More Than Portraits: the paintings of Diego Velazquez 5 Sibyl and Spinners

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (detail) (c 1657), oil on canvas, 220 x 289 cm, original 167 cm × 252 cm, Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Late in Velázquez’s career, when his position at court was very close to King Philip IV, he painted two of his finest, most important, and most enigmatic works: Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), and Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour). Before considering these, I will look at an earlier enigma which has been discussed at length by Giles Knox and others, who consider it key to understanding these later paintings.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Female Figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa) (c 1644-48) [103], oil on canvas, 64.8 x 58.4 cm, Meadows Museum, Dallas, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Variously known as Female Figure, Sibyl with Tabula Rasa, or Allegory of Painting, this was probably completed in the period 1644-48.

It shows a young woman holding a tablet or board with her left hand, pressing her right index finger against it. Her face is shown in partial profile, as she is looking away into the picture plane, and slightly downwards, but isn’t looking at either of her hands. Her head is bare, her black hair tied back behind it. She wears light clothing, which is rendered in very painterly style, and reveals part of her right breast.

The light source is on the left, casting a dark shadow for her right hand and pointing finger on the tablet she is holding. The background lacks form or detail, but the left half is well-lit, and the right half black. She appears to be seated, with the lower edge of the tablet resting on her thighs, which are below the lower edge of the canvas.

Knox, and others, argue somewhat tortuously that this woman is an allegory of painting. At this stage, it is worth considering a contemporary example of that subject.

Bernardo Strozzi (1581–1644), Allegory of Painting (1635), oil on canvas, 130 x 95 cm. location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Bernardo Strozzi’s Allegory of Painting from 1635 is unusual for the appearance of the woman, but is the closest that I could find in features to Velázquez’s work. She holds in her right hand the top of a canvas, and her left hand bears a palette, on which there are oil paints, and half a dozen brushes.

Universal in all the examples of Allegory of Painting that I can find are brushes, the most obvious reference to painting. Almost as common are the palette and oil paints on its surface. Yet in Velázquez’s painting, the only common ground is the tablet, board or canvas which the woman is holding. Brushes, palette and paint are all absent, and even if the painting had been cut down from the original, they could not have been in the woman’s hands.

Knox argues his case from, among other evidence, the story of Dibutades, who legendarily ‘invented’ painting. She has been depicted by a few artists, of whom Joseph Wright of Derby is perhaps the most complete and best-known.

Dibutades, a maid of Corinth in Greece, was about to see her boyfriend sent away from the city on military service. As the daughter of a potter, she devised an ingenious way of making a portrait to remember him by: when he was asleep, she positioned a light to cast his shadow against a wall behind him, then she traced the outline of that shadow in the plaster. Once he had gone, her father then transformed his painted silhouette into the first relief sculpture by daubing clay within the silhouette.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), The Corinthian Maid (c 1782-5), oil on canvas, 106.3 x 130.8 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1778, William Hayley told this story succinctly in his poem An Essay on Painting:
The line she trac’d with fond precision true,
And, drawing, doated on the form she drew …
Thus from the power, inspiring LOVE, we trace
The modell’d image, and the pencil’d face!

Hayley’s friend, the painter Joseph Wright of Derby, turned that into this painting of The Corinthian Maid in about 1782-85, as a commission for Josiah Wedgewood, the affluent founder of the local Wedgewood pottery.

Could the woman in Velázquez’s painting be alluding to the story of the maid of Corinth, tracing the shadow of her boyfriend on a canvas or other board?

Here is an immediate problem: the light source in the painting. Coming from the left, the shadows cast are of the woman’s hand and forearm. Unless her boyfriend was between the source of the light and the surface on which her finger is pressed, he could not possibly have cast his shadow on that surface, and none is seen.

Instead, the woman is looking at something (or someone) to the right. If the panel she is holding is a stretched canvas, as she is exerting significant pressure with her index finger, the canvas will give, and she is unlikely to be tracing an outline (even if it were visible on the surface) with that finger.

Could she be, as was originally thought, a sibyl? Following my recent survey of paintings of sibyls, that cannot be ruled out, but she would certainly be a very idiosyncratic depiction of one if she were.

I don’t have any good explanation of this relatively minor painting by Velázquez. Whatever she is intended to represent, to read this image as an indication that Velázquez had started to create meta-paintings about painterly performance is dangerous. His many paintings prior to Las Hilanderas were without exception firmly grounded in the real, not the theoretical. Our starting point for reading Las Hilanderas should therefore be in the real and not the metaphysical.

That said, I strongly recommend Knox’s excellent book, even though I don’t agree with him. And that is the cue to introduce the painting to which I will devote my attention in the next article in this series: Las Hilanderas, or The Spinners, or possibly The Fable of Arachne – you can make your own mind up after reading all about it.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (c 1644-48) [102], oil on canvas, 220 x 289 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

The early history of Las Hilanderas is as dubious as its reading. It first appears in the inventory of paintings owned by one Pedro de Arce, in 1664, when it was recorded as depicting the story of Arachne. However, it seems most unlikely that de Arce was its original owner, as he didn’t own any paintings by Velázquez in 1657, and seems to have traded in luxury goods rather than being a connoisseur of them. Knox suggests that it was probably painted for the king, or another member of the royal court, who sold it on to de Arce between 1657-1664.

It then came back into the Royal Collection, where it is supposed to have been damaged by fire in 1734, although recent investigation denies this. At some time in the past, new sections were added to the left, right, and upper edges. From the eighteenth century until 1948, it was believed to depict the tapestry workshop of Santa Isabel, with spinners working in the foreground, and tapestries hanging in the background.

Then in 1948, Diego Angula proposed that it depicted the legend of Arachne, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 6, lines 1-145. I will examine the painting in detail in the next article in this series, and suggest some possible readings.


Wikipedia on this painting.

An English translation of the story of Arachne is in Tufts’ superb Perseus digital library. The translation is taken from: Ovid, Metamorphoses, by Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.

Barolsky P (2014) Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Botticelli to Picasso, Yale UP. Pages 147-8. ISBN 978 0 300 19669 6.
Bird W (2007) The bobbin & the distaff: erotic imagery and the meaning of Velazquez’s ‘Las Hilanderas’, Apollo Magazine.
Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido (1998) Velázquez, the Technique of Genius, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 10124 9.
Kilinski K II (2013) Greek Myth and Western Art, The Presence of the Past, Cambridge UP. Page 138. ISBN 978 1 107 01332 2.
Giles Knox (2009) The Late Paintings of Velázquez, Theorizing Painterly Performance, Ashgate/Routledge. ISBN 978 1 138 27464 8.
José López-Rey and Odile Delenda (2014) Velázquez The Complete Works, Taschen and the Wildenstein Institute. ISBN 978 3 8365 5016 1.