Ghosts on the canvas: the life stories of paintings

Everything Is Happening by Michael Jacobs and The Rape of Europa by Charles FitzRoy.

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These two slim books tell the stories of two great pictures by two of art’s greatest painters: Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), a group portrait showing the Spanish infanta Margarita Teresa and her court retinue, and Titian’s Rape of Europa (1560-62), depicting a scene from Ovid in which another princess, the mythological Europa, is carried off by Jupiter, who has taken the form of a bull. There is a nice symmetry between the books, not least because Titian was Velázquez’s precursor as painter to the Spanish court, serving Philip II (briefly king of England while married to Mary I) as Velázquez later served his grandson Philip IV. Velázquez was also heavily influenced by the older artist and included a depiction of The Rape of Europa in the background of one of his pictures, Las Hilanderas (also known as The Fable of Arachne).

Despite this, the books are very different from each other. Charles FitzRoy’s is a straightforward history of Titian’s painting, describing its life from Philip’s commission for six scenes from Ovid depicting the love between gods and men (a series that became known as the “poesie”) to its later wanderings around Europe and eventual move to the US as a luxurious chattel of the powerful and wealthy. As FitzRoy astutely notes, just as Europa was carried off by the bull, the painting was borne away by whichever was the dominant world power of the time.

The Rape of Europa went from Venice, Titian’s home city state, to Madrid in the 16th century, when Spain was superpower. In the 17th century, when France under Louis XIV began to assert itself, it was first given to the Sun King’s ambassador to Spain, the 4th Duke of Gramont, and then sold to the king’s brother, the Duke of Orléans. After the French Revolution, when Britain was in the ascendant, the painting crossed the Channel and then, as the wheel turned again, it was bought in 1896 – the eve of the American century – by the plutocratic collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. Today it hangs in her eponymous museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

FitzRoy, a direct descendant of Charles II (as the dust jacket notes somewhat unnecessarily), is an efficient chronicler whose interest, appropriately, lies in the painting’s noble owners as much as in the canvas. His book is characterised by long digressions on such topics as the foibles of Philip II (drawn by both sensuality and religion, he had a collection of 1,500 paintings and 7,000 relics, including ten whole saintly bodies, 144 heads and 306 arms and legs) and the “Monuments Men”, the US army unit that found paintings stolen by the ­Nazis during the Second World War, even though The Rape of Europa spent the conflict safely housed in America.

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) / Getty Images

Michael Jacobs’s Everything Is Happening is an altogether more complex affair. Jacobs, a Hispanist and art historian, died of cancer last year. He worked on the book almost to the end and after his death his notes were put in order by his partner, before being bookended with an introduction and a coda by his old friend Ed Vulliamy, who has done Jacobs proud. Even without this sad provenance, it would have been a very personal work. Jacobs’s obsession with Las Meninas (“the ladies-in-waiting”) lay in the picture both as a work of art and as a means to express how paintings should be viewed.

Las Meninas has inspired distinguished artists from Goya and Manet to Picasso (who painted 58 variants of it). The baroque artist Luca Giordano called it “the theology of painting”, and the Regency portraitist Thomas Lawrence praised “the true philo­sophy of the art” in Velázquez’s work. It is a painting full of enigmas. Velázquez shows himself at his easel; to his side are Margarita Teresa and her entourage of court functionaries, together with maids, dwarfs and a dog. In a mirror at the back of the room are reflected the king and queen, Philip IV and Mariana. The perspectival lines of the painting are hard to clarify. The picture could show the scene that the king and queen can see – the artist painting the princess – or it could show Velázquez painting Philip and Mariana, with the spectator standing in the royal couple’s position. As Jacobs puts it, is the viewer looking at the painting or is the painting looking at the viewer?

Jacobs weaves these debates (and comes up with a theory about the painting being a complex memento mori) into his own life story. He first saw the painting as a cocksure schoolboy, studied it properly as a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London (where he also learned to dislike “sunless” academic art history), lectured on it as a tour guide and found it filling his thoughts as he became sick. Like FitzRoy, he traces the painting’s travails, but in this case they are reflections of his own, too: “The deeper I delved into Las Meninas’s past, the more I was uncovering my own.” Along the way, he became increasingly convinced that it is the circumstances in which you see a work of art that determine your response to it.

Jacobs believed that Las Meninas contains “a mystery that could not be solved by conventional art history . . . that of life itself”. This book, part memoir, part meditation, part art-historical study, was his attempt to crack both mysteries. It was, of course, an impossible challenge but he made a brave and poignant stab at it. 

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles