Over the last couple of months, I have been exploring the life and paintings of Diego Velázquez beyond the many portraits for which he is usually most famous. In this concluding article to that series, I pick seven of his paintings which I think were revolutionary.
Bodegone – genre paintings centred on fast roadside food preparation – were stock-in-trade for provincial painters of the day. As a young and aspiring artist, Velázquez transformed them into vivid glimpses into ordinary life, even religious narratives. The face of this Old Woman Frying Eggs tells her life story, and she is surrounded by sparkling optical effects on the flask of wine, cooking pot, mortar and pestle. You can almost smell those eggs frying.
Many figures in paintings at that time weren’t painted from live models, but copied from prints and other paintings. Velázquez broke with that tradition, and in his Adoration of the Magi from 1619 you can see how real his human figures became as a result. He still had to be careful, maintaining distinct appearances for those such as Mary and Jesus who are divine, and even covering the Virgin’s feet for the sake of propriety. But the other figures here all look to be real, living and breathing people.
When Velázquez stayed in the Villa Medici to cope with the heat of the Roman summer of 1630, he changed the working methods of landscape painters. Until then, oil paints had been kept back in the studio, and artists sketched in front of the motif using pen and ink, or more rarely watercolours. Instead, Velázquez took his oil paints and canvas into the gardens there and made the earliest surviving landscape oil sketches en plein air.
At a time when Spanish artists were painting very few nudes, which were still the preserve of Italian masters like Titian, Velázquez posed a model in recline and painted her as Venus. Her face is blurred in a false reflection in a mirror being held by her son Cupid. The theme was common, seen in paintings by Titian and Rubens, where Venus sits upright. Giorgione and others had posed her reclining and facing the viewer, making this pose unusual. Most other paintings of Venus also set her in a landscape: here she rests on luxurious, even sensuous fabrics.
Late in his career, Velázquez moved on from simple and direct narratives to paintings which challenge and stimulate, with multiple readings. The best example is Las Hilanderas, which from the eighteenth century until 1948 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 book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Did Velázquez use the spinning workshop in the foreground as a reference to Arachne, or to time, or do those spinners represent the craft foundation of art, both in material terms, and in the content through which the art is expressed? Is this a meta-narrative in defence of narrative painting, or just a visual riddle?
This detail also shows another revolutionary feature of Velázquez’s painting, the looseness of his brushwork, which wasn’t to be equalled for the next two centuries.
Velázquez’s last mythological painting, of Mercury and Argus, is sadly the only survivor of a group of four which he made in his final years, the other three having been destroyed by fire in 1734. In accordance with his earlier paintings of myths, its figures are in contemporary rather than classical dress. Mercury is just about to raise his sword and decapitate the sleeping Argus. Behind them is Io in the form of a tan cow. It’s one of the simplest depictions of this story, and in that sense the opposite to Las Hilanderas.
Like many of Velázquez’s mature works, Las Meninas is a portrait, but unlike any of the others it is a faithful group portrait of eleven people and a dog in a room in the Alcázar Palace. Like Las Hilanderas it has multiple and concurrent readings: it is a family portrait, showing parents and daughter in an unusual and indirect gathering.
With so much looking and the figures, the reflected images of King and Queen, and Velázquez at work painting, there is much to be read about the acts of looking and painting. It also records the artist’s unique achievement in becoming a high-ranking member of one of the great royal courts of Europe.
I hope that you have enjoyed this look at Velázquez’s paintings, and like me are itching to visit the Prado in Madrid, where you can see so many of them in the flesh.
Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido (1998) Velázquez, the Technique of Genius, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 10124 9.
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.