike any black pigment in the history of art up to now, we are left with some tantalizing questions. Which is better, Vantablack or Singularity Black? What new and interesting works of art will we see emerge from the use of this previously unknown form of black paint? How will these new, technologically advanced pigments hold up over time? Will they continue to grab the eye, centuries from now, in the way that say, a Renaissance painting featuring blues made from lapis lazuli still does? Or will they prove to be little more than a fad, with a limited impact on art history?

Only time will tell.