Velazquez – The Spinners

This and The Maids of Honor are the crowning achievements of Velazquez’s last and greatest years. Specialized effects to which he had devoted whole pictures, often neglecting to develop them into fully balanced designs, are here combined in monumental complexity. The spirit of Titian fills the Spinners with a soft haze of dull reds, russets and golden browns, and gives to its plain peasant-women a spontaneous, unaffected classical grace of gesture; so that, even more than the gentlewomen standing in the doorway, they are of one race with the Renaissance goddesses on the distant tapestry. No one has shown more clearly than Velazquez, that honest naturalism in art need not imply a taste for physical ugliness.

The bit of tapestry in the lighted alcove sets the theme for the whole composition. Its diagonal curves are developed, with more sweeping breadth and power, in the converging diagonal rhythms of the foreground. Its concentrated, ornate richness of color, its gleams of daylight on silvery gray-blue, dull rose and olive, are gently diffused over the standing ladies (almost indistinguishable from the tapestry) to the spacious plainness of the dimly lit work-room. Here there is another masterly system of graded accents, from the gray-green wall with its hanging skeins of yarn and its ladder (scarcely raised above it in tone) through the shadowy, flat, red-skirted woman in the center, to the girl winding yarn at the right. This girl, with strongly lighted and rounded waist, with skirt of green intenser than the walls, her body swaying in the natural dance-rhythm of her work, is the climax of the composition.

This is so distinctly in the world of Vermeer and de Hooch that one is tempted to infer Dutch influence. But these men were at the start of their careers when Velazquez painted it, near the end of his; and the great Dutchmen of the time — Hals and Rembrandt — worked in quite different veins. This is the form on which the seventeenth century Dutch genre painters later specialized: a homelike, realistic family group, drawn in short, irregular curves without classical grace, against a plain interior full of rectangular planes at different angles; cool, clear daylight from a side-window to bring out richly colored textiles against plain, dull, gray-green walls.

For the source of the design and its cool, juicy green coloring we must look back as far as Jan Van Eyck. But here is no miniature painting: even a Vermeer seems detailed and literal by comparison with its swift, sketchy, flattening abbreviations. The distinctive qualities of textures are brought out, not by meticulous copying, thread by thread and hair by hair, but by the most terse and simplified presenting of essentials. Looked at closely, the Princess’s hair is but a blur of yellow paint; the hoop-skirts are gray-green smears. But at a little distance they become, as if by magic, the fine gold hair of a child, brushed flat and dropping in a fluffy cloud, and the stiff folds of heavy, dull-finished silk. It is not only surfaces that are rendered: the whole object, rarefied or dense, is given three-dimensional reality at its proper point in space by blended color and light.

As to composition: the Dutch genre painters rarely attempted designs so spacious and complex. The row of children forms a large triangle of brightly lighted areas, whose apex is the distant doorway. On each side nearby, the scene is framed with a tall upright area of light. In the middle distance, other forms are disposed with skillfully graded intermediate accents: the ecclesiastical pair, vaguely sketched in flat shadows; the dimly glistening mirror that reflects the King and Queen watching from where the observer stands; Velazquez himself, painting. A splash of bright red paint on his palette, and other spots of red in bits of embroidery and ribbon, stand out against the green, and help to link the scattered figures with a loose but rhythmic bond of color.