Fascinating Facts about Three of Velázquez’s Most Famous Paintings


If you are a fan of the works of Diego Velázquez, considered by many the painter of painters, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the information I gathered for this article:

1. Volcan’s Forge (1630)

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This is one of the uncommissioned paintings produced by Velázquez right after his first trip to Italy, where he stayed from 1629 to 1631. The painting shows the moment, narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Apollo, the god of light, shows up at Vulcan’s forge, to tell him that his wife, Venus, the goddess of love, is having an affair with Mars, the god of War. Apollo is identified by the crown of laurel on his head and the orange toga he is wearing. Vulcan, the man on his right, looks horrified and even dangerous. He seems to be working on an armor for Mars himself.

Velázquez had become heavily influenced by Italian art during his trip. This is noticeable in this work by the choice of subject matter – mythology – and by the study of the male nude. However, Velázquez, being the great artist that he was, could not help but add a personal touch to the painting: as we can see, although the bodies replicate in their perfection and athleticism the idealization of the Greek-Roman statuary, the men’s faces look common, contemporary and even ugly. The exaggerated expressions of surprise and shock are a characteristic of the Baroque movement, which did not refrain from showing emotion. There is also an almost comic element to the painting, as it does not seem to treat Mythology with the respect it inspired in other painters. Apollo looks rather full of himself, which you can tell from his posture and body language, such as the curved back and the raised finger.

It’s also worth pointing out that the painting suggests a tri-dimensional perspective: the figure in the background, for example, looks blurred, as if we were actually seeing him from a greater distance. Some of the figures in the painting are displayed in front of others, a technique used to create the illusion of depth. In addition to that, the work suggests a combination of genre painting – the representation of the daily work in a regular forge – with the mythological theme. This kind of combination was rather unusual at the time.

Moreover, some critics claim the painting had the objective of enticing prospective patrons: the artist was perhaps trying to show off his draftsmanship, demonstrating how he could depict the male nude in different positions, in a balanced composition.

2. The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, 1657)

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Critics understand this painting as the representation of the fable of Arachne, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. In the story, Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who developed an extraordinary skill as a weaver. When asked who had taught her how to weave so well, she said she had learned it on her own. This insulted Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the crafts, who showed up as an old woman to give Arachne a chance to apologize and acknowledge that her skill could only have come from the goddess. Arachne refused to do so, which made Athena furious. She reverted to her natural form and set up a contest with Arachne to prove who could weave better.

The story unfolds in two stages in Velázquez’s painting. In the foreground, we see the contest itself, as it takes place. Athena would be the older woman on the left. The fact that she is the goddess is betrayed by the youth and the skin glow of her exposed leg. Her ability is demonstrated not only by the relaxed attitude in which she operates the spinning wheel but also by the speed of the instrument, whose stokes we can hardly see.

Arachne, on the other hand, is seen working furiously on the right, with her back to the viewer. Arachne’s skillful work is also indicated by the speed of her performance – notice that her left hand moves so fast it seems to have 6 fingers! They are assisted by three other women in their work.

The conclusion of the story can be seen in the background of the painting. Arachne’s final work – represented here by a copy of Titian’s The Abduction of Europe – beats Athena’s. Athena, the woman wearing a helmet in the painting, is so angry that she rips Arachne’s work to threads. The goddess is seen here at the moment when she is casting the curse that will turn Arachne into a spider, so she will spend the rest of her life spinning webs. The obvious lesson is humans must not compete with the gods.

Just like in the previous painting we analyzed, Velázquez’s work in Las Hilanderas is a clever combination of genre and mythological themes. The women in the foreground look just like her contemporaries at a weaving workshop. It’s in the background that we have a more explicit reference to the myth, marked both by the presence of Athena is his Greek clothes and by the replication of the mythological work of Titian.

3. The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651)

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This is the only nude study of a woman painted by Velázquez to reach our days. He seems to have painted three, but two of them are lost. This kind of risqué painting was the object of careful surveillance by the Catholic Church during those harsh times of the Spanish Inquisition. Artists who dared to break the rule faced the threat of excommunication.

This painting, which is sometimes called The Rokeby Venus due to the fact that it was in the Morrit Collection at Rokeby Park, shows the goddess who personifies love and beauty lying with the back to the viewer and looking into a mirror held by her son, the god Cupid. The blurred image in the mirror is explained by the fact that ideal beauty cannot be represented.

However, contrary the trend of the times, Venus looks slimmer than the more voluptuous women usually depicted by other painters. She is also a brunette, while most other representations of Venus show her as a blond. These details all seem to indicate a wish to depict just a beautiful Spanish woman of Velázquez’s own days. Besides, the painting does not show any of the other items that characterize the goddess in other paintings, such as myrtle, roses and jewelry. Except for the presence of the winged Cupid holding the mirror, nothing indicates she is the goddess.

It’s interesting to notice how her curvaceous body is echoed by the rounded belly of Cupid and by the folds of the drapery and bed sheets.

Just like in Velázquez’s most famous painting, Las Meninas, which we discussed in a previous blog post (please click here for the post: https://jorgesette.com/2020/03/14/las-meninas-by-velazquez-under-the-magnifying-glass/), the presence of the mirror, and the fact the goddess seems to be looking at us through it, incorporates an element of mystery to the painting. It seems to stimulate a conversation between the work and the viewer, generating a discussion about the dichotomy between art and reality, representation and fact.

This brings us to the end of our blog post. It’s fascinating to discover the facts, the legends and the stories behind famous works of art. If you have further info, opinions or questions about the paintings discussed above, please don’t hesitate to enter your comments in the box below. We would love to share your perspective with our readers.

Jorge Sette

 

Las Meninas by Velázquez – under the magnifying glass


One of the most controversial paintings in Western Art History is Velázquez’s intriguing The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas). Painted in 1656, it’s considered the Sevillian artist’s masterpiece. Critics and specialists have been debating how best to interpret this work for centuries, and of course, no analysis is conclusive.

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Las Meninas  (The Maids of Honor) by Velázquez, Diego.

The first question seems to be what Velázquez, who’s depicted on the left of the scene, in front of a huge canvas, is painting on it. Is he working on the very painting we see? This seems to be suggested by the palette in his left hand, whose blurred and mixed colors appear to replicate the image in front of us. However, how and why would he include himself in it?

Others, on the other hand, point out that there’s a mirror in the center background, reflecting the images of the king and queen of Spain at the time, Phillip IV and his second wife, Mariana de Austria, who would occupy the same position as the viewer as we look at the painting. This would explain why everyone seems to be gazing outward from the picture. They are actually staring at the royal couple, who would be the subject of Velazquez’s canvas within the painting. Complicated? Wait, it gets even more complex.

A third theory says that Velázquez is painting in front of a mirror (the clue is the way the parting of the hair of the Infanta Margarita, the blond girl in the center foreground, is reversed from what it would look like in reality). This would explain how the artist managed to include himself in the painting. This would also mean that everything we see is also flipped.

More interesting facts about the picture:

The central figure of the scene is the Princess or Infanta Margarita, who was about 5 years old at the time. Who are the other ten people represented in the painting? We can identify all of them historically, except for one. Flanking the Infanta, who’s at the center of the painting, we see the maids of honor. To the right of the Infanta, bowing – possibly due to the arrival of the king and the queen – we see Isabel de Velasco, and to the left, kneeling, as she offers the princess a glass of water or some kind of grease for the princess to dip her fingers in, as she seemed to have had some kind of disease, we have Doña Maria Augustina Sarmiento. On the right, we see the dwarfs Maria Barbola and Nicolas Pertusato, who is playing with the dog. The job of the dwarfs was to entertain the court members.

Behind the dwarfs, obscured by the lack of lighting, we notice Doña Marcela de Ulloa, the princess’s chaperone, and next to her, the only unrecognized figure in the painting, possibly a bodyguard. At the back, going up the stairs and opening the door, the queen’s chamberlain, José Nieto Velázquez, can be identified. The other three people are Velázquez himself and the reflections of the king and the queen in the mirror.

Another question is what kind of painting is this? It does not seem to be a portrait of Princess Margarita, due to its informality. Velázquez was a great portraitist and we have plenty of examples of what a portrait of the higher members of the court of Philip IV should look like: formal, pompous, rigid, authoritarian, exuding power. This depiction of Princess Margarida is nothing like that, resembling more a genre painting, like the bodegones (kitchen and tavern paintings Velázquez produced at the beginning of his career): this could be a snapshot of a regular day in the painter’s studio, known as “el cuarto del prince”.

Ultimately, Las Meninas could be a very personal statement of the artist about his own social status. A self-promoting artwork, to show his intimacy with the higher members of the court. The red cross painted on the left of his chest, which represents the Order of Santiago, seems to indicate this, although some critics guarantee this cross was painted only after the death of the artist, as a way of honoring him for his work under the king.

Now, all this complexity only adds to the attraction of this unique work of art, which not only shows masterful draftsmanship and use of color (the brushstrokes that make up the dresses of the ladies and their decorations seem to anticipate the Impressionist movement in some 250 years), but also to establish the concept of the painter as an intellectual.

If you ever go to Madrid, don’t even think of skipping a visit to The Prado, the museum in which this artwork hangs in all its majesty.

Jorge Sette

Rockwell…well…rocks!


Norman Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894. Growing up in a middle-class family in the Upper West side of Manhattan, Rockwell was never comfortable being a city boy. Although he spent the first years of his life in this urban environment, he thrived whenever he and his brother were allowed to spend some time in the countryside.

From a very early age, Norman knew he wanted to be an illustrator. He was hired as art director of Boy’s Life, the scouts’ official magazine, when he was still in his teens. However, he became nationally known after he started his 47-seven-year collaboration with The Saturday Evening Post, having painted more than 300 illustrations mostly for the cover of that popular magazine.

Triple Self-Portrait, 1960.

Triple Self-Portrait, 1960.

Rockwell can be considered a family man in the sense that he was married 3 times and had 3 kids from his second wife, but most of his time he was dedicated to his work: 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. There was never much time for his wives and kids. Many say he was a detached and distant husband and father. He also travelled a lot, within the US and all over the world, always carrying on painting during these trips.

Rockwell never considered himself an artist, but an illustrator, specializing in genre scenes, depicting life in small-town America. His illustrations always have an element of humor, but you never fail to sense the pathos injected in the narrative as well. He was one of few popular realists in the world of modernist art of the XX century, where abstract painting ruled.

Before painting his models, he tended to have them photographed by a professional in the specific positions he wanted them to pose. His studio was full of props and costumes available to the models in the sessions. He was very particular about the way he wanted people to pose for him. In New York he used professional models, but when he moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts (from Arlington, Virginia) he started to choose models from the members of his own community: his relatives, friends and neighbors. He always had a photographer with him. He would paint afterwards based on these photos.

The paintings of Rockwell are usually regarded as the best representation of simple, pure and strong American values. As a matter of fact, he helped create these values and the American identity itself, in a land packed with immigrants from the most different cultural backgrounds and without much cohesion among themselves in the early 1900s. His illustrations – although not always depicting scenes of an accompanying written narrative – are one-frame stories in themselves. His art is all about visual storytelling. You can infer a whole narrative just by looking at one of his illustrations. No wonder, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – two of the most popular storytellers of the last decades of XX century American cinema – are among his greatest admirers and owners of important collections of his works.

Rockwell was the opposite of the common stereotype of a bohemian Greenwich Village artist. His friends say he was polite, funny and meticulous. Some claim he was a neat freak, who would spend hours cleaning his studio and washing his brushes many times a day. He was a bit of a loner as well.

Together with Walt Disney, Rockwell is the most beloved American artist of the twentieth century. Of course, their work had a lot in common: they were both visual storytellers, capable of charming and mesmerizing their viewers with wonderful drawings, colors and movement. The animation in Rockwell’s work was obviously only suggested, as he dealt in illustrations, but they are never static. His brush lent them an inner life and dynamism that completely won over his audience. The triple self-portrait illustration (1960) we see above is an example of the charismatic paintings he could produce.

After working for almost 50 years as the main illustrator for the conservative Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell transitioned to the more liberal Life Magazine, where he could explore themes more relevant to the tumultuous times he was living in: the sixties. There, he could produce illustrations that talked to the main issues of the era: racial segregation, women’s liberation and the spacial program. In this post, we show one his most important works of this period: The Problem We All Live With, from 1964, where he depicts the first Afro-American child – a girl – to go to a desegregated school in New Orleans in 1961, facing all kinds of bullying, mainly from white mothers and teenagers on her way to class. She needed to be escorted by US marshals to be able to get into the school. Her name was Ruby Bridges and Rockwell’s illustration became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Problem with All Live with, 1964.

The Problem with All Live with, 1964.

On November 8th, 1978, at the age of 84, Norman Rockwell died peacefully in his sleep, due to emphysema. He had already begun to show symptoms of dementia in his final years.

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was founded in 1969 and houses the world’s largest collection of his works.

Norman Rockwell is the 5th volume of our successful series of eBooks TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART. If you wish to know more about the series, please click here: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Take a moment to watch the video clip of TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: NORMAN ROCKWELL

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

5 VERY CURIOUS FACTS ABOUT CARAVAGGIO’S PAINTINGS


Did you know…

Young Sick Bacchu (1593/1594)

Young Sick Bacchus (1593/1594)

1. …that Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus (1593/1594) is in fact a self-portrait. The artist looked at himself in a mirror while he painted it. The reason he looks kind of sick is that the painter himself was convalescing from a disease, probably malaria, at the time, and had just left hospital.  Bacchus’ greenish lips and opaque eyes reflect his unhealthy condition.

 

The Death of the Virgin (detail)

The Death of the Virgin (detail) (1606)

2. …that the Church was shocked at this painting – The Death of the Virgin (1606) –  as they recognized the model Caravaggio used to depict the dead Virgin Mary. She was in fact a well-known courtesan whose bloated body had been dragged out of the river where she had drowned. Caravaggio used common people he saw in his contemporary Rome streets and also at the places these people usually hung out, such as taverns and brothels in the turn of the 16th to 17th century, to represent biblical and mythological scenes which would have taken place centuries earlier. I had a chance to see this painting myself at the Louvre and can attest, from first hand experience, to its fascination.

 

The Supper at Emmaus (1606)

The Supper at Emmaus (1606)

3. …that some people find it strange that Jesus is depicted in this painting – The Supper at Emmaus (1606) – as a much younger person and without a beard at a moment that would have taken place after his resurrection. However, Caravaggio was inspired by the Bible itself to make this choice. In the Gospel of Mark (16:12) we read that the apostles did not recognize Jesus when he first appeared to them after his death, for he had a different form. The painter thought it would be logical to depict this new “form” as a younger version of Christ himself.

 

Lute Player (1596)

Lute Player (159that

4. …that for many years there was doubt about whether the person depicted in this painting – Lute Player (1596) – was male of female. But, by the kind of shirt he is wearing and the fact that it’s open almost down to his bellybutton and yet showing no sign of cleavage, we can be pretty sure it’s a man. The Castrati (castrated, in English) were famous for their beautiful voices and very popular at the time, so this could be one of them. The effects of the hormonal changes that the body of a castrato goes through correspond to those we see in the painting, such as the hairless skin and swollen face.

5. …that experts believe the arrangement of flowers and the fruit depicted to the left on the same painting were not really done by Caravaggio. They differ significantly from his typical style. They believe those elements were added at a later stage by the Netherlandish painter Jan Bruegel.

We will be getting back with more interesting facts about Caravaggio’s stunning paintings in another blog post. Watch this space.

To purchase the available titles of our eBooks series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, click here: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art

Watch our Caravaggio promo video:

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

Storytelling with Norman Rockwell


Storytelling with Norman Rockwell

Click on the picture to access the SlideShare presentation.

Note: you might want to check out our new book TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: MATISSE   available  from AMAZON.COM as an ebook.  Click here for more info: 

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Storytelling with Casper David Friedrich, the famous Romantic painter


Storytelling with Casper David Friedrich, the famous Romantic painter

Click on the picture to access the SlideShare presentation. You might want to check out our post on the mythological structure of storytelling as well: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-F2