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.


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

6 Myths about Art Most People Share

Art tends to be surrounded by awe and respect. Museums resemble cathedrals in the way people move around the halls speaking in hushed tones and looking humbly at the works on display. Art or Hight Art – as it’s sometimes called – should be regarded in a more natural and intimate way by the viewers. The lack of great museums in the region makes the contact with art a particularly formal  experience for us Latin Americans. But things are changing as more and more people go abroad, frequent museums, and substitute pleasure and fun for the old sense of respect infused in them when they stood in front of a famous painting or sculpture not many years ago. The myths we are outlining below concern more that kind of art you find in museums and galleries: the visual art produced by the great masters.

1. Art is usually spontaneous and organic. The legend says the talent lies dormant in the artist until it’s suddenly awaken by the muses. In fact, the development of artistic skills is a long and hard path, involving a lot of academic learning, Of course, there are more or less intuitive artists, and mentors may sometimes replace art schools. Formal learning, however, is integral to the process and only practice makes perfect.

2. The best art has idealized versions of  mythology, history or biblical themes as its subject matter. This tradition started being disputed around the time the pre-Impressionists, such as Manet with his mundane and realistic nudes, and the social art of Courbet. Their fight against tradition and academicism was taken to a whole new level by the Impressionists, especially by Monet, who understood art as the apprehension of fleeting moments in time such as the effects of light bouncing off trees, water and plain people in everyday situations. That was what mattered and deserved registering.Colors became bright and more vibrant.

Argenteuil, c. 1872-1875, by Monet.

Argenteuil, c. 1872-1875, by Monet.

3.  The best art is realistic. Fauvism, Cubism and Modern Art in general showed that there was not much point in replicating what film and photography had  started doing so well as of the XIX century. Art couldn’t and shouldn’t compete with them. So art needed to change. It should remain an expression of what is human, including reality, but as seen through the eyes, emotions, neuroses, and obsessions of the artistic self. Art was a personal way to express the artist’s inner world. Unlike previous painters,  the sense of perspective developed since the Renaissance and the concepts of beauty and balance taken as tenets by the artistic community underwent an earthquake which  shattered those ideals to pieces. This is still going on.

Young Girl Reading a Book on the Beach, by Picasso.

Young Girl Reading a Book on the Beach, by Picasso.

4. Art dealers and critics are the experts and they know it all about good and bad taste. We all know how the Impressionist group struggled to have their works exhibited in the tradition-dominated Salón in XIX century Paris. There are no absolutes in art and if you read Tom Wolf’s iconoclastic The Painted Word – which I strongly recommend – you will laugh widely and be infused by  a sense of liberation as he dissects and analyses ironically the American art of the XX century. There is also a hilarious chapter in  his latest book, Back to Blood,   which mocks merciless the Modern Art World of contemporary Miami, with its dealers, experts, artists and stupid billionaire clients. A must-read.

The Connoisseur: Rockwell's sarcastic take on Modern Art used as the cover for Tom Wolfe's THE PAINTED WORD.

The Connoisseur: Rockwell’s sarcastic take on Modern Art used as the cover for Tom Wolfe’s THE PAINTED WORD.

5. You have an innate predisposition to love, hate or be totally indifferent to art. Not so simple. Just like marmite – for those who have had a chance, like me, to live in he UK for a while and see this initially disgusting jam-like spread sitting on the breakfast table every morning,  or even Japanese food,  whose ever-present ripe odor coming out of restaurants may put you off getting in at first – art is an acquired taste. You don’t have to like it right away, but you may grow to love it by exposure. There is no need to enjoy every famous artist either.  Be selective. Art grows in people. And I strongly defend that by offering  history of art as a subject in the secondary and high school – not very common in most schools in South America –  or by parents exposing their kids to art books at home or visiting museums, young people’s taste will get more refined and we will see a growth in art appreciation over time.

6. Art is for older people. The younger you are the more appealing iconoclastic  and unconventional art will look to you, especially if you have a rebel streak (who doesn’t?) in you. Therefore your initial interest for the drama and violence in Caravaggio,  as you grow more mature,  may be replaced by calmer Monets or a more contained Velàzquez later on in life.  Their beauty and absence of direct conflict can be refreshing as you grow more mature. I still love Janis Joplin, The Stones, Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious. Sometimes it was not even the quality of their music but their life style, perfomances and stage persona – some of them very short-lived, by the way – which captivated me. However,  as I grew more mature,  classical music started to show its charms and take over my musical taste.

We will be talking more about art in the next post. Watch this space.

If you are a language teacher and interested in art you may want to check out our new series of ebooks TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, available for download from the Kindle Store. We focus on vocabulary learning, speaking and writing skills in the series. Check it out by clicking here: :

Teaching English with Art, the series.

Teaching English with Art, the series.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

What’s the job of art?

It’s hard to define art: be it music, literature, visual arts, drama, etc. I would prefer to say that life would be impossible for most people without it. Call it escapism, if you wish.  Life can be very dry and purposeless without the varnish of art. It can be very lonely. Even meaningless. As Tennessee Williams once said:

“What implements have we but words, images, colors, scratches upon the caves of our solitude?”

Art is any expression of human emotion and feeling. It’s the telling of a story. We are all artists one way or another. This does not mean our work will be recognized in our lifetime or sold for millions of dollars in galleries, but what counts is what it does for you. The officially recognized great works of art follow criteria that varies according to time and audience. Their market value rises and lowers  at different times. So, we, as simple viewers or artists, should not care about what is considered by the experts GREAT ART. Give yourself the right to make or evaluate art,  based on your own guidelines. More than that, every piece of art which can transport you to a world that makes you happier, or feel more intensely, or evoke cherished memories, or give you hope and peace should count as great. It can be your creation or someone else’s.

I never forget the moment I first saw painter Peter Paul Rubens’  Samson and Delilah (picture below), while roaming the halls of the National Gallery in London. I did not know that painting. It beckoned at me from a distance and made me walk, transfixed, in its direction, wide-eyed and excited. Sensual, colorful, showing  unusual uses of a number of light sources to illuminate the scene,  and telling a story: that is all I wanted from a painting. I may have spent the next 20 min standing in front of the huge painting staring at it, looking like an idiot, with a silly smile glued to my face. Then I went back there two more times in the course of a 10-day vacation in London to experience the power of that painting again – it’s a good thing the National Gallery has free admission!

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery, London.

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery, London.

I found a copy of the painting on the Internet and excitedly emailed it to some of my close friends telling them how I had felt looking at it. That’s another thing about great experiences, it’s hard to enjoy them alone, you need to share. This post is obviously part of this need.

As for literature, another great type of  humanity’s artistic achievement, how many times have I drowned my sorrows by reading a novel by Philip Roth (one of my favorite writers, as many of you readers of this blog already know): the misery and problems of his characters far outweigh mine and serve as solace by giving me a deeper understanding of human beings. Roth is brutal and I doubt he intends to offer any comfort to the reader through his stories – but he does, regardless of what his original aim might be.

Author Philip Roth

Author Philip Roth

At the end of 2014, having some free time, I had the idea of combining two of my greatest passions – the English language and visual arts –  in a project: the series of ebooks of the series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART (for further info check out this post ). I figured I could not be alone in enjoying studying a foreign language in the context of powerful images that would take me beyond the walls of the dreary language classroom and make me dream. I was right: after self-publishing eight ebooks and with a ninth coming out soon, I noticed that many other people all over the world shared my passions.

When I was a language/literature student in college, we had a very dry and uninteresting subject: Portuguese literature. I appreciate some may love it – art is individual and personal. But I must admit I loathed the company of Camoes and his  jingoism, despite the excellence of the teacher and her love for the subject. One day, however, she surprised us with a different approach to the teaching of the boring Portuguese literature of the Baroque era: she brought a projector to the classroom and contextualized  some of the visual art movements – which are inevitably reflected in the literature of the time – by showing works of famous artists. That was my first contact with Velázquez and his “borrachos”, partying with Bacchus. The teacher’s explanation of the painting and the artist was vibrant. The class was in awe. We were always in a hurry to leave the session and enjoy our cheap beer on Friday evenings (those were evening classes). That day, however, most people couldn’t care to leave when the class came to its official end, and let the teacher carry on for as long as she wanted. We had started to refine our taste: it was better to see Bacchus inebriate his minions than go out to Olinda and get drunk ourselves.

The Triumph of Bacchus, Velázquez, 1628, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Triumph of Bacchus, Velázquez, 1628, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Au revoir,

Jorge Sette

What are Your Favorite Works of Art?

Living in São Paulo is an advantage for those who love what is usually called High Art, as we have a fair number of museums in the city. Of course, we lack the spoiling infinite choices of those who live in places like London, Paris and New York, but things could be worse.

However, going to a famous exhibition in Sampa is not without its frustrations and annoyances, as there are usually long lines on the weekend and the facilities are far from excellent. Besides, I’m quite addicted to audio tours, which, unfortunately, are not very common in Brazilian museums. I can’t stand guided tours, so I never join those little groups of people who follow a uniformed museum employee listening in awe whenever the guide decides to stop in front of a painting of her choice to spill out all the memorized knowledge in artificial intonation. I tend to run in the opposite direction.

So it’s not surprising that my best experiences in art viewing will have taken place abroad. The objective of this post is to share and discuss with my audience four of the great masterpieces I’ve already had the chance to see in person. I don’t think there is anything wrong in admiring pieces of art through apps, books or video, but I’m sure we all agree that the experience of standing only a couple of centimeters away from a great sculpture or painting in a beautiful museum can not be beaten.

The pieces I chose to write about here are not necessarily listed in any special order. They represent some of the art I feel most moved by – either because of their sheer beauty, or because they may be related to a special moment in my life. Two of them are based on stories I may have read or heard: I love pictorial representations of mythology. They are among my favorites. Also I did not have to think long and hard before selecting the pieces for the post. They are the ones that first came to my mind:

1. Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens: I first saw this painting while roaming through the rooms of the National Gallery in London last time I was there. My eyes were immediately drawn to it for its vibrant colors, strong subject matter and unique distribution of lighting. You can see Samson, of biblical fame, sound asleep on Delilah’s lap while his hair, source of huge strength, is being treacherously cut off. The Philistines are already waiting there on the doorstep to take him away and blind him. The painting by Rubens is highly sensual and yet poignant, and, to me, its relevance can also be traced to my childhood, when I first heard the story and was deeply impressed by it.

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery

2. The Lady of Shallot, by Waterhouse: I have a funny personal anecdote about this painting. I had discovered it on an app about art and fallen in love with its bright colors and hippie-like atmosphere (although it was painted almost 100 years before the “flower power” movement). I have always been a fan of the romantic sixties and its music. Pre-Raphaelites, therefore, with their drama and romance, feature among my favorite painters. Well, a couple of years ago, I was in London for work and had an afternoon off. I decided to invest the time visiting the Tate Gallery, with the sole purpose of seeing this particular painting. My surprise was that, as I entered the museum, for some reason, I marched straight up to the room where the picture was hanging, without ever having been there before.  I had passed other rooms on my way into the museum, but somehow this was the first room I got into, after making a left off the main passageway. I could only interpret this, of course, as fate. The Lady of Shallot, just like a magnet, had dragged me to the place. She probably was as eager to meet me as I was. The painting itself is a bit too high on the wall and the colors are somewhat faded in comparison to the copy I had on the app. But still it’s impressive, and remains one of my favorites of all time.

The Lady of Shallot, 1888, by John William Waterhouse, Tate Gallery.

The Lady of Shallot, 1888, by John William Waterhouse, Tate Gallery.

3. The Thinker, by Rodin: In my teenage years in Recife my mother used to introduce me to her friends who came to our house as “the thinker”, the son who would spend hours either reading or staring into the void in front of our backyard garden with his mind going places she could not fathom. When I was still in high school, she gave me a little marble figurine in the shape of Rodin’s The Thinker, which she had acquired as a souvenir in Europe. This little gift is one of my most treasured objects and I keep it in my living room to this day (see picture below). Therefore, years later, I teared up with emotion when I first laid eyes on one of the versions of The Thinker, brought to the Pinacoteca in Sao Paulo as part of a huge Rodin exhibition in the mid-nineties (we had to stand in line for hours, and, once inside, needed to rush through the pieces as if in a car race, so many people attended the event everyday). A couple of years later, however, I could indulge in as much Rodin as I wanted too, roaming freely around the rooms and gardens of his Museum during a sunny summer day in Paris.

My little version of THE THINKER by Rodin. My living room.

My little version of THE THINKER by Rodin. My living room.

4. Mars, the God of War, by Velázquez: The pressures against growing old  – or really, the prejudice one confronts after reaching 30 – are mounting in today’s infantilized society, and it’s hard not to feel progressively inadequate and afraid. Obviously one keeps postponing – for himself – the cutting off date after which you should be considered old: it’s usually at least 10 years ahead of your current age. Therefore it was with a warm feeling of relief and reassurance that I came across this riveting Velázquez’s painting at Museo del Prado in Madrid: it dares to show the god of war, Mars, as an emaciated and tired middle-aged man, with his stunning shield lying on his feet. My conclusion was that, if even the gods need to confront the aging process, it should be OK for the rest of us.

Mars, God of War, 1640, by Velázquez. Museo del Prado.

Mars, God of War, 1640, by Velázquez. Museo del Prado.

There are many more pieces I’d love to write about. I promise my loyal readers to get back to the subject in future posts. For now, I believe this will give you a preview of my taste in Art.

What about you? What are your favorite pieces of art? Share them with us.

NOTE: You might want to check out our language and art eBooks available  from AMAZON.COM. Click here for further info:


Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art


Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Carnaval, Baco e Aprendizagem de línguas

Os que acompanham meus posts neste blog, meus amigos de Facebook e seguidores de Twitter já devem ter notado que tenho uma certa queda por pinturas, esculturas e design de forma geral. Fui também professor de línguas e teacher trainer por muitos anos. Portanto, nada mais natural do que conjugar paixões e habilidades num veículo educativo impactante e prazeroso. Bem, essas são minhas razões e motivos pessoais para combinar arte e ensino de línguas em instrumentos e objetos didáticos específicos: tenho no momento três ebooks publicados na AMAZON sobre o tema com atividades suplementares para professores de inglês envolvendo obras de Matisse, Picasso e Caravaggio.

Havendo exposto meu prazer na produção desses instrumentos, como acho que isso possa ser relevante para alunos e professores? A citação abaixo pode começar a ajudar a explicar meus objetivos:


Georgia O’Keeffe

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for”Georgia O’Keeffe.

Ou seja, as artes visuais são uma complementação da expressão verbal. Se não consigo comunicar pela fala ou escrita, mostro. E assim, meu trabalho como professor  de línguas, e, num âmbito maior, como educador,  se completa. E a aprendizagem do aluno de línguas se enriquece com algo que está fora do universo linguístico, mas que se integra a ele, acrescentando-lhe novas dimensões.

Entre as possibilidades de expressar o não verbal, está a capacidade da Arte de inspirar emoções, através de luzes, cores e formas.  É capaz de traduzir a beleza de uma forma diferente da língua.

Outro aspecto interessante é que, usando arte, estamos acrescentando conteúdo ao ensino de língua. Faço parte da corrente dos que acreditam plenamente no poder de CLIL  (“content and language integrated learning”) para a eficácia da aprendizagem. Ou seja, exceto no caso da poesia e da literatura, a língua não é um fim em si mesma, mas um canal para veicularmos toda sorte de assuntos, tópicos, e conteúdos de forma geral. O aluno de inglês em geral quer a língua como ferramenta para uso em sua área específica de atuação profissional ou acadêmica. Poucos se tornarão escritores ou poetas. Portanto, o uso da arte visual pode nos ajudar de forma criativa a discutir assuntos como mitologia, história, profissões, geografia, política, violência, religião, ou qualquer outro tópico do interesse do seu público. Tudo isso com um poderoso invólucro de emoção, força expressiva e beleza. A arte visual é interdisciplinar por sua própria natureza. Tudo que você precisa fazer é escolher o artista mais adequado para um certo tema.

Para concluir, gostaria apenas de contar uma experiência pessoal, que é bem pertinente neste sábado momesco em que escrevo este texto.  Era aluno de Letras na Universidade Católica de Recife na época, e tinha uma dedicada professora de Literatura Portuguesa. Não preciso dizer que suas bem preparadas aulas não eram as mais populares entre os alunos,  que mal podiam esperar  pelo toque da campainha indicando o final da sessão e o ínicio dos prazeres da sexta-feira à noite (que se resumiam  para quase todos a cerveja barata e serenata pelas ladeiras de Olinda). Um dia, porém, a professora entrou na sala portando um projetor de slides (nada de “data show” naqueles tempos medievais), e, para contextualizar o período barroco da literatura, que estudávamos, decidiu inovar, deixando os áridos textos e enfocando a pintura da época. Assim,  nos apresentou Velázquez, explicando em detalhes o que deveríamos observar nas pinturas. Os alunos se quedaram em choque. A aula se prolongou por muito além dos 50 min de praxe. Todos ignoraram o toque da campainha, e permacerem imóveis, extáticos e atentos, enquanto Irene discorria elegantemente sobre Baco cercado por bêbados de dentes estragados pelo vinho. É a única aula dela de que consigo me lembrar.


The Triumph of Bacchus (Los Borrachos, The Topers), 1628-1629. Velázques. Diego. (Clique na imagem para vê-la ampliada)

Bom carnaval!

NOTE: If you are into art, you may consider checking out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART:

Click on the links below to go to AMAZON.COM and buy your ebooks:

1. Teaching English with Art: Matisse

 (30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Henri Matisse)

2. Teaching English with Art: Picasso

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Pablo Picasso)

3. Teaching English with Art: Caravaggio

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Caravaggio)



Jorge Sette