Incidents in the life of Diego Velázquez, the most prominent artist in 17th-century Spain, as filtered through the consciousness of his mysterious model for the Rokeby Venus.
Velázquez was determined to become a painter at the court of King Philip IV, and to his credit, the king recognized the painter’s genius. Still, there was much court intrigue and plotting to get this sinecure. Mujica exposes the personal side of Velázquez by focusing on his ambition and on his relationship with his wife, Juana, and his daughters, two of whom died. As one might intuit, Velázquez’s domestic relationship was tempestuous. Juana’s father was Francisco Pacheco, an art critic, artist and founder of an art academy, and he recognized the gifts of his son-in-law. Juana was given to fits of jealousy, most of them justified by Velázquez’s outrageous behavior and neglect of familial duties and obligations. On the happy occasion of the birth of Francisca, his first daughter, for example, we’re told that Velázquez “had more important things...to think about,” like getting back to a portrait. We follow Velázquez on his journeys to Italy, during one of which he had an affair and fathered a son. On his return to Spain, he got a commission from an enigmatic patron to paint a nude Venus, a kind of erotic painting proscribed both by custom and by the Inquisition, but Velázquez defied these conventions, using a model with whom he was (again) having an affair.
Mujica’s prose is vigorous and intense, and the story is paradoxically both dark and illuminating.