The oil on canvas painting featured in My Daily Art Display today is a somewhat unusual, and to me, disturbing portrait by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez entitled El bufón don Sebastián de Morra. Sebastián de Morra was a dwarf and jester to the court of Philip IV of Spain. He was crippled from birth and sadly was the subject of ridicule and mistreatment from the nobleman at Philip’s court. He was the servant of the King’s eldest son and heir, the teenage Prince Baltasar Carlos. On the prince’s untimely death at the age of 16, due to contracting smallpox, Baltasar left in his will a small silver sword and other objects to Don Sebastian and from this gesture we must believe the two of them had a very close and amicable relationship. Velázquez painted the portrait of other dwarfs of the Spanish court. Look back at My Daily Art Display of December 27th when I featured Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas in which we saw the dwarf, Maribárbola. The German philosopher and art historian Carl Justi said of their life at court: “they were loved and treated as dogs”. These unfortunate people were often found at courts in the Middle Ages and were given shelter in return for their services as court jesters, a position which left them open to offensive remarks and practical jokes. It was their lot in life to accept such unkindness and had just to be thankful that they had a roof over their heads.
This painting by Velázquez around 1646 is, by far, one of the painter’s most impressive and unforgettable works. Against a dark background we see the figure of the dwarf, Don Sebastián. There is a lack of elegance in the way he sits on the ground. He is leaning slightly to one side. His foreshortened legs stick out and he reminds us somewhat of a puppet which has been abandoned and his strings released by his puppeteer master. His tightly clenched hands rest on his thighs. He looks intently out at us making us feel slightly guilty that we are staring in at him. Can you look at him for any length of time without wanting to turn away as if you know you shouldn’t be staring at him? He looks somewhat annoyed. There is sadness in his dark eyes, which is contrary to his role as a jester, when his sole aim was to exude happiness and make people laugh. Maybe his expression is to remind us, lest we forget or are swayed by his opulent attire, that his life is not full of fun. Although he displays a dignified air, he also looks tormented and gloomy.
He wears a plush red and gold cape with a flamenco lace collar over a buttoned green doublet. His clothing, although splendid, cannot conceal from us his menial position in the court and this is emphasised even more by the fact that this sad diminutive figure is seated on the bare ground and not within the opulence of a court setting. Was it in the mind of the artist, or from the instructions of his patron, that the dwarf, Don Sebastián, should be dressed lavishly so as to portray to us, the viewers, that the jester was well treated and that he enjoyed the best life could give? Are we taken in by that premise?