Important Art by Diego Velázquez
At eighteen years of age, Velazquez painted this picture in the style of a Spanish bodegone, or small genre scene that depicts normal, everyday people in a common situation, many times involving food and mealtime gatherings. It is known for its unflinching naturalism. In it, Velazquez took care to lovingly render the many subtle changes of the tones in skin, the graceful folds of soft fabric in the old woman's scarf, the gleam and delicate shadows of metal in the pots, and the rich sheen of the red onion's skin. The center of the composition is the food, the pot of cooking eggs, and the hand of the woman above it. The bright melon and the boy's solemn face, his left hand, and the woman's hands pull the viewer's eyes in and around the scene. It a great example of Velazquez's commitment to not only showing us the privileged lives of his royal subjects, but also to express his love of everyday people and experiences with a noted sincerity toward depicting reality in all its forms.
Although the subject matter is decidedly more humble than his portraits of kings and their accompanying entourages and historical situations, Velazquez treats the subjects of this painting with the same masterful touches signature to his artistic voice. There is a strong use of chiaroscuro, in which the dark, disappearing background juxtaposed with lighter, high contrast areas and objects tell the story. This is shown to us in high contrast with unsurpassed realism. The ovular construction of the composition is designed in such a way that it opens up to include the viewer using Velazquez's common strategy of diagonal planes and coextensive spacing. A combination of loose and fine brushwork is utilized to create surface tension and emphasis on various objects and the faces. The background is immersed in darkness, creating a theatrical effect that renders his subjects, even in their mundaneness, as grand central figures as if spot lit upon a stage.
In 1889, biographer Karl Justi quoted Sir J.C. Robinson's observation that "...The pictures of Velazquez have this in common with photographs, that they impress the mind with such a powerful sense of actuality..."
Here the precise realism and actions of the figures portrayed with strong dramatic lighting recall the work of Caravaggio, which Velazquez may have studied from copies in Seville. Christ is depicted at the moment of recognition by two disciples after his resurrection.
Velazquez's experimentation with different perspectives and his ability to draw the viewer into the drama of the artwork were unparalleled by his contemporaries. The light source in this work enters from our left and appears centered on or near Christ's head. This creates illuminated faces and a darkened background. The primary focus is on Christ; he emanates a quiet, pensive presence while the disciples react with movements and expressions of surprise or emotional confusion.
The many diagonals pull us into and around the composition. The dark figure with an outstretched arm and his back to the viewer in the foreground leans in and over the table. The man across from him leans toward Christ, and gestures in his direction even as he addresses his fellow disciple. All hands visible are near Christ, who gazes up, out of the immediate space. His light colored, garmented arm and hand form a curve leading into the center of the scene. The table with a white cover stabilizes the middle ground to help us understand the dramatic, active arrangement. Velázquez emphasizes the individuals but uses color, light, and motion to involve the viewer. Karl Justi, the author of Diego Velázquez and His Times, noted that Antonio Ponz, the cicerone or learned guide for viewing Spanish art, advised that "...the best models of the natural style are the works of Diego Velázquez, in their knowledge of light and shade, in the play of aerial effect, which are the most important features of this style, because they give a reflection of the truth."
Velázquez's masterpiece of the late 1620s might be interpreted as a response to the criticism of his rivals of the Spanish court; it had been said that he was a mere portraitist and not able to compete in the lofty sphere of history painting. An alternate Spanish title for the painting is Los Borrachos or "The Drunks" and it was painted for Philip IV who hung it in his summer bedroom.
The scene is a depiction of Bacchus, or Dionysis, the god who rewards men with wine, temporarily releasing them from their problems. In Baroque literature, Bacchus was considered an allegory of the liberation of man from the slavery of daily life. In the painting, the god is surrounded by eight drinkers, which was a rare subject in Spanish painting. Drunkenness was condemned in Spain but the royal court found it entertaining to bring in low-life people from comedy theaters and inebriate them for the amusement of the ladies.
The painting is firm and solid in its figures while the light and dark areas show an evolution from Velazquez's former works. The composition was devised using many diagonals and complex focal points to involve the viewer. On the left, Bacchus and the satyr behind him are quite naked except for the traditional loose cloths of classical mythology. Bacchus is posed and vividly illuminated; he looks out of the painting as he places a leafy wreath on a man in a golden jacket kneeling before him. An extremely dark mythological figure crouches in the lower left. The right side of the composition is made up of several darkly clothed older men who are drinking and conversing. Two of the men look directly out at the viewer as if to invite them in to the merriment.
The piece is noted for its use of Velazquez's signature naturalism, that even when transposed upon a subject of mythical proportions manages to maintain a sense of realism - practically welcoming the spectator to partake in the dreamy scene.