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VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez/ ARTISTS BEFORE 1650/ ART MAIN  home
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid) film and food

Velázquez was born in Seville on June 6, 1599, the oldest of six children; both his parents were from the minor nobility. Between 1611 and 1617 the young Velázquez worked as an apprentice to Francisco Pacheco, a Sevillian Mannerist painter who was also the author of an important treatise, El arte de la pintura (The Art of Painting, 1649), and who became Velázquez's father-in-law. During his student years Velázquez absorbed the most popular contemporaneous styles of painting, derived, in part, from both Flemish and Italian realism.

Many of his earliest paintings show a strong naturalist bias, as does The Breakfast (1617-20, Budapest and Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), which may have been his first work as an independent master after passing the examination of the Guild of Saint Luke. This painting belongs to the first of three categories—the bodegón, or kitchen piece, along with portraits and religious scenes—into which his youthful works, executed between about 1617 and 1623, may be placed. In his kitchen pieces, a few figures are combined with studied still-life objects, as in Water Seller of Seville (circa 1619-20, Wellington Museum, London).

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 Breakfast

about 1617
Oil on canvas, 183 x 116 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

At an age when artists of today are only just beginning their studies at college, Velázquez was already painting his genre scenes: there are several studies of musicians and peasants eating. Later, around 1625, he began to paint scenes from the Gospels in which he found it possible to introduce everyday objects; for instance, in his picture of Christ in the house of Martha; he filled the foreground with a still-life of fish and eggs, relegating the figure of Christ to the background.

In his Breakfast the human figures are scarcely more important than the still-life. It is of course true that the three figures reveal a thorough knowledge of anatomy, while the details are well chosen to indicate character and personal relationships. Superb craftsmanship is shown in the painting of the full, parted lips of the younger man, the eyes of the old man listening to the story and his slight movement towards the glass and the expression on the face of the woman pouring out the wine, concentrating lest a single drop be spilled. Nevertheless it is possible to argue that the most striking part of the composition is the still-life arranged on the white tablecloth. Still though these objects are, they have a genuine pictorial quality, a vigour which is akin to life itself.

The Peasants at Table is one of Velázquez's finest early pieces of the type known in Spain as a "bodegón", a combination of conversation piece and still-life. There is another version of this painting entitled Peasant at Table in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

VELASQUEZ DIVINE DRUDGERY.jpg (122117 bytes)

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
c. 1620
Oil on canvas, 60 x 103,5 cm
National Gallery, London

In Velasquez's celebration of divine drudgery, a disgruntled Martha grinds seasoning for a fish dish while Mary adores Christ in the background. In John's gospel, fish feature in a eucharistic meal eaten by the risen Christ. By concentrating light and warping perspective, the painter gives them glowing prominence.

This painting appears to show a scene from a 17th-century kitchen. But in the upper right-hand corner there is another scene, showing the New Testament subject of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. Is it is seen through a window, reflected through a mirror, or is it a painting hanging on the wall? In all likelihood it is a view into an adjacent room, but perhaps Velázquez deliberately left things a little unclear because he didn't want this part of the painting to be taken too literally. In 17th-century Spain still-life painting was just coming into its own, but very often paintings of food were extended to include cooks and kitchen maids preparing it. A moral was often added as well.

Since the younger woman looks slightly unhappy with her labour we may be intended to think that the older woman is reminding her of how Christ urged Martha to be content with her lot. In which case the scene top right is a visual equivalent to the words spoken by the woman. It is even possible that a painting of this sort was made to hang in a kitchen.

VELASQUEZ OLD WOMAN POACHING EGGS.jpg (43984 bytes)

Old Woman Poaching Eggs
1618
Oil on canvas, 99 x 128 cm
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh