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Fascinating Facts about 3 of Velázquez's Most Famous Paintings

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on March 8, 2016

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This article was updated on April 27, 2017


1. Vulcan’s Forge:

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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)

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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 looks 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)

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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 (click on this link for the article: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/5683d8feacd0d02b12c42132), 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


Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More

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