Velazquez from ETA: Part Two, Psychological Power Plays, Chapter 3, Those Who Destroy Art

Venus at her Mirror (1648–1651) by Velazquez, National Gallery, London.
Venus at her Mirror (1648–1651) by Velazquez, National Gallery, London.

Art — Integrator of the Human Mind

Copyright  © 2021 by Michael Newberry

Being Erased

Art may seem innocuous to many people, but it can trigger unexpected reactions. One of the most disturbing is when someone feels compelled to destroy art. To bystanders, there is a particular feeling associated with witnessing art’s destruction—unlike seeing a bridge or a car destroyed, or even planned demolitions of old buildings. Those feelings might be anger if it is your car, fear if it is caused by an invading army, and delight if it is a harmless and brilliant technical execution. But seeing art destroyed causes an altogether different feeling in the pit of your stomach—a mixture of fear of the senseless or insane, with an odd feeling that the attack is personal. Compare book burnings: even if we hate the actual books, burning them creates the uneasy feeling that somehow a part of us is being erased. And the normal reaction is to rescue the books from the flames before its perspectives are lost to us forever. So it is with painting and sculpture.

The Spanish Inquisition


The artists Diego Velázquez (b. 1599–d. 1660) and Rembrandt were contemporaries and the greatest painters of their respective countries, Catholic Spain and Protestant Netherlands. Likely they never saw each other’s works, yet they had many similarities in their conceptions of light and shadow, powerfully abstracted compositions, human empathy, and an interest in myths and realism. The influence of the Italian Renaissance migrated west and north and influenced young Spanish and Dutch artists. While Rembrandt would not have felt censored in the north, Velázquez was painting in the middle of the three-centuries-old Spanish Inquisition, infamous for its corporal penalties for heresy. There was also the hypocritical divide between the royalty, the church, and the people, with a different set of standards and morals for each group. Velázquez was the top court painter and under the protection of King Philip IV, but he would have been keenly aware of looming torture if he took too much artistic license.

The Spanish Inquisition forced Muslims and Jews to renounce their faiths and become Catholics. Not trusting they would comply privately, the Inquisition looked for any small signs of deviation to accuse them of heresy. It also had severe punishments for humanist deviants. The Inquisition could torture for any perceived transgression, like eating meat on the wrong days. Velázquez had the King’s protection but served at the King’s pleasure. There would be no quarter for him to escape to and still paint—or even remain alive to tell the tale—if he  incurred the King’s wrath.

A Great Humanist

The constraints on Velázquez were enormous, yet he managed to be one of the greatest artists of the human spirit. Dwarfs were part of the royal household and Velazquez painted their portraits, imbuing them with a dignity rarely found in even the world’s greatest portraits. He turned mythological stories into group portraits of local everyday people. The Triumph of Bacchus portrays a group of day workers celebrating with wine; with one sunburned man beaming with joy and smiling ear to ear after a hard day of outdoor labor. He turned what could have been a  hopelessly boring royal family portrait, Las Meninas, into arguably the greatest painting ever painted. With its intricately complex composition of dwarfs, animals, mirrors, the royal couple and their children, and, ingeniously, Velázquez himself painting it. It is like everyone’s family circus painted with empathy and care; it seems to say, “We are a crazy family, but it is my family and I love them.”

Venus at Her Mirror

Velázquez is known to have painted two nudes, one lost, and this Venus at her Mirror. It was painted on his trip to Italy, far away from the Inquisitor’s eyes. It is listed in the collection of Gaspar Méndez de Haro, who at different times was the Spanish Governor of Flanders, Ambassador in Rome, and Viceroy of Naples; he was also known for being from a libertine family. De Haro was an international personage who would have had freedoms not enjoyed by the Spanish populace.

Velázquez’s Venus is a painting of a toned, nude young woman seen from the back with a mirror reflecting her face, alongside a life-like cupid, an affectation of many mythological paintings. But if we put the cupid’s wings aside, the scene takes on a touching quality of human universality. Velázquez would have painted the woman and the young child from life. I would bet you anything that this beautiful Italian model was a young mom with her child in tow. And though the mirror was a common device of Venus at her bath, I would speculate that since the model was facing away from the artist, the mirror gave her a feeling of safety by being able to watch what the artist was doing behind her back.

The tones and hues of her body are beautifully varied while simultaneously conveying her shape and luminosity. Notice the curves of both her torso and the child’s. Notice the dark rich shadows that flow beside those curves. Long before photography, Velázquez mastered blocking out shadows in an abstract way that foreshadows photography. The shadow that curves around the kid’s torso and thigh and the shadow under her thigh and butt are a powerful feat of abstraction. A very sensual element to the painting is the lit area surrounding her earlobe, the soft fleshy area where her jaw meets the nape of her neck. Along with her hair being pulled up, the combination is what most heterosexual men and lesbians will say is one of the most beautiful, delicate, and alluring features of a woman. It is for good reason that a woman will use that wily device of asking her mate to clip the clasp of her necklace to display this attribute to perfection, as Velázquez does here.

Venus at her Mirror represents my concept of the sublime: An integration of idealism, natural realism, authenticity, a beautifully balanced female figure metaphorically representing physically and mentally a healthy vivaciousness, elegant balances, and a nonchalant and unself-conscious confidence. It might capture a brief moment of physical perfection, but it represents what it means to be a beautiful woman inside and out.

And this Venus triggered the sexually repressed, arsonist, Blackshirt fascist, and pseudo-suffragette Mary Richardson to slash it.

Newberry, Evolution Through Art

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