Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 3, 2014
Tanya J. Tiffany Diego Velázquez's Early Paintings and the Culture of Seventeenth-Century Seville University Park: Penn State University Press, 2012. 256 pp.; 20 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $79.95 (9780271053790)
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How did Diego Velázquez’s formative period in Seville inform his later artistic accomplishments at the Spanish court? What was the role of Francisco Pacheco’s teachings and of his intellectual circle in the artist’s training? And how did Velázquez’s early works engage with Sevillian audiences and the concerns of their local culture? These questions are not new ones to students and historians of Spanish baroque painting. In Diego Velázquez’s Early Paintings and the Culture of Seventeenth-Century Seville, Tanya J. Tiffany considers them once again, yet from a refreshing and original perspective. Seeking “to bring an investigation of the cultural and social frameworks of Velázquez’s career to bear upon a careful consideration of specific works of art” (9), Tiffany offers in each of the book’s chapters a tightly focused analysis of a specific work (or pair of works) by Velázquez, each selected effectively to showcase the range of genres that Velázquez practiced during this period (religious paintings, portraits, and bodegones), the significance they held for their Sevillian patrons, and the ingenious strategies by which the young painter tested their pictorial boundaries while maintaining the rules of decorum. In so doing, Tiffany intentionally breaks an unfortunate trend in the scholarship on Velázquez that (with a few recent exceptions), by privileging the monographic format, has tended to separate style, subject matter, and cultural context. In contrast, Tiffany’s work demonstrates the interpretative richness that can come from carefully looking at specific paintings and, just as importantly, from closely reading the written documents that may inform them. Rather than trying to prove specific correlations between text and image, Tiffany uses her sources to demonstrate that Velázquez and Seville’s elite shared a common intellectual culture. Going beyond the typical iconographical approach, she thus considers textual and visual evidence from a holistic perspective, mirroring Velázquez’s own process of transforming ideas into visual representations. It is this working method that lends special value to Tiffany’s book. Her examination of Velázquez’s Immaculate Conception (ca. 1617–20) and Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1617–20), Madre Jerónima de la Fuente (1620), The Waterseller of Seville (ca. 1622–23), and Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1622–23) in light of “the artistic practices, religious faith, and social mores of his native Seville” (3) reveals that while Velázquez often departed from the stylistic and iconographic choices of his Sevillian peers (as has been long recognized), the artist’s characteristic “interplay between extraordinary innovation and pictorial convention” (3) has deeper roots in Seville’s artistic and cultural milieu than previously acknowledged.

In her discussion of the Immaculate Conception and Saint John the Baptist for the Calced Carmelite monastery of Nuestra Señora del Carmen (chapter 1), for instance, Tiffany takes into account how the order’s own history, the devotion of its members to the Immaculate Conception, and the Counter Reformation need for naturalism “to express the truthfulness of the religious subject” (40) framed Velázquez’s two works and their reception by El Carmen’s friars. Tiffany’s nuanced reading of texts written or translated by friars of the Sevillian monastery around the time of Velázquez’s two paintings is particularly illuminating with regards to the Immaculate Conception. As Tiffany argues, by means of his “true imitation of nature” (painting from live models and strong chiaroscuro, which Pacheco admired and promoted), Velázquez achieved a “lifelikeness unprecedented in Sevillian painting” (48). However, he was also able to closely follow Pacheco’s iconographic precepts and to address the Carmelites’ concerns regarding the Virgin’s “corporeal beauty,” obscuring the model’s sensuality and the potential licentious effects of her image on the friars. As Tiffany suggests, Velázquez’s painting thus not only conformed to the expectations and needs of the Carmelite Order, but also visually conveyed the notion of the Virgin’s purity and sexual unavailability much more effectively than the texts.

This innovative reading of Velázquez’s work brings attention to an important aspect of his artistic output: his “marriage of theory and practice” (48), an idea that is often discussed, but that Tiffany effectively clarifies as his “ability to bring his practical talents to bear on his awareness of the issues animating the world of letters” (17). Moreover, Tiffany persuasively argues, Velázquez learned this “practice of synthesizing various pictorial and textual sources” in Pacheco’s studio (48).

Underscoring the Sevillian origins of this “keen pictorial intelligence” (17) is also a major theme in Tiffany’s discussion of the Supper at Emmaus (chapter 4). Building upon her own research on Velázquez’s contemporaneous Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618) (a work not directly discussed in the book but given curious prominence as the book’s cover illustration), Tiffany’s analysis of this elusive painting illustrates Velázquez’s inventive transformation of visual sources (the “inverted” religious works of Aertsen and Beuckelaer, the illustrations to Gerónimo Nadal’s 1607 Adnotaciones, and Pacheco’s own Saint Sebastian Attended by Saint Irene from 1616), his challenge of the boundaries of pictorial genres (kitchen and religious scenes), his experimentation with the visual and meditative possibilities of pictures within pictures, and, most significantly, his ability to effectively interpret and even transcend the religious debates of Seville’s intellectual elite by purely pictorial means. Once again, Tiffany effectively uses a series of previously unexplored primary sources to make her point. In particular, texts by seventeenth-century Sevillian ecclesiastics of Pacheco’s circle provide the theoretical framework for understanding Velázquez’s unusual depiction of an African female slave in conjunction with the biblical scene, which, Tiffany maintains, creates a “visual argument regarding slaves and their potential for embracing Christianity” (110). Lengthy argumentations by Seville’s intellectuals about Africans’ “spiritual darkness” and the possibility of their Christian illumination are acutely and more sensitively conveyed by Velázquez, who delivers the same message through his “true imitation of nature,” both in terms of his distinctively strong chiaroscuro and his use of a real, living African woman. This, of course, does not mean that Velázquez was ahead of his time in his approach to slavery but rather that he “appropriated and illustrated” (110) the views of his “distinguished clientele” in relation to Seville’s large population of African slaves. In fact, although Tiffany speculates on the possibility of Seville’s domestic slaves actually identifying with the woman in Velázquez’s painting, it is the male beholder-owner who is primarily addressed. By cleverly allowing this primary beholder “to look upon one possession encompassed within another” (108), Velázquez also reflects the ambitions of a talented artist who is concerned with pleasing and impressing his elite audience.

Velázquez’s ingenious understanding of the needs of his patrons and of the discrete functions of different pictorial genres is also foregrounded in Tiffany’s analysis of Madre Jerónima de la Fuente (chapter 2) and The Waterseller of Seville (chapter 3). In the first, close attention to Pacheco’s theory and practice of portraiture—developed in both the Arte de la pintura (1649) and the Libro de retratos (1599)—underlines how his privileging of likeness over idealization in regards to this particular genre informed Velázquez’s rendering of the Toledan Poor Clare (of which two autograph versions exist). At the same time, by comparing Velázquez’s portrait with early biographies of the nun (only briefly discussed in previous literature) and contemporary portraits of local holy figures, Tiffany demonstrates that Velázquez keenly understood the importance of pictorial decorum: instead of representing the physical marks of Madre Jerónima’s gruesome imitation of Christ’s Passion (described in detail in the biographies), Velázquez more subtly suggests the nun’s penitence through the cross she is holding. Similarly, by pictorial means—“flashes of light,” “heavy lids,” and “prominent, ragged brow” (72) for the eyes and clenched jaw—he is able to convey Madre Jerónima’s powerful gaze, which biographers described as having the “power to see inside the souls of others” (72), and her diligent vow of silence. Tiffany’s insightful analysis of these sources demonstrates how Velázquez’s balancing of “true likeness” and decorum perfectly suited the needs of the nuns of Toledo’s convent of Santa Isabel, for whom Velázquez’s portrait turned the absent nun (she left for the Philippines shortly after) into a “living,” authoritarian presence to be imitated. (The theme of the “virile woman,” however, is given less prominence than one would expect from the chapter’s title.)

Similarly, Tiffany’s examination of the Waterseller of Seville shows how Velázquez tailored the picture’s imagery to the interests of its owner, the scholar and connoisseur Don Juan de Fonseca y Figueroa. Taking up the relatively new genre of bodegones, paintings of humble subjects that were also considered to be “lowly” in artistic theory, Velázquez addressed Fonseca’s erudition concerning ancient painting, which was mostly known precisely through descriptions of painters of “humble things.” Not unlike the picaresque novel, discussed only briefly by Tiffany, this unique genre provided the perfect opportunity to display invention by means of a “striking imitation of reality” (88). As has been long recognized, the painting’s wit is illustrated through Velázquez’s visual references to Fonseca’s name (the play on Fonseca as dry fountain and between figs and Figueroa). Others have also connected the painting to religious meanings and contemporary discussions of poverty. Tiffany contributes to these discussions by considering Velázquez’s visual references through the lens of ut pictura poesis, a strategy by which, as seems to be implied in each of the book’s chapters, Velázquez “elevated his own art” (94). More significantly, Tiffany’s analysis of this work elucidates Velázquez’s complex relationship to Pacheco’s teachings, which constitutes another of the book’s overarching themes. As long argued, Velázquez wittily challenged Pacheco’s dismissal of still-life elements in larger narratives as “distractions” by placing a prominent, skillfully rendered jug in the Waterseller’s foreground. Tiffany’s nuanced reading of Pacheco’s text alongside the painting’s formal features suggests that, in an even wittier move, Velázquez actually followed Pacheco’s own precepts by demonstrating that he was “brilliantly capable of representing figures as well as objects” (86). Pacheco later proudly asserted that with his bodegones Velázquez left “room for no one else” (87).

Interestingly, Velázquez abandoned this genre when he moved to the court (although Los Borrachos [ca. 1628–29] has been sometimes described as a “bodegón in a grand format”), an issue that Tiffany seeks to address in the last chapter. In this “first sustained account of Velázquez’s transition from his career in Seville to his position as a court painter” (21), Tiffany’s “between-the-lines” reading of Pacheco’s Arte reveals not only the strategic machinations (and influential supporters) that made Velázquez’s triumph at court possible, but also Pacheco’s careful construction of Velázquez as the ultimate courtier-artist who, acutely aware of seventeenth-century artistic discourse, presented himself as a portraitist, a more highly regarded pictorial genre that would give him access to royal patronage. (The possible rivalry with the still-life painter Juan Van der Hamen, discussed by others elsewhere, is intriguing.)

Throughout this beautifully illustrated and exhaustively documented book, Tiffany highlights “the inseparability of the young Velázquez from the visual and intellectual culture of early seventeenth-century Seville” (21) and successfully shows how the “Sevillian foundations of his art” (149) had a lasting impact in his later career at court. While this in itself is not new, Tiffany brings a fresh understanding of the conditions that made it possible. Her examination of a wide variety of textual and visual sources alongside Velázquez’s paintings from this period, for instance, transforms the long-held but poorly understood notion of Velázquez’s erudition—often associated with Velázquez’s later career in Madrid but, as demonstrated here, deeply rooted in the artist’s Sevillian period. Furthermore, Tiffany also contributes to the reassessment of Pacheco, who emerges as an effective teacher completely in tune with the artistic debates of the day (foremost the question of naturalism) and a crucial player in Velázquez’s artistic development, both through his teachings and through his connections with Seville’s religious and intellectual elites. By bringing attention to these connections, moreover, Tiffany sheds light on the vibrant culture of seventeenth-century Seville and its social, artistic, and religious realities (including rarely discussed contemporary theories of race). Ultimately, by situating Velázquez’s works in dialogue with this context, Tiffany also challenges the tendency to isolate the artist from the Spanish artistic context. In this way, rather than standing in opposition to the rich culture of Seville, he becomes its most eloquent interpreter.

Diego Velázquez’s Early Paintings and the Culture of Seventeenth-Century Seville has wide-ranging methodological implications for the study of Spanish art, which has tended to lag behind in this regard, and similar studies on other Sevillian artists—Francisco Zurbarán, Alonso Cano, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo—would be a welcome addition to the history of early modern Spanish painting. In short, this is an important contribution to the literature on one of the foundational figures of Spanish art, highly recommended to students and scholars alike.

Carmen Ripollés
Assistant Professor, School of Art and Design, Portland State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.