Colnaghi Foundation Journal 03 - Page 94

Onofre Falcó, a Spanish Renaissance master
Velázquez composes: prototypes, replicas,
and transformations
Fig. 1 / Diego Velázquez,
The Waterseller of Seville,
ca. 1620, oil on canvas,
107.7 x 81.3 cm, London,
English Heritage, The
Wellington Collection,
Apsley House.
The city of Seville, where Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)
was born on the eve of the seventeenth century, was a
society beset by contradictions. One of the wealthiest
cities on earth, its population had more than tripled
in the century since Columbus’s voyages, and it was
now a cosmopolitan urban centre of 140,000 – in line
with Amsterdam and Venice – and, like them, also
featured many characteristics of the modern age: there
were numerous nationalities and ethnicities, including
a slave class and a morisco component; there was the
constant awareness and impact of the world ultramar,
populated by the indigenous peoples of territories
claimed by Spain in distant reaches of the world. These
realities were layered over a complex late-medieval
inheritance in which Islamic and Jewish cultures were
profoundly present and a militant Roman Catholicism
informed contemporary institutions. Side by side with
spectacular riches, there was the ever-present underbelly
of society – legions of beggars, destitute labourers, and
the homeless: good reading, perhaps, in the picaresque
literature of the age, but in reality, an environment of
social and physical ills addressed only up to a point by
a proliferation of charitable associations. Velázquez’s
distinctive genre paintings eloquently record some of
the types and characters to be encountered within the
kitchens and sculleries, the backstreets and backrooms of
Golden Age Seville. In works like The Waterseller (Apsley
House) (fig. 1) or Kitchen Scene (Chicago Art Institute)
(fig. 2), the artist’s perceptive eye and sympathetic brush
capture likeness and intrinsic dignity.
In her analysis of Velázquez’s working environment
in Seville, Gridley McKim-Smith observed that
in Velázquez’s time, “transforming the world into
an image had to satisfy an existential necessity
of self-orientation and control in the face of the
unprecedented rhythm of change,” manifest in
the social sphere.1 In his treatise El arte de la pintura 2
Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), Velázquez’s master,
theorized extensively the value of “true contours of the
beautiful Idea”3; this perhaps reflected a desire to define
boundaries in a fast-changing world characterized by an
atmosphere of crisis peculiar to Spain.4 In setting out
the qualities to be admired in portraiture, clear outlines
again received special emphasis: “in Portraiture, the
true likeness resides in the outlines.”5
Francisco Pacheco’s adherence to a style involving
clearly defined outlines is evident throughout his
career. Faithful imitation of the master’s procedures
and aesthetic values – from drawing to mixing
colours to composing pictures – was inevitable in the
traditional apprenticeship training that Velázquez
underwent from 1611-1617 in Pacheco’s studio.6 So
it is no surprise to find that in his early portraits and
genre scenes, Velázquez’s figures retain the same
clear contours so important to his master, yet in a
short period of time, they cease to be precise and
uninflected, becoming assured and fluent. The firm
contours seen in early paintings by Velázquez are but
the final demarcation between figure and ground that
was first explored by the artist in the initial stages of
painting, and subsequently made invisible to the eye.
However, technical imaging with x-radiography and
infra-red imaging, has made it possible to illustrate the
marks now long covered over by the master’s paint.


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