Among the notable prophets of the new and true–Rubens, Rembrandt, Claude Lorraine–Velasquez was the newest and certainly the truest from our point of view. He showed us the mystery of light as God made it.
There be, among writing men, those who please the populace, and also that Elect Few who inspire writers. When Horace Greeley gave his daily message to the world, every editor of any power in America paid good money for the privilege of being a subscriber to the “Tribune.” The “Tribune” had no exchange-list–if you wanted the “Tribune” you had to buy it, and the writers bought it because it wound up their clocks–set them agoing–and they either carefully abstained from mentioning Greeley or else went in right valiantly and exposed his vagaries.
Greeley may have been often right, and we now know he was often wrong, but he infused the breath of life into his words–his sentences were a challenge–he made men think. And the reason he made men think was because he himself was a thinker.
Among modern literary men, the two English writers who have most inspired writers are Carlyle and Emerson. They were writers’ writers. In the course of their work, they touched upon every phase of man’s experience and endeavor. You can not open their books anywhere and read a page without casting about for your pencil and pad. Strong men infuse into their work a deal of their own spirit, and their words are charged with a suggestion and meaning beyond the mere sound. There is a reverberation that thrills one. All art that lives is thus vitalized with a spiritual essence: an essence that ever escapes the analyst, but which is felt and known by all who have hearts that throb and souls that feel.
Strong men make room for strong men. Emerson and Carlyle inspired other men, and they inspired each other–but whether there be warrant for that overworked reference to their “friendship” is a question. Some other word surely ought to apply here, for their relationship was largely a matter of the head, with a weather-eye on Barabbas, and three thousand miles of very salt brine between them. Carlyle never came to America: Emerson made three trips to England; and often a year or more passed without a single letter on either side. Tammas Carlyle, son of a stone-mason, with his crusty ways and clay pipe, with personality plus, at close range would have been a combination not entirely congenial to the culminating flower of seven generations of New England clergymen–probably not more so than was the shirt-sleeved and cravatless Walt, when they met that memorable day by appointment at the Astor House.
Our first and last demand of Art is that it shall give us the artist’s best. Art is the mintage of the soul. All the whim, foible, and rank personality are blown away on the winds of time–the good remains.
Of artists who have inspired artists, and who being dead yet live, Velasquez stands first.
“Velasquez was a painters’ painter–the rest of us are only painters.” And when the man who painted “Symphonies in White” further explained that a picture is finished when all traces of the means used to bring about the end have disappeared–for work alone will efface the footsteps of work–he had Velasquez in mind.
The subject of this sketch was born in the year Fifteen Hundred Ninety-nine, and died in Sixteen Hundred Sixty. And while he lived there also lived these: Shakespeare, Murillo, Cervantes, Rembrandt and Rubens.
As an artist and a man Velasquez was the equal, in his way, of any of the men just named. Ruskin has said, “Everything that Velasquez does may be regarded as absolutely right.” And Sir Joshua Reynolds placed himself on record by saying, “The portrait of Pope Innocent the Tenth by Velasquez, in the Doria Gallery, is the finest portrait in all Rome.” Yet until the year Seventeen Hundred Seventy-six, a date Americans can easily remember, the work of Velasquez was scarcely known outside of Spain. In that year Raphael Mengs wrote: “How this painter, greater than Raphael or Titian, truer far than Rubens or Van Dyck, should have been lost to view is more than I can comprehend. I can not find words to describe the splendor of his art!”