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VELAZQUEZ PAINTINGS ON DISPLAY AT N.Y. MUSEUM

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The first show devoted exclusively to the works of the 17th century Spanish master Velazquez, considered by many to be one of the greatest painters ever, is currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

Velazquez's style, with its sensual, free-flowing, almost casual brush strokes combined with penetrating psychological insight, has always been held in the greatest awe."He was the consummate master, the way he rendered things with great freedom and yet with such control," said Philip de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum.

"Manet said he was the greatest painter of all time, the painter's painter he called him, and much of the enduring popularity of the Prado is due to Velazquez," he added.

The show does not contain his most important work, "Las Meninas," or "The Ladies-in-Waiting," which the contemporary painter Frank Stella called in a recent New York Times article the "greatest painting of all time."

The complex masterpiece, which depicts the child princess, or infanta, Margarita surrounded by her attendants and servants beside a portrait of Velazquez himself apparently painting the king and queen, was considered too fragile to ship from the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

However, the Met show does contain almost half Velazquez's entire output and is especially rich in portraits from the Spanish court.

Key paintings include "The Waterseller of Seville," a number of portraits of his patron, King Philip IV of Spain, "The Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback" and "The Infanta Margarita."

The portraits of the king, complete with the massive Hapsburg lower lip and jaw, from the first portraits in the early 1620s to the final one in 1657 reflect the waning fortunes of the Spanish Empire during Velazquez's lifetime.

From the start the monarch's face shows the lonely wariness of a man who was considered the representative of God.

He retains that aloofness but the last portrait shows a man dejected and worn down by personal tragedy and the decline of his kingdom. After his death in 1666, France under Louis XIV was to become the leading power in Europe.

Similarly, while the portrait of Olivares, who sits in martial splendor on a rearing charger, seems to reflect only the subject's glory, his backward glance hints at the vainglory that was to lead to his undoing and fall from grace in 1643.

"Velazquez's work is extraordinarily accessible in a sense because he does not enter into it, allowing the viewer to penetrate the images," said de Montebello.

Thus in 1653, the king wrote in a letter that he was unwilling to sit for Velazquez "to witness how I am growing older."

And Pope Innocent X's first words on seeing his portrait were: "Troppo vero," or "Too true (to life)."

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was born in 1599 in Seville, the son of a lawyer of Portuguese descent. He was apprenticed to Francisco Pacheco, a mediocre painter but influential writer, from 1611 to 1617. He married Pacheco's daughter in 1618 and subsequently had two daughters.

His early paintings were "Bodegones," or kitchen scenes, a style that he quickly mastered.

"The Waterseller of Seville" is a masterpiece, with the old man offering with one hand a glass of water to a young boy while his other hand rests on an enormous clay water jug.

The artist took the painting with him to Madrid in 1623 when the influential Olivares, then Philip IV's all-powerful favorite, summoned him to paint a portrait of the king.

Philip took a personal liking to the phlegmatic and solitary artist and in October appointed him Court Painter. He was to remain associated with the court for the rest of his life, but his duties went beyond painting to intimate involvement in the court's bureaucracy.

Only a month before his death in August 1660, he supervised the marriage of Philip's eldest daughter, the Infanta Maria Teresa, to Louis XIV of France.

These official functions partly explain the fact he painted only about 100 paintings.

In 1628 Velazquez met the Flemish painter-courtier Peter Paul Rubens, who persuaded him to visit Italy, where in 1630 he came under the influence of the Italian masters and subsequently painted a number of mythological works as well as portraits of the Spanish court.

He revisited Italy in 1650, principally to purchase pictures and antiquities for the royal collection in Madrid. While there he also painted the portrait of the pope and, according to recent findings, became involved in a love affair that resulted in the birth of a son.

Toward the end of his career, Velazquez concentrated on painting the king, his new queen, Mariana, and their children as well as the dwarves and buffoons who were a constant feature of the court.

Philip had suffered a double personal tragedy in the early 1640s with the death of both his queen and son. Desperate for an heir, he subsequently married his niece.

The portraits of Queen Mariana as well as those of the royal children, known as infantas or infantes depending on their gender, are considered some of Velasquez's finest work.

With wispy brush strokes he captured their fine silks and elaborate hair styles at the same time as the sense of isolation that resulted from the stupefying court etiquette.

Similarly, the portraits of the dwarves and buffoons are not only painterly masterpieces but also sympathetic portraits of creatures who were an integral part of court life but referred to contemptuously as "palace vermin."

Throughout his career Velazquez sought to establish himself as a courtier of the highest standing, in particular by being named a knight of the Order of Santiago, Spain's most important chivalric order.

"It counted a lot for him because it was closely linked to his sense that painting was a noble art, not just a craft," said de Montebello. "He needed lifting of himself to elevate the art of painting to the level of an intellectual activity."

The king finally awarded him the order in 1659, a year before his death.

The show, sponsored by Banco Hispano Americano, will run until Jan. 7 and will not travel.