Edinburgh has a fascinating new show of Velzquez's early work. But by excluding great pictures, such as the 'Rokeby Venus' (right), does it give only a partial portrait of the Spanish master? Tim Hilton reports
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The Independent Culture
In most years the National Gallery of Scotland contributes to the Edinburgh Festival with a reassessment of some aspect of Old Master painting. This summer it's the turn of Diego Velzquez, whose fame is such that we feel ourselves on quite knowledgeable terms with his art. But that is not really so. There are some excellent Velzquez paintings in this country but the best of them never leave the Prado. Velzquez has been well served by scholarship. On the other hand there hasn't been a really good book about him since Jose Ortega y Gasset published his account of "probably one of the coolest men in existence" in 1942. There is no English critical tradition to speak of. Velzquez's great champions outside Spain have been French, led by Manet, who called him "the painter of painters. He has astonished me. He has ravished me ... "

Manet had a sublime appetite for Velzquez's paint and true lovers of art will follow him in hungering for more evidence of the Spaniard's sensibility. How odd, for British viewers, to reflect that Velzquez's dates, 1599- 1660, are almost the same as Milton's. The painter seems so experienced, unbigoted and modern. It's therefore a disappointment that we don't experience the fullness of his art in the Edinburgh exhibition. "Velzquez in Seville" covers the artist's earliest period, before he left his native city. He went off to his career at court in Madrid in 1623, when he was 24 years of age. Velzquez already had the marks of greatness in his youth, but it is not surprising that some of the material on display is immature. This is not a large exhibition and its rooms are filled out with paintings and one or two sculptures by Sevillian contemporaries. I fear that the complementary pictures will be mainly appreciated by art historians; and the best autograph works by Velzquez are on the whole familiar, for they come from British public collections.

Well known to us individually, the paintings gain in richness and variety when seen together. I'm thinking of the National Gallery of Scotland's own Old Woman Cooking Eggs, the starting point of the exhibition because the Gallery wished to put this treasure in context. Then come The Water Seller and the Two Young Men at a Table, both from the Wellington Museum at Apsley House, and the London National Gallery's St John the Evangelist on Patmos, the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and the Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Taken as a group, theses pictures provide ample evidence of Velzquez's wide abilities. For here are portraits, interiors, pictures of still-life and more elaborate and official canvases destined to adorn churches and convents.

The still-life pictures are especially precious because this was not a genre that Velzquez pursued once he had become a court painter. And in fact he did not often treat it as a separate subject in his early days. Both the Old Woman Cooking Eggs and The Water Seller incorporate portraits, though their main interest is in inanimate objects. Now we notice the early stirrings of Velzquez's colour sense. Later on, when he had been to Italy and had experience of Venetian art, he would of course be a grander and richer colourist. In Seville he chiefly used earth colours, ochres, brick red and dull mustardy yellows. But already he was using brown without gradation. He wanted it as an independent colour, not as a part of a chiaroscuro scheme. A delicate flatness of hue forms the background of a number of paintings, while many passages hint at the future painter of royalty. These humble eggs, for instance, cooking in a liquid that might be oil or water: the transparency, the yellow and white, would in a few years' time modulate to shimmering tributes to yellow and gold.

Portraiture allied to still-life is one example of the way that the young artist liked to put disparate or even contradictory things onto the same canvas. We might call the results mixed paintings. I think that still- life on its own did not satisfy Velzquez because he had no great love of fixed reality. A principle of his art, culminating in the mysteries of Las Meninas, is that things are not as they seem. In Seville he was already quite nonchalant about his contradictions. He tried different ways of applying paint as he went along. He enlarged some figures and abbreviated others. Tiny sacred scenes are found within secular paintings and we do not know whether they are glimpsed through an aperture in a wall, a mirror or a painting within a painting. Often, Velzquez combines the holy aura of religious art with buffoonery and the manners of the tavern.

One of the fascinating things about "Velzquez in Seville" is that when we see the early paintings together their "mixedness" appears to be the result of confident innovation rather than apprenticeship. We wonder where such innovation will lead, and so the Edinburgh display leaves the visitor with a longing for the mature Velzquez. The exhibition introduces us to the painter, and then it stops. But we want to know about the painter who so overwhelmed Manet - and could claim mastery over Picasso in the late 1950s. Furthermore, we are curious to find links between the Sevillian apprentice and the supreme painter of Venus and Cupid (the National Gallery's "Rokeby Venus") and Las Meninas, a canvas which is the major glory of the Prado Museum, and which makes even Goya look dated and provincial.

I think that connection lies in the development of an attitude, perhaps the way of looking at life that Ortega y Gasset called "coolness". Velzquez was the first painter to make clear that he realised the conventions of painting were only conventions, not binding rules. The modern world has appreciated Goya for his prophetic understanding of terror. Velzquez has been loved for his subtleties, his constant hints that things are not as they seem, that permanent art is snatched from mutability. Little wonder that Manet appreciated (and, in his own work, exaggerated) Velzquez's alternation of casualness with painterly virtuosity, his disregard for correctness, his fastidious palette and rather offhand way of composing his pictures.

That sort of superior attitude Velzquez learnt, or taught himself, in his Seville period. The great help in assuming an aristocratic tone was the fact that he was a prodigy. Lots of painters are capable of surprising feats while still in their teens. Velzquez's precocious talent is more significant, for he completed a tendency that had already been present in Spanish art. This was naturalism. With great ease, he could paint things as they were, without looking at previous masters and also without using preparatory drawings. Thus he was free from influence almost before he started. A little before Velzquez's time, Spanish art had excelled in being descriptive, as we know from its still-life traditions. From around 1620 Velzquez had command over such verisimilitude. Yet he felt that naturalism was not a goal, simply another part of his painterly equipment.

As is often said, The Water Seller was painted to show what he could do. We still marvel at the way Velzquez represented the jugs, the glass and the old man's stoic features. There is a theory, though, that the young man was wanting in some aspects of his practice. Figures are often out of proportion, says this theory, perspective is not fully controlled, the design of the pictures is often faultful. I think we should be wary of these strictures. All great artists fudge perspective for their own personal ends, and if Velzquez was lacking in "correctness" at an early age this may have been good training for the terrific vagaries of his later work. Personally I like the odd imbalances of some canvases, and the feeling that parts of the painting come from some different picture. This is so of the National Gallery of Ireland's Kitchen Maid With the Supper at Emmaus, a "mixed" picture which combines the sacred with the secular, and with some insouciance mingles the genres of religious painting with still-life and the interiors that the Spanish call bodegones.

As a comparatively straight religious picture, I reproduce The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. It must have been perfect for the religious taste of Seville in the early 17th century, but that appears to me to be its weakness. Velzquez was more likely to paint to order when supplying a church or convent than when he was employed by the King. Anyway he was not innocent enough to be truly a sacred painter. If it is correct that El Greco was the last artist to be wholly a religious man then it might also be said that Velzquez was the first artist to accomplish sacred subjects, and make major art from them, when his thoughts and beliefs were elsewhere. Perhaps I would not think this if I were a Spanish Catholic. And perhaps I would be more taken with the religious painting in Edinburgh had I not returned to London to look at the "Rokeby Venus" in the National Gallery, a picture most unsuitable for monks.

The Edinburgh show starts us on Velzquez's trail but cannot explain the dilemma of his life, which is that he was a court painter. Certainly his visits to Italy and his acquaintance with Rubens have their importance. None the less the court at Madrid claimed him. Really he lived for the court. Ortega y Gasset thought that above all he wished to be an aristocrat, yet was only a painter on a wage. I suppose this is true, and it may account for Velzquez's constant suggestions that everything in life is artifice. He can never have been happy. What courtier was ever happy? In our republican age we forget the horrors of life around royalty. Yet the intrigues, the false friendships, the insane etiquette, can be imagined; and we know about the grandiose palaces, inflated art, the disregard for the peasantry and, worst of all, the vain wars.

In such circumstances Velzquez formed his defensive and aloof manner. Alas, he abandoned large areas of art. We know only six mythological subjects. Many people have wished that his subject pictures were more numerous and his portraits of royalty not such an important part of his oeuvre. Our greatest regret is that royal duties meant the loss of Velzquez as a painter of the nude. In all his life he produced only one picture of a naked woman. Suppose the "Rokeby Venus" had been one of a series of such subjects? A group of paintings of this sort would have been comparable - and what an influence they might have had, on monks, artists and all other humans!

At least we have this unique painting, solitary because it hasn't had much influence on later art, however much it is cherished by heart and eye. The creamy light-pink pigment that depicts the body of Venus, quite different in handling from the flurries and smoothings of the grey-blue coverlet and red drapes of the background, make an economical symphony of Velzquez's best painterly manner. The elongated lines that mark out the contours of the body have no equivalent either in Velzquez's work or Spanish painting as a whole. Of course the painting has little real relationship with mythology. The emblematic figure of Cupid claims, as it were, that the young woman is Venus. She does not herself claim to be a goddess. Her small size - evidently she is about five feet two - and natural coiffure emphasise that a real and living woman is represented.

The nature of this delectable painting is partly explained by the character of its first owner, the wealthy womaniser Gaspar de Haro, Velzquez's best patron outside court circles. Apparently the canvas was placed on the ceiling of a room in his house, and this surely was a bedroom. There is no doubt that the picture has an erotic nature. Yet its aestheticism chastens that nature, while Velzquez introduces his characteristic nuances of contradictory meaning. Cupid's mirror ought to reflect the woman's bosom rather than her face. In reality the reflection of her features would be smaller. Actually the mirror's image is like a blurred fragment of a remembered painting; and much sadness is found there, for such a painting represents an older woman.

Sadness is a deep characteristic of Velzquez's art, and led to its abandonment. He was too suave to be a tragedian. Venus and Cupid is not a vanitas for Velzquez was not so dramatic as to suggest such a theme. He knew enough about the vanity of human affairs and ambitions. Court life had taught him that activities in the world's most exalted places were bound to be fruitless. This he accepted. Furthermore, so much did he accept the court's hegemony that he gave up painting, choosing to serve as a functionary.

In the last 20 years of his life, from around 1640, Velzquez painted no more than two pictures a year and in some years produced nothing at all. He was occupied as the person who looked after the adornment of Philip IV's palace. Velzquez hung state apartments with paintings that he must have known to be inferior to his own. History gives us no other example of a major artist, with his abilities at their height, who just laid down his brush to work as an administrator. No one has an explanation for this abandonment of purpose. I believe that the futility of court life inspired his masterpiece, Las Meninas. One of the world's great pictures, inspired by futility ... that is the saddest thing of all.

! National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (0131 556 8921), to 20 Oct.