"Well, then, are bodegones not worthy of esteem? Of course they are, when they are painted as my son-in-law paints them, rising in this field so as to yield to no one; then they are deserving of the highest esteem. From these beginnings and in his portraits…he hit upon the true imitation of nature, thereby stimulating the spirits of many artists with his powerful example."1
The most commonly used catalogue raisonné of Velázquez’s works today includes – with some reservations related to condition – nine bodegones among the surviving canon of the artist’s authentic works.2 These paintings (generically named after the low-class eating places where ordinary people could purchase a meal) were extremely popular from the time of their creation, and ever since. Some of these compositions contained biblical references, while others were completely secular in content. Some were copied numerous times, both in the immediate aftermath of their creation, and years, even centuries, later. By the 18th century, they were already being collected abroad by the likes of Catherine the Great and others, and by the end of the 19th century practically all of them had left Spain. Today not a single example within the prevailing Velázquez canon remains in Spain. Since the early 20th century, all of the major examples have either belonged to public collections or been frequently exhibited in them; today all belong to museums (five of them in the United Kingdom) and have thus been freely assessed by the international community of specialists for a century, resulting in a lively and continually shifting disagreement on specific attributions. In 1999, a previously unknown painting related to these came to light privately in France. Now owned in Switzerland, the work has been on extended loan in recent years to two major museums in the United States where it could be seen, and it is the painting offered here.
The newly discovered painting is a bodegón representing kitchen utensils and other makings of a meal. But as a picture devoid of any human figure, it is unique among all the known paintings of this type by Velázquez. Viewed from a rather high viewpoint, the depicted objects include a rustic wooden bench upon which is set a glazed ceramic bowl, a simple tin pitcher, and a garlic. Underneath it, on the floor, is a stack of two chipped, white bowls containing a mound of small eggplants, a brass mortar and pestle, and several red onions. To the left, in the foreground, is a glazed ceramic stewpot being heated on a well-used stone brazier that gives a vivid glimpse of the fire burning within it. With a strong contrast of light and shadow, the modeling of all these forms is sensuous and skillful, with great focus on the tactile distinctions of the various materials depicted.
From the moment of its appearance around 2000, the qualities of this painting were compared by those who viewed it to ones found in Velázquez bodegones like The Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618, in the National Gallery of Scotland (fig. 1) or Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1618, in the National Gallery, London (fig. 2). Indeed, the inanimate objects depicted in both these pictures offer compelling comparisons to those found in this newly discovered picture – beginning with the oil-stained and dirty brazier and glazed terracotta pottery emphasized by the sparkling highlights of white impasto, in The Old Woman Frying Eggs, as well as the warm glow of the brass mortar and pestle, or the dull sheen of tin seen in the both the oil lamps hanging on the wall behind the old woman’s head, or the pitcher on the bench in the new picture. This is to say nothing of the red onions seen in both paintings, or the onions and garlic found in both the new painting and in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The similarities are particularly close in the way the artist has observed the dried, crinkled roots of the red onions and garlic and studied the brittle, crumbling skin of a deconstructed garlic. But in the two more famous paintings, such a skillful focus on the physical properties of things is paralleled by the palpable – if still a bit frozen – evocation of the human figures.
Among all nine of Velázquez’s generally accepted bodegones, one can clearly trace his progress as a young artist learning to paint the human figure, and it is clear that he did not arrive overnight at the level of accomplishment seen in The Old Woman Frying Eggs. In what is generally accepted to be his earliest bodegón, Musical Trio, circa 1616-17, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (fig. 3) – the finest of four versions of this composition – his immature groping to define facial expression as well as tactile quality and spatial clarity is plainly apparent. Both as a painter and a storyteller, he has progressed well beyond this in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, whose religious reference is achieved almost parenthetically by a view through an opening in the background wall into a scene in an adjacent room where Christ admonishes the two sisters about the virtues of the contemplative (or spiritual) life over the active (or worldly) one. With this lesson resonating, Velázquez has lavished his virtuoso skill on the still life and servant women in the foreground, endowing them with a heightened physicality that sharply contrasts the sketchy rendition of the biblical scene immediately behind. With acuity and skill, Velázquez has charged this image of quotidian reality with a bristling religious significance and, as a consequence, made it vibrant.3
Velázquez used this same compositional conceit – a holdover from mannerist tradition – in another bodegón of this period, the well-known Christ at Emmaus, now in the National Gallery of Ireland (fig. 4), in which a mulata slave girl in the foreground pauses in her work, leaning on the table as though weary, staring blankly, unaware that behind her the risen Christ has revealed himself to his two disciples. Although not at all well preserved, this painting achieves a degree of psychological subtlety absent in any of the others. Yet not satisfied with this, Velázquez painted a secularized version of the scene – one without the religious scene through the rear wall – which is in the Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 5).4 Equally damaged as the Dublin version, this painting has nevertheless recently been given a judicious and redeeming restoration that has allowed its considerable poetry to shine forth. When both versions were shown side by side in last year’s Velázquez retrospective at the Grand Palais, in Paris, it was perfectly obvious that the Chicago version is one of the milestones of the artist’s early career.5 This assessment matters in view of what appears to be a literary reference to it – or rather a version of it – by Antonio Palomino, one of our principal sources of knowledge of Velázquez’s life and work. And it matters even more in the present context, because of its documentation of lost works that confirm a larger oeuvre than the truncated one that has come down to us.
In referring in his Life of Velázquez to the young artist’s success at painting humble people in their surroundings, Palomino refers to two lost bodegones, which may have been a pair, one of which was signed and represented a youth counting money while a dog eyed victuals on the table at which his master sat. He goes on to describe its pendant:
"…Like this is another work in which one sees a board, used for a table, where there is a portable stove and, on top of it, a pot boiling, covered with a bowl, the flare, flames and sparks being vividly seen; there are also a tin-lined kettle, a jar of unglazed clay, some plates and bowls, a glazed jar, a mortar with its pestle and a head of garlic close to it; and one can see a basket of esparto hanging from a hook on the wall with a rag and other worthless stuff; and for guardian of this there is a boy, a jar in his hand and a coif on his head, who looks a ridiculous and comic fellow in this ignoble costume."6
It has long been noted that parts of this description describe exactly what one sees in the Chicago bodegón (notwithstanding Palomino’s mistake in identifying the figure in the painting as a boy rather than a young woman). Yet he also refers to items not in the Chicago picture, such as the brazier with the boiling pot, where one can vividly see the fire and sparks within. This has led to speculation about whether or not the Chicago painting – in addition to being a secular version of the work in Dublin – might not have been cut down, in which case the gaze of the maidservant would originally have been in the direction of the brazier, or whether Palomino was referring to yet a third picture with this motif.7 None of these would be unusual within the artist’s observed pattern of reusing and refining individual motifs as he proceeded to grow as an artist during this period. Pertinent to whether or not the work offered here could have been part of the same composition as the Chicago picture, it must be admitted that it is unlikely the painter would have included two mortars and pestles in the same picture. But Palomino’s reference is otherwise important because it confirms that the artist obviously dealt with the motif of the brazier on other recorded occasions than in the Edinburgh painting (though in this case without a bowl covering the boiling pot that Palomino described in the lost work).
To resolve this question, an analysis of the Chicago painting and the current lot was commissioned from Dr. Don H. Johnson, of the non-profit Thread Count Automation Project, which in recent years has provided, through its computer analysis of weave distortions, valuable insights into the canvases of Velázquez, Van Gogh, and the Impressionists.8 This report, dated November 2016, revealed that, while the two pictures were both painted on a plain-weave canvas of a similar type, only perhaps as much as 10 to 20 centimeters has been cut from the left side of the Chicago painting, and its overall height and shape have not been altered greatly. The weave analysis of the current lot showed no signs of its having been altered in shape or size, this despite the fact that x-ray photography (fig. 6) reveals that an old center strainer bar left a mark off center that suggests a possible slight excision on the right side of the composition, even though the mark left by the original right-hand vertical stretcher bar is also still visible. The only conclusions that can be drawn from this are that the excision was either very small or the vertical bar was always off center.9
Since it is certain now that the present lot is still in its original format, then one has to return to the fact that it is unique among those bodegones attributed to Velázquez inasmuch as it contains no figures. As part of his teaching method, Pacheco was evidently trying to encourage his pupils to develop their mimetic skills by focusing their attention on inanimate objects whose stillness rewarded patient observation, and Velázquez was not his only apprentice who was exposed to this method. A still life very similar to this one showing a similar bench with some large gourds and peppers on top, along with a bowl of eggplants and a stoneware mortar and pestle on the floor, appeared quite coincidentally in an auction in Mallorca around the same time as the present lot.10 A work by an obviously different hand, it is nevertheless very well preserved, unlined, and still on its original stretcher. Therefore, although it is smaller than the present lot, we can be certain that it was not cut down and never contained any figural element. Its configuration indeed suggests that both it and the present lot were probably painted in Pacheco’s studio as a test of technical skill.
Aside from Velázquez, there were other student painters in the workshop at the same time. One of them was Alonso Cano, two years Velázquez’s junior, who, although he coincided with Velázquez in the studio for only seven months in 1616-17, went on to study for five years with Pacheco. No such works by him are known or have ever been cited. Another was Francisco López Caro (1598-1661), a very mediocre talent who was also a childhood friend of Velázquez, but by whom only one known painting exists.11 That picture (fig. 7), today in the Museo del Prado, indeed is relevant to our discussion of the present lot, but the comparison serves only to underscore the tremendous gulf that exists between the skill of Velázquez, on the one hand, and, as Peter Cherry has written, an artist whose “drawing is weak, and [whose] handling of paint is unsubtle.”12 Velázquez’s short-lived younger brother Juan was also a journeyman painter, but is not documented among Pacheco’s apprentices, and no works by him are known or have ever been cited in the art historical literature.
Not all the questions raised by this Kitchen Still Life can be answered with present knowledge, but the fact remains that its taut, confident naturalism and density of construction find no parallels among the numerous copies of Velázquez’s early bodegones or their many shallow imitations that have come down to us. Where the painting does resonate powerfully is with the handful of works from around 1618 (in Edinburgh, London, Dublin, and Chicago) where, unlike any Spaniard before him – with the possible exception of Juan Sánchez Cotán in Toledo – Velázquez lavished upon the most humble of things in daily life a degree of seriousness that few artists had done before.
William B. Jordan
1. Quoted in translation from Enriqueta Harris, Velázquez, Oxford, 1982, pp. 194.
2. José López-Rey, Velázquez. Catalogue Raisonné, Cologne (Taschen), 1999, vol. II, cat. nos. 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 16, 17, 18, 24.
3. William B. Jordan in Spanish Still Life in the Golden Age: 1600-1650, exh. cat., Fort Worth (Kimbell Art Museum), 1985, p. 83.
4. The religious scene in the background of the Dublin painting had been painted over at an unknown date, being discovered only during a cleaning in 1933. Before that time, the Dublin version, then in the collection of Sir Alfred Beit, had sometimes been considered a copy of the Chicago painting.
5. For a fortuna critica of the Chicago painting, see Guillaume Kientz in Velázquez, exh. cat. Paris (Réunion des musées nationaux/Grand Palais et Musée du Louvre), 2015, p. 124, cat. no. 16.
6. Antonio Palomino, El museo pictórico y escala óptica, Madrid 1724 (ed. 1947), p. 893 (quoted in translation from López-Rey, op. cit., p. 18, cat. no. 18).
7. See, for example, the discussion in Manuela Mena in Velázquez y Sevilla, exh. cat., Sevilla (Monasterio de la Cartuja de Santa María de la Cuevas), 1999, p. 178, cat. no. 82.
8. The Project is the joint effort of Dr. C. Richard, Johnson, Jr., Cornell University; Dr. Don H. Johnson, Rice University; and Dr. Robert G. Erdmann, Rijksmuseum/University of Amsertdam.
9. This odd bit of internal history in the object was commented upon in the conservation treatment report by Simon Howell, of Shepherd Conservation, Ltd, Wimbledon, where the picture was cleaned and restored in the year 2000. Mr. Howell noted that a small amount of canvas could have been excised at the right, but that nevertheless there were nearly identical swag marks from the stretching process visible on all four sides. This conforms with Don Johnson’s findings.
10. Christie’s, Ca’n Puig y Castillo de Bendinat, Mallorca, Pintura, muebles, plata, porcelana y obras de arte pertenecientes a una familia de la nobleza mallorquina, 24-25 May 1999, lot 787, as Escuela española, circa 1620.
11. William B. Jordan in Javier Portús (ed.), Donación de Plácido Arango Arias al Museo del Prado, Madrid (Museo del Prado), 2016, cat. no. 8. For more on artists who were Velázquez’s youthful contemporaries, see Enriqueta Harris, “The Question of Velázquez’s Assistants, Velázquez in Seville, exh. cat., Edinburgh (National Gallery of Scotland), 1996, pp. 77-78.
12. See Peter Cherry, Arte y naturaleza. El bodegón español en el Siglo de Oro, Madrid 1999, pp. 130-31.
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