Compared with some 17th Century painters, our understanding of Velázquez's working method is somewhat limited, and has been a matter of speculation. That he made drawings is certain; his master and father-in-law Francisco Pacheco mentions that as a young student Velázquez drew figure studies from life. He also seems to have made sketches after works of art during his first formative trip to Italy; in a young artist, this was to be expected as part of his training, and it is recorded that he copied compositions by Raphael, Michelangelo and Tintoretto, amongst others. Despite these and other references in period sources, drawings by Velazquez are rare, and some sheets that are attributed to him remained controversial. Some studies have been connected to particular paintings, and would be expected in art artist as careful, considered and complex as Velazquez. A sheet with studies for the Surrender of Breda is in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, which clearly shows the artist working through the poses of some of the principle figures in this most intricate of compositions, and it is reasonable to assume that Velazquez must have employed similar methods in other pictures.2
Whatever Velazquez's habits as a draughtsman might have been, it does appear that he did on occasion made preliminary oil studies for his compositions, as suggested by the present painting. It is not surprising to find, again listed amongst the artist's effects at the time of his death, mention of other pictures which appear to fit this description; presumably such works would have been kept by Velázquez after the final painting had been delivered. References are made to pictures which seem to be oil sketches or unfinished: "167. Otra cabeça de un hombre barbinego, por acavar;.. 170. Un capitán a cavallo, dibujado en pintura."3 At least one example of an oil sketch by Velazquez for a finished picture exists: the beautiful and freely rendered Head of Apollo (now in a private collection), painted as a study for the Forge of Vulcan of 1630 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. 1171). That painting depicts in sharp profile the head of god, his flowing hair crowned with laurel, against a buff and yellow background; the rest of his figure is only suggested by a few loose brown brushstrokes. It is interesting to note that x-ray photographs of the finished Forge of Vulcan in the Prado have revealed that the oil sketch for Apollo's head relates very closely to the original conception of the figure as it was laid in by the artist in the beginning stages of the larger canvas. Lopez-Rey noted that the contours of the head, and that the lighting and the number of laurel leaves were modified by Velazquez as he worked up the composition.4 Clearly, the oil sketch was a tool to be used as a guide which then could be modified as necessary as work on the final painting progressed.
Such divergences from the final composition also exist in the present Saint Anthony. Shown in three quarter profile turned to the right, the figure of Saint Anthony looks heavenward. He wears, anachronistically, the simple brown habit of the Franciscan order. The background is a plain blue, devoid of any detail that would suggest setting or environment for the figure. Only a subtle nimbus around his head confirms his saintly status; indeed, the image lacks any of Saint Anthony's usual attributes, so that without the connection of the canvas to the Prado picture, an exact identification of the saint would have been impossible. In fact, all such iconographic information would have been extraneous to the artist's purpose in the present painting. The scale of the head of the figure, interestingly, is much larger and closer to life size than it appears in the final painting, which suggests that it was created in the initial phases of the creative process. The habit of the Saint is also different; in the Prado canvas, Saint Anthony is wearing a black hooded cloak over a brown robe.
Perhaps more immediate and compelling, however, is a small detail in the background of the picture, which is not of immediate notice. In the upper right of the canvas, at about the level of the eyes of the saint, are what seem to be a few, errant brushstrokes. They are in white, but also a few others that appear to be in brown, and are covered-- although not entirely-- by the blue pigment of the background. These marks are clearly the result of the artist's cleaning extra pigment off of his brush, directly on to the canvas, so that he could load it with a different color. Such a technique, again entirely consistent with a preparatory work which would most likely never have been intended for public display, is one that is seen in well known, and even finished, works of Velazquez. In the grand, full length Portrait of Don Pedro de Barberana y Aparregui (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, inv. 81.14), which is datable to 1631-32 and thus a few years earlier than the likely date of the present painting, there are numerous such marks in the same upper right quadrant of the canvas, in white, brown and even black. These marks, which appear in other works by the artist, suggest an intense and spontaneous working method, one more concerned with the immediacy and spontaneity of the paint surface, rather than a highly finished and polished result.
1. See F.J. Sanchez Cantón, Como vivia Velazquez, inventario descubierto por D.F. Rodriguez Marin, transcripcion y estudio por F.J. Sanchez Cantón, 1942, p. viii.
2. For a discussion of this, please see G. McKim-Smith, "The Problem of Velazquez's Drawings," inMaster Drawings, vol. 18, no. 1, Spring 1980, pp. 3-24. She gives a concise synopsis of the history of attributions of drawings to Velazquez up to that point (starting with the first attempt by Stirling-Maxwell in 1865, which has proven to been entirely rejected by later scholars). McKim-Smith lists 9 drawings she considered autograph, along with a group that are "possibly by" and "questionable". It is interesting to note a rather roughly executed sketch which is a study for the figure of the angel in theChrist after the Flagellation (National Gallery, London, inv. NG1148) which dates to the artist's early maturity, circa 1628-9.
3. Trans: Another head of a man with a black beard, unfinished...170, a Captain on Horseback, sketched in oil (See F.J. Sanchez Cantón, op cit., p. 5).
4. Lopez-Rey, op.cit., vol. II, p. 106, under cat. No. 45.
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