Velazquez draws record crowds to London exhibition

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The Independent Online

It is the fastest-selling show in the National Gallery's history, a once in a lifetime chance to survey the career of one of the world's greatest artists.

More than 14,000 people snapped up tickets to Velazquez (1599-1660) before it opened, and 3,500 people poured through the doors in the first two days it was open to the public.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the gallery's director, jokingly admitted it was good to discover how many new influential friends he had as curators from across Europe tried to bag an early view.

This weekend will be the first major test of crowd control techniques meant to shuttle 220 visitors into the show every half-hour.

The exhibition takes the nine paintings in the National Gallery's own collection - the largest collection outside the Museo del Prado in Spain - as its core but expands it with works from the Prado and other museums.

It spans the career of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, from his beginnings in Seville to his appointment as court painter to King Philip IV in Madrid. The National Gallery decided to relocate part of the permanent collection to the Sainsbury Wing, where temporary exhibitions are normally held, so as to be able to use the greater space of its permanent galleries, which also have natural light.

Dawson Carr, the curator, said the consequence was - for the time-being at least - that it was far easier to view the exhibition than any of its predecessors.

"We made a lot of sacrifices in order to do it upstairs, but it's working," he said. "We're getting through about the same number of people that would have packed the Sainsbury Wing space but it's much more comfortable for everyone. It's a wonderful time to come, though I don't know how long that will last."

What was particularly gratifying was how quiet the audiences were. "People are really looking. That's 99 per cent Velazquez, but in a curatorial sense it benefits from being [only] 46 works - four big rooms - so people can concentrate," Mr Carr said.

The exhibition opens with a selection of "bodegone" scenes - ordinary people in settings amid food and drink, such as The Waterseller of Seville, borrowed from Apsley House in London - and of religious works.

Then there are works from before and after the artist's first visit to Italy in 1630, his portrayals of court life and the so-called "Rokeby Venus", one of the gems in the National Gallery's collection. The Venus, his only surviving female nude, was bought for the gallery a century ago by the Art Fund charity, then newly founded. Dawson Carr described Velazquez as "a real hardcore artist, constantly pushing the envelope".

And even the simplest subject, such as a waterseller or a dwarf, was treated with "almost sacramental gravity" by the artist.