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Betty Ann Brown


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I was the family artist. From infancy, I drew and painted on every surface. My mother liked to say that I started by finger painting with baby food, and by the time I would toddle, she had to follow me around with solvent and a rag to scrub my crayon marks off the walls. In grade school, I continued to draw and paint, making all the class posters. (We didn’t have Xerox back then.) In high school, I graduated to designing and painting the sets for the school plays. I even designed the decorations for the two proms I attended.

Hieronomus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights"
(central panel), 1500, oil on canvas triptych, 81 x 152".

Francisco Goya, "The Shootings of May 3rd,"
1814, oil on canvas, 10

4 3/4 x 135 3/4".

El Greco (Domenikos Theotocopoulus), "The
Resurrection", 1584-94, oil on canvas, 70 x 50".
For my junior prom, the theme was “Castles in Spain” because, as it happened, I was going to high school in Madrid. (My father was a career military officer and he was attached to the embassy there.) Although I had been to lots of museums before we moved to Madrid—I remember a fabulous class in the Kansas City Museum of Art—it was the experience of the Prado Museum that changed my life and turned me from making art to studying, writing about, and, eventually, teaching it.

I will never forget those heady days, wandering through the dark, dusty halls. (This was long before the remodeling that brought the institution up to modern museum standards.) Like most teenage girls, I was delirious with infatuations—but my crushes were not on gangly boys, they were on the Old Masters. I went from LOVING Bosch to LOVING Goya to LOVING El Greco. At 14, I could even say his Greek name: Domenikos Theotocopoulus.

In those days, lots of Spanish men (and they were always men) supported themselves and their families by painting copies of masterpieces in the Prado. I begged and whined and begged some more, until my parents gave in, and ordered me a copy. I wanted Goya’s “El Gigante” in my bedroom alongside the poster of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” which had been purchased earlier to match my orange-and-yellow color scheme.

But my visual epiphany was not in front of Bosch or Goya or El Greco. It was in front of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” In those days, they hung the painting all alone, in a small room off one of the main halls. As you entered the room, you saw the immense canvas. To your right, on the wall opposite, was a small mirror. If you walked in and turned around, you could face the mirror and have your back to the painting. If you stood in just the right place, so that your face was in the mirror and the painting totally surrounded your reflection, it looked like you were part of the painting. It was an astonishing optical illusion.

Velazquez had so completely captured the atmosphere of his studio in the Royal Palace, as well as the nature of the light as it filtered in from the tall windows on the right, that whenever I saw my face in the mirror, with the painting behind me, well, it took me there. It took me to the palace, to the royal parents, to the little girl with her teachers and servants and dog, to the seventeenth century. I was there. I was in history. It was epiphany.

Since then, I’ve read critics who call Velazquez the best painter of the Western tradition. I hate qualifying anything as “best,” but I will say that was the best art experience of my youth. And it was certainly what started my transition from wanting to make art to wanting to understand its mystery.