Issue Number: 92
Telling the truth
Philosopher A.C. Grayling finds extraordinary depths in Velázquez paintings of everyday life – images that both scrutinise and celebrate reality
Before taking up his paintbrushes professionally, Diego Velázquez studied rhetoric and philosophy in his home city of Seville. These subjects were taught according to the traditional Aristotelian curriculum which had governed education for centuries, but even in conservative Spain Velázquez could not fail to learn something of the new intellectual outlook in science and philosophy that was stirring contemporary Europe. Some of those ideas lie in the background of his work: a new interest in the psychological inwardness of human experience, and a scientific interest in perception and the minutiae of visual objects.
They explain Velázquez’s intense concern with the inner life of his portrait sitters, and the complex metaphysical allegories in such paintings as Las Meninas and The Surrender of Breda. They record his preoccupation with the idea that larger meanings are entailed by events than what first meets the eye, so that finely accurate observation of detail can reveal the reality that lies within appearances.
Despite the greatness of Velázquez’s later works, I here choose a very early work, painted when he had only lately finished studying philosophy. At the outset he chose to depict ordinary people engaged in ordinary avocations, such as eating and preparing food. What is captivating about how he explored the exquisite texture of pottery and glass, cloth and cutlery, the sheen of bronze ware and the expressiveness of faces and hands, is his intense, almost preternatural power of observation, a vivid expression of the truth of things, which helps to make sense of the penetrating and mysterious depth of psychological insight in such later works as his Portrait of Innocent X.
Diego Velázquez, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618
It is therefore not just Velázquez’s celebration of the beauty in ordinary things that is striking, but the place he gives to humanity among them. In An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618), one notices that the poaching eggs are not yet quite done, that the dish across which the knife lies is cracked and worn at the rim, but also that the old woman has asked the boy a question. Both kinds of detail seem exactly right and necessary. There is a hint of allegory in the choice and arrangement of objects so carefully observed in the picture, but the hint is understated, as if leaving to the viewer the deep task of finding a narrative in which this might be a turning point.
Velázquez’s fascination with truth in his portrayals of the quotidian is evident in how often he sought it. Two Young Men Eating at a Humble Table, the psychologically as well as artistically beautiful Waterseller of Seville, and the kitchen paintings with background biblical references, join Cooking Eggs to illustrate this. In each case two things leap out: the loving scrutiny of glass, pottery and cloth, garnished in rich light; and the deeply portrayed thoughtfulness of the figures handling these objects – their feelings and thoughts not focused on the objects themselves, but on something far away, which is as profound and transcendent as the objects are mundane and familiar. This is where the philosophical note sounds in Velázquez’s work, inviting one to speculate about the seriousness and reverence with which his figures inhabit their world.
Of course, if all Velázquez’s works were under one roof and threatened by fire, one would rescue the great later works first. But, for the thoughtful beauty with which Velázquez captured the dimples in a water jug, the slightly distorting translucence of heavy glass and the rough warmth of a poor man’s cloak, almost nothing beats the smaller paintings, like Cooking Eggs, too easily dismissed as mere bodegones (domestic subjects). They are more: they are meditations on the nature of things and, like all his work, are instinct with the soul of philosophy.
Velázquez, National Gallery, London (020 7747 2885), 18 Oct–21 Jan
A. C. Grayling
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