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.

Creating a Habsburg Comic Book

The careful student of history knows that so much of what we think makes us unique or special in contemporary society has far more ancient origins than most of us realize.  For example, human beings love a good story, particularly one about heroic deeds.  People have been telling triumphal tales in many different ways for many centuries, and one such way is through the creation of images.  Now, a newly restored masterpiece from 16th-century Austria gives us a chance to think about how these earlier efforts had a surprising, perhaps unexpected impact on our culture today.

In the past, among the most effective methods of describing adventures and victories was by the use of the tableaux or processional image, featuring an unfolding narrative told through a series of figures and scenes.  Sometimes these efforts were truly massive in scale.  Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, depicts victories of the Emperor Trajan and his processing armies in a carved scroll rising nearly 100 feet high, while the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy is a 230-foot long cloth depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.  Such was the case as well with the massive “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I”, which has recently been restored and put on display at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Created for the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I between 1512-1519, the Triumphal Procession was originally more than 300 feet long, though today only a little more than half of it survives.  It is a series of hand-colored, woodblock prints on parchment, which depict a procession of people, events, and symbols associated with the reign of Maximilian.  The piece symbolized both the power of the crown and celebrated the triumphs of Maximilian’s momentous reign, but unfortunately the Emperor himself died before the project was fully completed.

The importance of Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession to our contemporary culture should not escape the reader’s notice, for in a sense it is both the first comic book, and possibly an early motion picture as well.  The piece  is composed of colored pictures which were bound together end to end, so that the story unfolds as one unrolls the parchments.  Scholars believe that, given its state of preservation, it may have been unrolled in sections, to be read and admired sequentially.  Interestingly, it may even have been attached to some sort of device which allowed it to turn onto a spool – which is the same basic, mechanical principle behind motion picture film projectors, for example.

Because these images were printed, rather than a one-off creation like a sculptural column or an embroidered tapestry, they could be re-produced again and again for as long as the original printing block lasted.  This is why several different printings of the Triumphal Procession are known to still exist, in portions, in other European museums.  Gradually, as printing technology improved and the cost of creating these images decreased, it became possible for a series of related images which tell a story to be created and bound together in sequence, and thereafter distributed relatively cheaply.  Eventually, this led to all sorts of developments, including picture books and illustrated how-to manuals.

Admittedly, I am compressing enormous amounts of time, but we can see how the idea of using multiple, cheaply produced images to tell a story eventually led to the creation of characters like Superman (let alone my experience attempting to adopt his persona/appearance), who have had a tremendous influence on our popular culture.  And with the creation of these popular figures, we later on get the work of artists fascinated by the stories told and the techniques used in the creation of these images, such as American Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, and contemporary British portraitist and painter Julian Opie.  Meanwhile in a separate, parallel development, the idea of a connected strip of images eventually led to the creation of motion pictures, television, and the like.

As stated at the outset, often we do not take the time to appreciate how many contemporary things are conceptually very ancient.  Indeed, in one blog post I cannot touch on everything that led to that something which seems, at least at first glance, to be a modern idea.  Its antecedents can be spotted not just in this important piece of Western art, but also in the art of many other cultures, from Japanese paneled screens to Egyptian tomb paintings.

Yet this single object reminds us that simply because something does not, at first glance, seem very relevant to today, does not mean it should be ignored.  Take the time to be curious about the past, and ask yourself what such objects and concepts meant to people of their time.  By taking the time to learn and study, and to be curious about the world around you, the long-gone Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to memorialize himself may have more relevance to you today, than it did even to the contemporaries of his own time.

Detail from “The Triumphal Procession” by various artists (c. 1512-1519)
Albertina Museum, Vienna