A Golden Age
Tom Roberts and the Arts of Spain

“Going to Spain? That’s all right, my boy. Velazquez won’t knock you down.”
John Everett Millais to Frank Holl, 1888.[1]

Tom Roberts traversed Spain from late summer and into the autumn of 1883, studying its Old Masters, Velazquez and Murillo, while on the lookout for subjects to meet the English appetite for Moorish themes. As ever, he intended to have a good time. Faux Spanishness had become a fashion even before Napoleon III married a minor Spanish aristocrat, Eugenie de Montijo, in 1853. Edouard Manet launched his career around 1860 with images of the Spanish dance troupes that followed her Imperial Highness to Paris. Georges Bizet expected to cash in on the sentiment with Carmen, which had its London premiere in 1878.

A taste for Iberia had reached Melbourne by the 1860s. Among the first acquisitions by the National Gallery of Victoria was French Artists Taking their Siesta in a Spanish Posada (1862) by Jules Vibert. In 1871, the Gallery obtained Edwin Long’s A Question of Propriety, in which monks watch a Spanish Gypsy Dancer. Roberts helped to pay his way back to England in 1881 by selling a copy of the Long. Roberts went to Spain intending to produce his version of the Vibert. The surviving example closest to that project is the small panel, Basking in the Alhambra (1883). Both show somnambulant figures. From the scarcity of works by Roberts in Spain, we can conclude that he had done likewise. He spent his waking hours watching bullfights, learning the guitar, carousing in taverns by night and sobering up in the Roman baths during the day.

Roberts journeyed with a fellow art student John Peter Russell and his architect brother Percy. Most of what we know of their experience comes from the 1933 reminiscences of the fourth member of their party, William Maloney, a medical student and later a Labor member of parliament. Roberts traveled on about five shillings a week, perhaps subsidised by his wealthy companions. They entered Spain through the Basque country, in August, moving on to Madrid, Cordoba, Seville and Malaga before reaching Granada by 12 September. Roberts made notes about a few of the masterpieces he saw but seems not to have attempted to copy any, then an esteemed method of training.

The Spain that Roberts encountered was riven by civil war, its peasantry priest-ridden, its kitchens overrun by vermin and its beds a playground for lice. Only the hardy looked forward to venturing there. The Prado, by contrast, was Mecca to the connoisseur, with Velázquez its Prophet. In 1882, the National Gallery in London had paid 6,000 guineas for his full-length portrait of Phillip IV. For practicing artists, the Alhambra at Granada served as Medina.

Precious metals from the Americas had underwritten a Golden Age in Spanish Painting in the seventeenth century. Two jewels in that crown were Diego Rodriquez de Silva Velázquez (1599-1660) and Bartolome Estaban Murillo (1617-82). Impressionist painters from Manet to Whistler claimed Velázquez as their progenitor. By the 1870s, Murillo was one of the three most copied artists in London’s National Gallery, admired for his “holiness and homeliness” more than his technique. In Victoria, the Trustees of the National Gallery had sought copies of a Velázquez and a Murillo in 1865, but acquired only one of the latter’s Virgin with the Rosary. Fake Murillos graced mansions in Toorak and the Western District.

The triumph of the School of Paris has overwritten the significance that Velázquez held for the painters whose careers crossed as they took one of the paths through the broad field of Impressionism. Roberts was not the prime conduit for this influence back into Melbourne’s younger artists, his contribution bobbing on a tide of adulation.[2]

Velázquez developed a technical facility which he applied to quotidian subject matter as well as to Court portraits. He explored ways of creating spatial depth which did not depend on geometry, deploying light to place people and objects on different planes, with the family portrait now titled Las Meninas the best known of these achievements. The mature Velázquez offered contradictory appeals to late nineteenth-century painters. Some admired his presentation of a world freed from idealisations, as with the casualness of his Aesop. Others, looking long at his representation of fabrics, were charmed by their rosy or silver tones, conveyed through a loose yet suave brushwork. Landscape artists seized on his two tiny oils of the Villa Medici as a licence to paint en plein air.

Different as Velázquez and Murillo were, their English and French admirers found one quality in common. Each had depicted the doings of poor folk with the eye of a naturalist. An early Velázquez has an old woman frying eggs. Murillo’s urchins were unwashed. Roberts took such application of genius to the everyday as permission to venture into shearing sheds. Inserting the Classical device of figura serpentina for the boyish wool-carrier on the left of Shearing the Rams (1890), Roberts could claim the authority of the Velázquez who had peopled his mythopoeia with the peasants of his own time.

Younger artists came to view Velázquez as stylist through the prism of Manet (Vibert’s brother-in-law) who got around to visiting the Prado in 1865. He modeled his Le Fifre (1866) after the Velázquez portrait of the actor Pablo de Valladolid which Manet considered as “perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting ever created … The background disappears; it is air which surrounds the fellow.”[3] In 1885, James McNeill Whistler praised Velázquez for having made “his people live within their frames, and stand upon their legs.”[4] He had put those words into practice with his 1884 portrait of the Spanish violin virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, which Roberts called “the finest painting he had seen by any living man.”[5] Roberts followed suit during the 1890s with a suite of panel portraits, including one of the violinist, Johann Secundus Kruse.[6]

A less strenuous path to Velazquez wound through the Paris atelier of Charles Carolus-Duran (1838-1917) who had made himself into a gentleman through his painting, as did Roberts. Ramon Casas y Carbos (1866-1932) left his native Barcelona to study with Carolus-Duran. Early in 1883, this teenager made a name for himself in Paris by a Self-portrait with Andalusian costume. Nothing in that work suggested either proto-Impressionism or Velázquez. Its brushwork was as taut as the costume around the boy’s buttocks. Next, Casas spent four months in the Prado studying Velázquez, Goya and Tintoretto. Shortly afterward, in the company of another young Catalan painter, Laureano Barrau, he went to Granada where they ran into Roberts whose portrait Casas painted. The contrast with his self-portrait and its free-flowing strokes could not be greater.

Commentators have been eager to explain a drift in Roberts’s art-making towards the School of Paris by latching onto this encounter. Had that meeting never happened, the difference in the course of Roberts’s art practice would not be noticeable.

Barrau studied under Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) who told his classes to paint a direct sketch everyday, yet denounced the Impressionists. For the 9x5 catalogue in 1889, Roberts quoted a remark by Gerome: “When drawing, the important thing is form; but in painting the first thing to look for is the general impression of colour.” He might have heard Barrau regurgitate that precept in 1883. He could have read it in the February issue of the U.S. Century Magazine, popular in the city’s art circles.

Traveling light constrained the size of any works that Roberts attempted in Spain. The surviving pieces include A Moorish Doorway (1883), Una Muchacha (1883), A water carrier (1883), and A seated Arab (1883). Also, Roberts was a studio worker, meticulous, not someone to set up his easel anywhere. Perhaps even the works known to have been started around Granada received finishing touches in London.

A Spanish Beauty (1883-84) epitomises such uncertainty. The title and the physiognomy encourage the belief that it was done in Spain, though it is undated. Was this work of an English lady in fancy dress? Casas had portrayed himself in a regional costume remote from his Catalonian heritage. The social columns were replete with accounts of costume Balls when the leaders of Society reveled in Spanishness. In the Catalogue Raisonne, the item following A Spanish Beauty is a crayon of a girl in Elizabethan dress.[7] In 1893, Roberts painted Lena Brasch as An Eastern Princess. Without documentation, we can decide the authenticity neither of the location nor the model.[8]

To accept that Roberts made A Spanish Beauty in Spain is to raise a question mark over the sitter. To what class of woman would a penniless artist have gained access? Maloney recalled Roberts’s flirtations with women in the inns. When he exhibited the portrait at the Australian Art Association early in 1887, one critic offered to “give five years of his life to arrange the folds of her lace mantilla.”[9] It is possible that men had done a deal more for much less. Streeton never forgot the impression that this small portrait had made on their artistic circle.

When Roberts decorated his Grosvenor studio in 1888, he repeated the eclecticism to which he resorted on canvas. He juxtaposed exotica - Japanoiserie, Arabic rugs, and gum-tips in an Ali Baba jar. He greeted callers with “Entre usti”. “Diego” became Fred McCubbin’s nickname for Roberts. The lessons in self-promotion that Roberts drew from Duran and Whistler fed into the publicity around the 9x5 Exhibition during the winter of 1889.

The most enduring influence on Roberts from his encounter with the Moorish imagination was a self-destructive determination to depict an incident from The Arabian Nights, an unexpurgated translation appearing 1883. On and off for nearly thirty years, Roberts returned to the theme of The Sleeper Awakened, with its bevy of Oriental dancing girls. The Royal Academy twice rejected versions before accepting the work – now lost – in 1913. The effort fettered Roberts in his fifties, revealing how remote he was from the contemporary currents in painting. The subject he pursued had been losing favour when he took it up in the early 1880s.

The Sleeper Awakened was not the only backward-looking obsession that Roberts took away from Europe. The allegories of the English portraitist, George Frederick Watts(1817-1904), whose “Hall of Fame” and “Hall of Life” sequences exercised a fascination over Roberts, which we now strain to credit. Of course, Watts had a reputation as a portrait painter. Face-making was a chore, yet it was a way to earn one’s living while mixing with the class of persons most likely to buy one’s other work. Velázquez also underwrote portraiture as art of the first rank.

Roberts never lost sight of Velázquez.[10] Struggling with the compositional difficulties he faced in The Sleeper Awakened, he went on successive Thursdays in 1909 to the National Gallery to copy what was then believed to be a Velázquez portrait bust of Phillip IV, but is now known to be a fine copy by a pupil. Roberts’s attempt to regain his eye dispirited him. Each week when he returned, he recognised that his effort lacked both “the subtlety” of his model “and “the way the pigments have been floated & flickered on … no cleverness!”[11] 

Despite a lifetime of wandering, Roberts never revisited Spain although, in 1925, he remembered it as the best time he had ever had in travel. As he penned that line he could see the “brilliant sketch head by Leon Casas full of life and not dating.” [12] More telling is that he never shook off the belief that inspiration depended on hunting down subjects in antique lands.

Four years in Europe left Roberts with the confidence and authority to stare down artists and critics in Australia. He clinched his arguments by reminding opponents that he had been there, had seen the Old Masters, and had heard the leaders of today for himself.  In pondering the importance that a few weeks in Spain had on Roberts and, through him, on Australian Impressionism, we should not forget that Whistler never set foot in the country. His showmanship convinced buyers that he had absorbed the lessons of Velázquez at their source.

[1] W. Gaunt, Victorian Olympus, Cardinal, London, 1975, p. 164; Millais was mistaken since Holl died a few weeks after returning from Madrid, aged 46.

[2] Alfred Daplyn had brought back the good news of Velázquez through his studies with Carolus-Duran, earning the epithet “impressionist” (Argus, 25 March 1882, p. 13); in Sydney, he taught Conder. With the arrival of L. Bernard Hall in 1892 as Director of the National Gallery of Victoria and of its art schools, Velázquez acquired his most powerful champion. At once, the Gallery purchased the copy by E. Phillips Fox of Velázquez’s Las Borachios. Fox had also exhibited a copy of Hilanderas; Hall described the original as “a picture within a picture, and shows how deeply the artist was interested in optical pictorial problems, for the management of the light is not less admirable than the unstudied arrangement of the various figures introduced.”  He thanked Fox “for having brought out two such careful copies of pictures which are regarded as priceless.” (Argus, 6.12.92: 7, cf 23 June 1906: 4 for Hall’s response to the Rokeby “Venus”.) Making a Velasquez copy became an unstated codicil to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Traveling Scholarship. John Longstaff sent his Aesop (1890). (Australian Critic, December 1890, p. 75) James Quinn presented Portrait of the Infanta Marguerita in 1895 and Constance Jenkins forwarded her copy of Admiral Puledo Parija in 1910. Hugh Ramsay bought a copy of R. A. M. Stevenson’s Velázquez in Paris in 1901. George Coates, George Lambert, Lionel Lindsay, Charles Wheeler and Jock Frater paid homage. In the early 1900s, the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales placed the name of Velázquez alongside Murillo’s around their new building. Max Meldrum founded a school of tonalism, worshipping Velázquez as fervently as he denied ties to Impressionism. The sole dissenter was Norman Lindsay who recognised the influence of Velázquez as much as he deplored how “the coldest, most static and lifeless of artists” had “devastated modern art”. (Home, December 1921: 94) Australian Decorator and Painter editorialised that Velázquez should be the exemplar for interior design, in opposition to art nouveau, which lacked “the elements of permanency”. (October 1923: 1 & 22) The Sydney lawyer, A. B. Piddington, published two articles on Velázquez after his 1912 travels in Spanish Sketches, Milford, London, 1915, pp. 26-44. During the 1930s and 1940s, the leading commercial gallery in Melbourne was called Velázquez.

[3] From Madrid, Manet wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour: “C’est le peintre des peintres. Il ne m’a pas etonne, mais m’a ravi … Le morceau le plus etonnant de cet oeuvre splendide, et peut-etre le plus etonnant morceau de peinture qu’on ait jamais fait, c’est le tableau indique au catalogue: portrait d’un actor celebre au temps de Philippe IV. Le fond disparait: c’est de l’air qui entoure le bonhomme, tout habille de noir et vivant.” quoted in Manet, 1832-1883, Editions de la Reunion des musees nationaux, Paris, 1983, p. 244.

[4] J. A. McN. Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, William Heinemann, London, 1890, p. 158.
[5] Tom Roberts letter to R. Anning Bell, 5 October 1885, ML MS A2840/69; In 1898, Whistler depicted himself as Valladolid.
[6] H. McQueen, “An Association of Natives”, T. Bonyhady and A. Sayers (eds), Heads of the People, A Portrait of Colonial Australia, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000, pp. 101-04.
[7] Helen Topliss, Tom Roberts, 1856-1931, A Catalogue Raisonee, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 85.
[8] M. Maynard documented the popularity of dressing up, “Julian Ashton’s Spring: a Case for Australian Dress studies”, Australian Journal of Art, IV, 1985, pp. 51-64.

[9]  Australian Life (Tit-Bits), 3 March 1887, p. 14.
[10] In 1885, Russell forwarded photographs of five of Velázquez paintings in the Prado, along with notes on how he himself was learning to reset his palette. In 1901, Roberts could assert that he had become an admirer before the study by R. A. M. Stevenson had turned the esteem for Velázquez into a craze. In 1906, Roberts admired the Rokeby Venus when it entered the National Gallery, priced at ₤45,000, a measure of the Spaniard’s soaring reputation. On Roberts’s first visit to Rome in 1913 he persuaded officials at the Palazzo Doria Pamphili to open a gallery so that he could view Velázquez’s Innocent X: “I think they saw I was in a kind of trance with the place. 4 days & I wouldn’t stop longer lest the impression should fade.” (Tom Roberts letter to Alfred Deakin, 31 May 1914, NLA MS 1540/1/3279) One of his last acts before quitting London for Australia in 1923 was to pay homage to Lady with the Fan in the Wallace Collection.
[11] Tom Roberts to Frederick McCubbin, 14 November 1909, LTL MS 8187/596/4(a).
[12] Tom Roberts to Marques del Moral, 16 May 1925, ML MSS 285/14/47; Roberts had forgotten Casas’s first name, Ramon.