Velázquez (1599-1660). Bodegones and Daily Life.
Born in Seville in 1599 of modest social status, Diego (de) Velázquez spent his formative years in Spain’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. It enjoyed a thriving market in religious art commissioned by the Church and its institutions (monasteries, convents) both locally and in Spain’s sprawling transoceanic empire, access to which was a monopoly enjoyed by Seville.
Velázquez did what was undoubtedly expected of him and painted at least eight works of a religious nature between 1617 and 1623, the year he left Seville for Madrid. But during the same period, he showed a decided independence of spirit, painting at least six works focusing exclusively on street people in Seville. Four of them, Musical Trio (c 1617-18), Three Men at Table (c. 1618), Peasants at Table (c. 1618-19) and Two Men at Table (c. 1622) have a similarity of composition, colours and atmosphere.
The contrast of the lit-up figures and white tablecloths against the dark background, especially in Old Woman Frying…, Three Men at Table and Peasants at Table suggests that the tenebrism (dramatic illumination against a dark background) associated with the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610) was making an impact in Seville. It was a style that Velázquez adopted easily although he was not restricted to or by it, and was already practicing a more nuanced style, as in The Waterseller and Two young Boys at Table.
More memorable, however, and almost always highlighted in anthologies of Velázquez’s works are Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618) and The Water Seller (c. 1620). All six works are generally classified as bodegón painting,
What is a bodegón?
In the art world, bodegón is nowadays virtually synonymous with still-life (although there exists a specific term, naturaleza muerta –literally “dead nature”–, that is more precise). However, in Velázquez’s time, a bodegón was a cheap eating place, but expanded its meaning to refer to paintings which depict bodegones together with their poor or marginalized customers, the modest food or drink the latter consumed and the humble tableware or utensils used in the preparation or eating of the food. This lowly world of the underdog was by and large secular in nature.
However, two other paintings — Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618) and one of the two versions of The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1620)—are dominated by bodegón scenes but their biblical content points to a religious interpretation.
In what way does Velázquez’s show independence of thought and originality in his bodegón paintings?
Velázquez’s bodegón paintings represented a bold venture on his part for several reasons.
1. He was born and brought up in a city where religious, not secular, painting dominated the art world. He was, then, going against the established norms.
2. He was still a very young artist, scarcely out of his teens, and untested in a very competitive field.
3. His mentor, Francisco Pacheco, was a devout Catholic, a major figure in Seville’s cultural scene and author of a conservative treatise on art. For Pacheco, painting’s main purpose was to guide the faithful to “love God and to cultivate piety” (Brown, J 102b). Idealization –by means of which nature’s flaws and defects were corrected or only the most beautiful “works of God” were selected– was a key component in defending and glorifying the faith. This lofty objective conferred on art nobility, an obsessive concern of Pacheco who sought to overturn the then current Spanish view of art as simple manual skill.
4. Pacheco was also Velázquez’s father-in-law, so it must have required considerable self-assurance and independence of thought on Velázquez’s part to produce works in which there was no overt attempt to cultivate piety nor an evident concern with art’s nobility being attached to lofty objectives. (Nevertheless, Pacheco was clearly impressed by Velázquez’s potential as artist or else he would hardly have allowed his daughter to marry an –as yet– unknown painter.)
5. Bodegón painting simply did not have the prestige and distinguished history enjoyed by, for example, religious art or portraiture. Painting in Spain was still dominated by commissions from the elite, whether it was the Church, royalty, nobility or affluent individuals (e. g. merchants). Art work commissioned by such wealthy patrons mirrored their interests or confirmed their social status so that, predictably, the lives of low-born figures/ peasants were hardly of interest to them. [There was nothing like the mid-16th century exuberant boisterousness of peasant scenes as depicted by Dutch or Flemish artists such Peter Aertsen (1508-75) or Peter Bruegel (1526-69) the Elder. But even here, the paintings were probably intended as commentaries on human follies, a topic much in vogue at the time (e. g. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly (1509) or Rabelais bawdy, satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530s).].
6. Combining kitchen scenes and still-life was still very much a new direction in Spanish art.
7. Giving visual preeminence to the secular world with contemporary, marginalised individuals over biblical figures (including Christ) in the same work (as in Christ in the House… and The Supper…) was a daring inversion of the usual order. This was especially bold so since both works quite clearly carried a religious message, namely that Christ or the Christian message can be found in the most menial location and be open to even the low born, including in The Supper… a black servant.
Velázquez and Still-Life.
A common and important feature in all six of Velázquez’s bodegones is the tables, each with foodstuff and or kitchen utensils. The obsession with food has always been a reality for the poor but what makes it significant here is that it has become an essential part of a work of art, and almost as important as the human figures themselves in The Waterseller. Art, then, was not above portraying the most menial of topics, food, daily utensils.
Significantly, however, Velázquez’s objects serve a purpose. They are few and austerely simple, in keeping with the social status his humble sitters: such people could scarcely be expected to have a table brimming with food. At the same time, Velázquez shows that he is up to date with artistic trends despite being apprenticed to a very conservative mentor more dedicated to religious rather than secular art. By the beginning of the 17th century, still-life – inspired by Dutch and Flemish antecedents– was increasingly popular in Spain. Two contemporaries of Velázquez — Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627) and especially Juan van der Hamen (1596–1631) were masters of the genre. Nevertheless, Velázquez’s interest was more in his human subjects, although the careful details of colour and texture with which he depicted utensils and food demonstrate his mastery of the genre and constitute small still-life studies.
Velázquez and his “Models.”
An intriguing feature of the individuals in Velázquez’s bodegón paintings is the resemblance between several of them. The realism with which they are portrayed suggests that these were real people whom Velázquez knew and used as his “sitters” and constitute minor portrait studies. For example, some scholars believe that the water seller was a certain “El Corso” (the Corsican) who worked the streets of Seville. Be that as it may, he looks very much like the older man in Three Men at Table and Peasants at Table. The young boy in both Old Woman Frying… and The Waterseller is surely the same (and is possibly the youth in Three Men…). The old woman in Christ in the House and Old Woman Frying… look very much alike, while the violinist in Three Musicians seemingly appears in Three Men…, Peasants… and Two Young Men…. (His thick lips and moustache suggest that he could also be the model for John in Velázquez’s Vision of St John (c. 1619), aka St. John at Patmos.)
These are not portraits in the traditional sense of capturing the likeness of important individuals posing for propaganda purposes or to indicate their power, wealth and social status. Velázquez’s “sitters” are caught going about their business, even if it is no more than eating, frying an egg, or pouring wine or water. Despite their humble status and everyday activity, Velazquez endows them with dignity and treats them with respect.
Three, at least, are conscious of being painted, and pose accordingly looking out at us. The young man to the left in Three Men at Table is especially memorable; his direct gaze and raised-thumb gesture demand our attention as if he were sharing a joke or secret with us. Is he going to wink next? He has enough roguishness about him to qualify as a pícaro, living by his wits. Coincidentally, Velázquez’s paintings of the marginalised complement the attention given to them in picaresque fiction then very much in vogue. See for example Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I 1599, Part II 1604) or El Buscón (written c. 1604-08, published 1626).
Velázquez and Ambition.
Despite his mastery of bodegón scenes and still-life, they were only just making it to the mainstream. The Waterseller, for example, was bought by the King’s chaplain, Juan de Fonseca, but Fonseca was a Sevillian and supporter of Velázquez.
Even the conservative Pacheco painted a bodegón, and argued that bodegones should be held in high regard, especially as painted by Velazquez: “Well, then, should still-lifes not be held in high regard? Of course they should, if they are painted as my son-in-law paints them, surpassing in that genre every other painter without exception.” (No bias here!!)
On the other hand, bodegón scenes faced fierce opposition in Madrid by one of the court painters, Vincencio Carducho. For Carducho, they were improper subjects for Painting, requiring little intellectual labour or reflective study. For others too, they were seen to be an inferior category of art, still far from acquiring the prestige of established art topics, such as religious paintings and portraiture.
Velázquez’s high ambitions to become a court painter –despite his modest social background—required him to move to Madrid, capital of the country and controller of a vast empire, but significantly the centre of court life. His first trip was in 1622. It was brief and largely unsuccessful, despite support from some members of the court from Seville.
However, he did manage to leave a very favourable impression of his art with a striking portrait of the famous intellectual and poet Luis de Góngora. More decisively, the king’s favourite, the Count-Duke of Olivares –who had close family connections with Seville and had lived in the city—was persuaded to send for Velázquez following the death of one of the court painters. In August 1623, Velázquez settled permanently in Madrid.
Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Lopez-Rey, Jose Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Tiffany, Tanya J. Diego Velázquez’s Early Painting and the Culture of Seventeenth-century Seville Pennsylvania 2012.
Musical Trio: Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13353696
Three Men at Table The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=159931
Peasants at Table (c. 1618-19): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez_-_Peasants_at_the_Table_(El_Almuerzo)_-_WGA24354.jpg
Two Young Men at Table (c. 1622): By Diego Velázquez Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6681446
Old Woman Frying Eggs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Woman_Frying_Eggs