Friday, August 13, 2010

Velasquez: Water from the Source

Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velasquez's (1599-1660) Waterseller of Seville is what's known as a genre painting, a scene from everyday life, as opposed to a portrait or a scene from history, mythology, or the Bible, the primary subjects for European paintings of the post-Renaissance period. It's a virtuosos performance for the young Velazquez, who was only 20 when he painted it.

No one had ever treated the everyday life on the streets of Spain's cities with such depth and majesty, lavishing on the low-life the level of attention and dignity reserved for scenes from the life of Christ. This was a radical change in what could be done with art (even after Caravaggio); contemporaries called the paintings "bodegones," from bodegon, as in "bodega," basically a pub.

Jonathon Jones vividly describes the scene: "The vendor's face is downcast, expecting nothing, not looking at the boy to whom he gives water in a clean, fine glass with a black fig to freshen the taste. In the shadows another customer drinks. The water-seller seems unaware of either; as if in deference to his sorrow, the boy looks down. He respects the poverty and age of the street-seller, as does Velazquez, who gives the man an immense dignity.... This painting crackles with Seville's scorching heat. The water-seller's robe (torn like a saint's) has a flaky, crisp texture. His face, around his mouth, is marked by deep canyons like dried-up river beds. His beard is desert grass, his hair shaved short, in contrast to the boy's lively locks. He touches the water jar, on the surface of which three drops of water glisten, shining globules of life."

Velasquez leads us into the painting through a series of linked, rounded shapes. The large water jug, with its arresting range of wet and dry, smooth and rough textures, bulges toward us, its swelling form echoed by the seller's rotund body. Our gaze travels to the smaller clay jug, to the old man's hand above it, then to the glass and the two faces, the old man's and the boy's, downcast but radiant in light, and we notice a third face hovering between them.

Velasquez's followers painted bodegones, but never with such vision and compassion. Velasquez's ability to see profound human significance in the ordinary, and his poetic reverence for the real over the religious, prompted Ortega y Gasset to exclaim, “Velasquez is an atheist giant, a godless colossos. With his brush he sweeps away the gods as with a broom. He is our painter. He paved the way for our irreligious era, an administrative age in which, instead of talking about Dionysus, we speak of alcoholism.”

Unlike the cheerful Dutch peasant-life genre scenes from which Velasquez drew inspiration, this painting imparts a gritty realism and a sombre depth of humanity that Velasquez ratchets up to the level of parable or fable. Indeed, commentators have seen in it an allegory of the three stages in the life of man – the model for the old man was Velasquez’s master, who posed for it, the boy was the painter’s apprentice, and in the center is Velasquez, in a subtle self portrait – he occupies the middle ground in age, the observer hiding in the shadows, taking in the entire spectacle of life.


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