Velzquez in Scotland: less than meets the eye

Is the National Gallery of Scotland being economical with the truth about the subject of its latest show?

The first grey light of dawn creeps up over the hillside hinting at the promise of a new day. But it is not the dawn that illuminates the group of figures in Velzquez's exquisitely tenebrous Adoration of the Magi but a quite unnatural light, falling on them from high on the left. The light of the Star principally falls on two figures - a serene Madonna and the small Christ Child that she holds - an extraordinary child with the neatly coiffured head of a 40-year-old priest. What better depiction, though, of their Saviour for the novices of the Jesuit Novitiate of San Luis in Seville, for which this picture was painted in 1619.

But the true focus of the picture lies elsewhere. The painter's real interest is in the man on the right - St Joseph (a half-lit profile) - who gazes in wonder at his wife and child. The 20-year-old Velzquez may have been commissioned to produce a classic, didactic Madonna and Child, but he has managed to imbue it with something of his growing fascination with the human condition. He brings to this painting, as to all of his religious works, a simple humanity. Similarly, his bodegones - the low- life paintings that made up the other side of his early work - possess a sense of everyday spirituality.

This duality is the secret of the young Velzquez currently examined in a show at the National Gallery of Scotland. Here is a portrait of a young man on the verge of self-discovery, using convention to explore the preoccupations that will, in time, make him one of the greatest artists the world has ever known.

The name "Velzquez" is extraordinarily emotive - guaranteeing that this year's Edinburgh Festival crowds will flock to this much-publicised exhibition. In effect, though, its incorporation into the title of the show seems no more than a clever marketing ploy by the gallery's director, Tim Clifford - by now a consummate master at crowd-pulling. Indeed, even as I toured the four galleries that make up this show, the ubiquitous Mr Clifford (who had only that morning made an appearance on Radio Scotland) was there, surrounded by TV cameras and sound equipment, bringing art into the public eye with a spirited (and, in the event, successful) eleventh- hour appeal to save a Guercino for the nation. This man may be a scholar of Renaissance art - but surely his bedtime reading is Machiavelli.

The British public has enjoyed a 100-year-long love affair with Diego Velzquez - largely inspired by critical interest in him during the 1890s, when R A M (Bob) Stevenson (cousin of Robert Louis) wrote, in an influential monograph, "From the first he shows sensitiveness to form, and the taste for solid and direct painting." The Velzquez we have come to know is the artist of grand court portraits - the painter of Las Meninas and the Rokeby Venus. He is the artist described by Sister Wendy Beckett in her current TV series as "unique, one of the very greatest of painters". But this is far from the Velzquez currently on view in Scotland.

If you're expecting a Velzquez blockbuster along the lines of Cezanne or the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Arts' own current Giacometti show, a mile away, you will be disappointed. For, while Velzquez in Seville contains some 50 works, only 20 are by the hand of the master. There are three works after Velzquez, two studio works and seven pieces by Velzquez's teacher, Francisco Pacheco. The rest of the exhibition is a curious, if scholarly, collection of connections and mood-setters, including a group of interesting polychrome wood sculptures of saints. But to blazon Velzquez's name seems optimistic in the extreme. Rather, this show should be called Religious and Low-Life Paintings and Artefacts in Seville, 1610 to 1623. Fine for a thesis - or a Mastermind specialist subject - but hardly the sort of title guaranteed to send ticket sales into overdrive or to set the cash tills ringing with sales of catalogues, postcards, fridge magnets and all the other gewgaws that now appertain to every major public exhibition.

It is true that, along with the superlative Adoration of the Magi, the exhibition does include several other gems from Velzquez's oeuvre - a series of saints that demonstrate an increasing interest in characterisation; the Waterseller of Seville from the V&A; the National Gallery's Immaculate Conception, and the enigmatic Old Woman Cooking Eggs. This last work has long been one of the National Gallery of Scotland's own most popular exhibits, and it is not hard to imagine the scene, some months ago, when an inspired curator - possibly even Mr Clifford himself - came up with the bright idea of using it as the peg on which to hang this year's festival show.

A few phone calls - to friends at the V&A, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (source of the gallery's recent watercolour exhibition) and, of course, to Seville and Madrid, and you have your show.

That is not to say that this is not a worthwhile venture; experienced as an exercise in our understanding of the development of an artist's technique, it is extremely useful.

But, ultimately, it is as dry as the cracked and wizened face of Mother Jeronima de la Fuente who stares down at us from Velzquez's two versions of her portrait. It is not helped by the hang - in which Mr Clifford, as is his way, has "skied" too many of the pictures; nor by the lighting of two of its four rooms, whose yellow walls do nothing to project the artist's palette, producing instead a jaundiced glow. It is fortunate that the only painting in this show that offers a clue to the artist's subsequent greatness - the small Portrait of a Man with a Ruff - is hung close enough to the entrance to avoid this torpor.

It is this image - the severe stare floating in the darkness, above a ruff painted characteristically "wet-on-wet", with trailing ribbons of heavy white that betray a growing preoccupation with capturing the essence of light - that we must keep in mind if we are to come away from this exhibition with any understanding of what the name Velzquez really can convey.

n 'Velzquez in Seville', National Gallery of Scotland. To 20 Oct

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?