Velázquez’s Early Paintings. The Seville Years. 1599-1623.

Velázquez, Diego 1599-1660. His Early Paintings in Seville, 1599-1623.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Seville was Spain’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. It was a city of extremes: conspicuous wealth and abject poverty, flamboyantly religious and boldly lawless. It was also a vibrant centre of art, sculpture and literature.

Three themes dominated the artistic output in Seville at the beginning of the 17th century: 1. Religious scenes; 2. Genre paintings, which encompassed still-life and bodegón scenes (drawn from daily life often in everyday eating places); and 3. Portraits. In Velázquez’s case, the following are among the most important painted by him during his early years in Seville:

  • Religious:
          Christ in the House of Martha and Mary 1618.

          Adoration of the Magi 1619.
          The Immaculate Conception c. 1619.
          St. John Writing the Apocalypse 1619.
          The Supper at Emmaus c. 1620
  • Genre Paintings: Still Life/ Bodegones:
         Old Woman Frying Eggs 1618.

         Three Men at a Table c. 1618.
         Water Seller 1619-20.
  • Portraits:
         Doña Jerónima de la Fuente 1620.
         Don Cristóbal Suárez de Ribera 1620.

         Luis de Góngora 1622.

Velázquez was an accomplished practitioner of all three forms, enough even at an early age to impress his mentor and father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), governor of the painters’ guild of Seville from 1599 and author of an important treatise, Arte de la pintura (Art of Painting) published posthumously in 1649.

That Velázquez he should paint religious works is hardly surprising in a city where commissions from churches, monasteries and convents for sacred paintings were plentiful while religious institutions in the Americas (Las Indias) provided a never-ending outlet for artists.

Even as an emerging artist Velázquez showed touches of independent thinking, e. g. introducing the everyday world of the bodegón and still-life into his religious canvases. It was a simple and effective means of bringing the biblical message to life for the 17th-century public. At the same, these realistic, contemporary details underlined the universality of the Christian message: it was not limited by time nor geography. This is especially so in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary 1618 and The Supper at Emmaus c. 1620.

Velázquez. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. 1618.
Velázquez. The Supper at Emmaus. c. 1620.

The bodegón paintings reflect the idea advocated Italian painters, especially Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610) that everyday –even socially marginalized– individuals could be worthy of serious treatment and appreciated in their own right. Their representation replaced the conventional idealism of the Renaissance with a dramatic interplay of intense clear light, hard shadows and crisp outlines. Rather than the sublime, Caravaggio painted sacred figures in modern settings and in contemporary dress, setting the stage for the “demythification” of myths, legends and biblical tales that was one of the hallmarks of the Baroque.

The Waterseller 1619-20.

In Seville, Velázquez would have witnessed both the “unreal” world of extreme wealth and fantastic tales of the Americas and the very real world of extreme poverty. Seville was a city of extremes. When asked in later years “why he had not tried to raise the level of his art to that of Raphael, he replied that he preferred to ‘first in the common, rather than second in the sublime‘” (Brown, Dale 39). Nothing could be more common than an old woman frying eggs, plain men eating at a table or a ragged water seller at his task. All deal with food and Spaniards at the turn of the 17th century were obsessed by food.

The popularity of bodegón scenes was not an isolated phenomenon; it coincided with the vogue for picaresque literature at the beginning of the 17th century. One of the constant preoccupations of the pícaro was food and his tricks to obtain it played a vital role in his early formation.

Old woman Frying Eggs. 1618.

The importance of portraits was long established. They facilitated marriage between interested parties, especially royal or aristocratic unions. They had propaganda value, confirmed the status and office of the wealthy, whether secular or religious, and bestowed fame on the sitter. Of the six portraits painted by Velázquez in his Sevillian period, the three we have selected are of people of substance: a mother superior, Doña Jerónima de la Fuente, a noble (Don Cristóbal Suárez de Ribera, godfather of Velázquez’s wife) and one of Spain’s most famous poets, Luis de Góngora.

Doña Jerónima de la Fuente 1620.

But, while these canvases concentrate clearly on the individuals, we should keep in mind that the figures in the bodegón scenes look so real that they are almost certainly portraits. The most outstanding is the water seller (above) who, according to some scholars, was indeed one of many who worked the streets of Seville and was known as El Corso, the Corsican.

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.
Velázquez: Doña Jerónima de la Fuente: [2], Dominio público,
Velázquez: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in National Gallery, London:
Velázquez: The Supper at Emmaus:
Velázquez: Old Woman Frying Eggs:
Velázquez: The Waterseller: