Diego de Silva Velazquez



Commentary on the work of the Spanish painter

The ancient Greeks used the verb poetry to designate the action of manufacture and also that of intellectual production. And these activities were not restricted to the mundane, physical universe. The gods themselves could be agents of this same verb. Hesiod says in The jobs and the days"first the immortals, who dwell on Olympus, made the golden race of articulate men"(Work and Days. Harvard University Press. 1995.p.10-11 vv. 109-110). It can be inferred, therefore, that certain men are the result of the action of poetry of the gods, his poetry (poiesis) – after all, the gods made them, athanatoi poíesan.

Appropriating this verb both with regard to human action of intellectual production and in what is the result of divine action, we can safely say that Diego Velázquez, Sevillian painter, born on June 6, 1599 and died on August 6, 1660 , is a poet and poetry. His productive capacity, when he paints, makes him a poietés, and for making them, unique and specially realized paintings, he could only have been, a poiesis.

Velázquez painter is poet and poetry. This assertion excludes any possibility of attributing to him a certain genius, a quality capable of inexplicably producing a work that is an icon of divine inspiration (Plato, Pure, 532a-534a. Inquiry. 1988. pp. 40-51), something that associates the work of art with innatism and, therefore, separated from a production proposal, based on the ars, then human. In this sense, the Sevillian painter iconizes the mindset of an era whose core are protocols capable of producing artistic effects, often enigmatic, but absolutely predictable for those who observe the objects and texts closely, comprising the standardizing and normalizing system that regulates artistic practice and instructs its spectator or its reader (sweet). It is impossible not to understand Velázquez without bearing in mind that he is the product of an environment in which “regimes of discursive and non-discursive representation [are] ordered by Aristotelian and Latin rhetoric and interpreted by Catholic political theology” (JA Hansen, “Read and See: Assumptions of Colonial Representation”, p. 26-27).

Perhaps, this characteristic currently distances the produced object from reception, from today's spectators. Invariably, the readings that are made of seventeenth-century representations apply ethical categories (as opposed to emic ones) to the work, that is, those that project the world of the observer onto the observed object, in this case, not discrete. Ignorance of the rules makes them inept (non aptum). are foolish (non partner) when confronted with his “poetry”, mediated by sharpness and ingenuity (ingenious). And this provokes three possibilities of attitude: one limits the importance of the work, relegating it to the Erebus of misunderstood works, another proposes an anachronistic reading that speaks more of the observer than of the observed work, and the third provides delight (delect), mediated redoubled attention in their observation. Disregarding its value is unthinkable and talking about us and not the painter is not the case, so it remains for us to unveil some of his enigmas. In order, perhaps, to get closer to the spectators of the 17th century and, from there, to assess the ingenuity of this painter, discreet and prudent, who well represented this art in the period.

Seventeenth-century enigmaticism is something formidable, as it presents propositions that are not immediate, rhetorically observed. They are based on metaphorical constructions, which are nothing more than the result of an analogical operation of distant terms. Thus, the painter proposes that the viewer read the paintings “not only for a thematic connection but also for their pragmatic articulation, to which the themes are subordinated” (JA Hansen Satire and Engenho. Cia das Letras. 1989. p. 34). What is seen, in plan, may not be what was intended to appear, so that we are almost always faced with a proposition of the type “A is equal to B, if and only if, A is different from B”. However, what can be said immediately, also served the initial proposal of production so that there is an accumulation in this art, an overlapping of messages and, from there, it is up to the reception to observe its obvious, limited and dull surface or to add the this one/s other/s subliminal/s, enigmatic/s, metaphorical/s and, consequently, complex/s. It is up to the observer to activate them simultaneously. Two exemplary products of this conception in Velázquez are Spinners e Las Meninas.

Figure 1 – Las Hilanderas or La Fabula de Aracne (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Spinners superficially it may just be the figuration of a spinning shop. It could just be the representation of a workspace, a common starting point in Velázquez and something very common in this culture, as Antonio Maravall explained. Not to mention, of course, the formal and technical observation of the painter's skills with regard to movement, light, chiaroscuro, depth and shadow. Still according to the historian, in the wake of Max Weber, the painting thus reveals to us a mentality of the time that appreciates “industrial production” (The Culture of the Baroque, 1997. Edusp. P. 162.). Which leads us to imagine that the artist was concerned with the representation of strata of society whose way of life is distinguished by illustrious people and courtesan life.

However, it seems to me unlikely that this was Velázquez's only proposal, or even that he committed himself to it, since the canvas brings with it a series of elements that operate a second view that is not so superficial and, therefore, more acute. Starting with your effective name Las Hilanderas or the Fábula de Arachne. The name, therefore, takes us back to the Greco-Latin myth: the story of Arachne, an excellent Lydian weaver, who had learned her art from Pallas Athena and who, because of her pride – she wanted to rival the goddess –, was punished having been transformed in spider (Ovid. Metamorphoses. Publisher 34. 2019. pp. 317-327. vv. VI, 1-145).

Having the myth as its center, the canvas presents three distinct planes that interact. The first depicts the workshop where five women work. Two of them, metaphors of the myth: on the rock on the left, Palas Athena; the other, on the right, manipulating the threads, Arachne. Velázquez adapts the myth to the mindset from 17. In the background, there is a vestibule, at the back of the canvas, well lit, in which three more women are represented, two of whom are looking at the third plane and one, the first and, consequently, us, the spectators. These women seem to establish a connection between us and the third plane, between metaphorically figurative reality, the myth itself and us, the observers. It is worth mentioning that in the third and final plane, there is a tapestry that is nothing more than a tapestry reproduction of a painting: the kidnapping of europe. This one offers us a contribution in the context of the myth, it is related to Arachne, it is one of his tapestries; on the other hand, rhetorically, it is an allusion, an emulation, after all, its author is Tiziano Vecellio (highly regarded by Velázquez). Let's see:

Figure 2 – Titian's Abduction of Europa (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London)
Figure 3 – Detail of the third shot of “Las Hilanderas”

Much more can be said about this painting, but it actually provides us with something important to observe a Velázquez. He shows that a banal view purified only by taste is not enough to understand it. The same fact can be seen in his main and most famous painting: Las Meninas.

Figure 4 – Las Meninas (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

In a first observation, Las Meninas it doesn't seem to be anything exceptional. A look at courtly life, the royal family, at the center of which is Infanta Margarida and her maids. However, it is also observed the representation of the reverse side of a painting and its painter - a self portrait of Velázquez - to paint and see, who knows, who is being represented. Certainly, this model is not the Infanta, as she is already in Las Meninas, at the first level of observation, this is your picture, the one we are seeing. Who would it be then? We to see it? Perhaps. Or simply, the one who in the act of painting observes, like us, the scene at the same time as being the model of the painting that the painter is painting. If so, this painting is unique, as it represents everyone indistinctly, just standing in front of it. That is, Las Meninas it is the picture of who is not in the picture, at least initially.

However, the most attentive observer will notice the presence of a mirror at the back of the chamber and in it will notice the presence of an image of King Felipe IV and Queen Mariana. They would therefore be the observers of the scene, those who would originally occupy the place reserved for us in the observation. Thus, simultaneously, they are observers, specters and ongoing figuration, an enigmatic image being elaborated by the painting's painter.

In this sense, the words of Michel Foucault are essential: “Perhaps in this painting by Velázquez there is, as it were, the representation of the classical representation and the definition of the space that it opens up. Indeed, she tries to represent herself in all her elements, with her images, the gazes to which she offers herself, the faces she makes visible, the gestures that give birth to her. But there, in this dispersion that it gathers and exhibits together, an essential emptiness is imperiously indicated everywhere: the necessary disappearance of what grounds it – of the one to whom it resembles and the one in whose eyes it is nothing more than a resemblance. This very subject – who is the same – was elided. And finally, freed from this chaining relationship, representation can take place as pure representation.” (The words and things. Martins Fontes. 2000. 20-21)

The mirror, by the way, has always been a captivating element of representation, even if we start with the Platonic proposition (Plato. To Republic. Gulbenkian. 1987. pp. 452-453. 596b), where imitation of all things in the world from it is proposed. It would be the essentially mimetic artifact capable of accurately reproducing everything that exists. In this way, the eikones, the images produced, if they do not satisfy Plato - they are not true, they are precarious - certainly are fundamental for understanding the process of mimesis Aristotelianly observed and, in this sense, curiously, a concern of the mimetic arts, not only in painting.

Velázquez uses the mirror at least twice more, the first in The Venus of the Mirror, which is based on the application of a commonplace, since it emulates Titian (Venus of Urbino, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) which, in turn, emulates Giorgione (worship dormant, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). The mirror, therefore, is acutely figured, since it reflects what had already been painted by the Italians and, hence, concentrating on the new, presents the goddess from behind and not frontally as in the case of Tiziano and Giorgione.

Figure 5 – The Venus in the Looking Glass (National Gallery, London)

The second use of the mirror – and in this case it is a possibility – occurs on the screen. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary with a sharpness as significant as that of the pictures already read.

Figure 6 – Christ in the House of Marta and Maria (National Gallery, London)

It is notable in the case of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, a reading of (The Gospels, a Translation. Editorial Atelier. Lucas, 10.38-42. 2020. p. 328-329), its countless layers of meaning. First, the theme is subordinated to the foreground of the painting, in it, the background, precisely we have Jesus, Mary kneeling and Martha complaining about the work she has been submitted to, as we read in Luke. In the foreground, there are two women: one working and the other warning. The visual counterflow of the first leads us to understand that the two women are the daily reflection of the passage of the Gospel. Thus, the gaze of Marta, who is in the foreground on the right, captures us overwhelmingly. One has the impression of being the target of an iconized attention, however, in reality, the target is Christ who for us is nothing more than an image, an icon of the painter's ingenuity. It is also important to note that Maria's index finger points to the viewer of the scene where her attention should be – the right corner of the canvas: a window, an opening in the wall or a mirror? Any of the possibilities. But I prefer it to be a mirror. Once again, Velázquez embarrasses us, as he places us as ideal observers of the scene. In Las Meninas as kings and now as Jesus Christ himself. The mirror behind the women places Martha's gaze back on Christ who is in front of her, and also spectrally behind her, as if denoting his ubiquity.

According to Maravall, this enigmatic way of representing the world is fundamentally linked to the notion that it is necessary to prove to the people of the time that everything is governed by protocol, therefore everything that is pointed out to them is illusory, governed by knowledge and prudence: “That is why the techniques employed to underline the apparent and illusory condition of the empirical world are so important. One understands the great development they acquire and their decisive role in all forms of communication with an audience. In art, the efectisms that are resorted to to produce a certain degree of indetermination about where the real ends and the illusory begins correspond to the outline we have just made. Among the effects of this type – to explain what we mean – we would cite as examples some fundamental paintings by Velázquez, such as Las Meninas ou Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Let us observe that now it is not a question of the naive virtuosity of copying something with such realism that it leads us to believe that what is only a painted image is a real and living thing. Velazque’s essay is much more complex: it is about multiplying an image within others, so functionally articulated that they even produce some uncertainty about the moment at which, in this game of images, the represented is transferred to the real.” (A Cultura do Barroco. Edusp. 1997. p. 316-7)

Another issue that intrigues us in Velázquez is the rapprochement between two antagonistic types of composition. One public and elevated and the other private and low, the first virtuous, the second vicious, which respond to an ethics absolutely unique to the period. One competes with praise, the other with reproach. This dichotomy becomes absolutely visible and obvious when we observe, side by side, Velázquez's dedication to painting not only members of the royal house of Spain and other distinguished names of the 17th century, but also ordinary personalities from everyday life. Let's see: Portrait of Pope Innocent X and how the Portrait of the Dwarf Francisco Lezcano.

Figure 7 – Portrait of Pope Innocent X (Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome)
Figure 8 – Portrait of the dwarf Francisco Lezcano (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

These oppositions, that is, of perfection and imperfection, can also be provoked by the presence of the elevated and the vulgar simultaneously. And both are amazing. In this sense, the famous canvases: The Triumph of Bacchus or the Borrachos e The forge of Vulcan.

Figure 9 – The Triumph of Bacchus or the Borrachos (Museo del Prado, Madrid)


Figure 10 – The forge of Vulcano (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

In the case of anomalies, according to José López-Rey (Velázquez – Complete Work. Tashen. 1998 p. 129-30), these would be at the service of the figuration of human nature and its distortions. Furthermore, it is important to say that these people had a position in the courteous world, they served to break the boredom, boredom, fatigue, which the world of appearances, governed by protocols, provided.

The simultaneity of vulgar and elevated images could meet the XNUMXth century concern for ruins, which are undoubtedly associated with the fleeting nature of life. By proposing Baco next to drunks or Apollo next to blacksmiths, Velázquez exposes the contrast between the immortal divine and the mortal human in which the first would represent perenniality – he is a god –, and the others that which is most fleeting – the human. It is not in any other way that the megalocephaly of Las Meninas in contrast to the royal virtuosity of Infanta Margarida, her maids and her ghostly parents.

Such observations about Velázquez indicate just a few characteristics that should not be overlooked when we come into contact with this artist's painting. They prove that, if one of his concerns was to represent the fleetingness of life, Velázquez managed to build a real representation of what is most enduring, his art. Ars longa, uita breuis.

* Paulo Martins is a professor of Classical Letters at USP. Author, among other books, of Image and Power (EDUSP).

The first version of this text was published in Jornal da Tarde, Saturday Notebook, p.1. June 25, 1999.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives