At the end of this week we are off on a five-day jaunt to Spain to sample the delights of the Spanish Paradores and so I thought it would be fitting to have my next few blogs focus on Spanish painters. Today I want to start by looking look at the connection between a famous Spanish painter and an English fighting hero. I want to explore the connection between the talented Spanish artist Velazquez and the great British general, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.
My Daily Art Display today features not just one work but three very similar works, which were completed by the young aspiring Spanish artist in the early 1620’s and who was to become one of the greatest painters of all time. His name was Diego Rodriguez da Silva Velazquez. The works I want to look at today were all painted when he was in his early twenties. The paintings in which Velazquez specialised during his early career were known as “bodegones“. The word derives from the Spanish word, bodegón which lierally means taven or public eating place. In Spanish art, a bodegón is a still life painting depicting the preparation or eating of food, pantry items, such as victuals, game, and drink, often arranged on a simple stone slab, and also a painting with one or more figures, but significant still life elements, typically set in a kitchen or tavern. These works often depicted scenes of lowlife in earthy tones, and with a sense of sombre pathos, which were unlike similar works by the contemporary the highly-colourful Dutch and Flemish genre scenes by the likes of Jan Steen and Pieter Aertsen with their depictions of the happy, but poor, peasants.
The title of Velazquez’s three painting is The Waterseller of Seville. Hecompleted these works during the period from 1618-1622. Art historians would have us believe that these works were the greatest of all his Seville paintings. Velazquez painted three versions of the work. The one shown above can be seen in the Apsley House in London. Another version of the painting, which was completed three years earlier, can be found in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. The third version of the work hangs in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Let us take a look at the paintings in detail. Before us Velazquez has portrayed a waterseller in the city of Seville. During the scorching heat of a Spanish day, to come across a waterseller would be a godsend. The role of a waterseller in Spain in those days was a common trade for the lower classes in Seville. The aguador was often mentioned in popular satirical Spanish literature, plays and popular imagery. The aquador or waterseller was frequently portrayed as a scoundrel or pathetic peddler, who operated on the fringes of urban society and hawked his often dubious wares to an unsuspecting public. This street water-seller was nicknamed the Corsican of Seville and who, according to accounts from the end of the 17th century, wore a smock with holes in it to show his scabs and sores to potential customers so as to eke out some sympathy whilst at the same time, boost trade. In Velazquez’s painting we can see that the vendor of water has two customers. One is a young boy and it is thought that the artist has used the same model for this work that he used in his earlier works, entitled The Lunch and Old Woman Cooking Eggs, a painting I will look at in my next blog. In the background and somewhat harder to discern is another young man who has also purchased a small jug of water from the seller.
In the foreground of the painting we have very large jugs of water. Rivulets and glistening water drops slowly run down the ridges of this massive jug. Observe how Velazquez has cleverly depicted this main jug. It appears so close to us. It almost seems to bulge out of the painting. The chalice-like goblet, held by the young boy, holds centre stage as the light falls on it. Look carefully at the glass. It is not just a simple glass of pure water but in it floats a fig. This addition of the fruit was to act as a kind of perfumer with the intention of making the water taste fresher.
The most striking aspect of this painting is how Velazquez has portrayed the water seller. This is not a rich man. This is a man who has had to eke out every peseta the hard way. His facial expression is downcast. He has a look of resignation as he hands the boy the glass of water. The man behind, who is shown full face, can be seen quaffing water from a lifted jar. He has almost faded into the darkness of the background. The features of the water seller, due to his days on end of standing out in the harsh sunlight, have taken its toll. His face is rather haggard with age and ravaged and wrinkled by its exposure to the sun. He has been plying his trade for many years, never able to accrue enough to retire. The Apsley House version of the painting shows the seller bare-headed and in this version we can observe his short shaved hair. Velazquez’s aged aguador stands in profile in the company of two of his clients. He is dressed in coarse, monk-like robes. Look at his eyes. There is little or no eye contact between him and the boy. He gazes blankly. He seems to be lost in thought and has little or no regards to what is happening around him. The offering of water seems to be just a mechanical movement. The boy whose downcast, three-quarter glance is highlighted by a stream of light, hesitantly grasps the proffered goblet of water. He does not make eye contact with the waterseller. Is he too embarrassed by the plight of the old man? Velazquez in his depiction of the man and the boy has highlighted the sharp contrast in their lives. The battered and scarred face of the water seller contrasts greatly with the smooth white facial features of the young boy.
Velázquez’s portrayal of the waterseller is very profound. One can see that he sympathises with the man and his terrible “lot in life”, by the way he has portrayed the man. We can see that he shows consideration for the poverty and age of the street-seller, and has, in some ways, given him an air of quiet dignity . Velazquez by his depiction has represented a true-to life depiction of the waterseller and his trade. His carefully crafted work encapsulates the imperfections of the seller’s pots, the saturations of dampness on their sides, the glistening of the light on the small drops of water and the glass, and the realistic expressions of the characters.
So what about the connection I mentioned in my introduction that this painting, the one which presently resides in Apsley House, had a connection with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington? Apsley House, also known as ‘Number One, London’ stands on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It is the magnificent former home of the Duke of Wellington and was granted to him by a grateful nation.
The “Waterseller” painting originally was a prized part of the Spanish royal collection. In 1700 it figured in the inventory of the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid. By the late 18th century it hung in the Royal Palace in Madrid. There it struck the fancy of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, who was the commander of French forces in Spain during the Peninsular War and, who for a short time was the usurper of the Spanish throne. When the French realized they were about to be driven from Spain by the Duke of Wellington, Joseph Bonaparte decided to leave Madrid but he was not going to leave the city empty-handed as he plundered numerous royal treasures before quickly retreating northward with his troops. However Joseph Bonaparte was not able to reach the sanctuary of France as he was caught by Wellington and his troops just as he was about to cross the Pyrenees. Wellington defeated Bonaparte at Vitoria and recovered from Bonaparte’s baggage train a number of Spanish paintings that had been cut from their frames, including the “Waterseller”. Wellington wanted to return the artistic treasures to the Spanish nation but the restored Spanish monarch Ferdinand VII gave them all to Wellington as a gift from a grateful Spanish nation. In the dining room of Wellington’s magnificent London mansion, Apsley House, the Waterseller of Seville hangs today as a fitting tribute to its liberator.