The Second of May 1808 by Goya

The Second of May 1808 by Goya (1814)

My Daily Art Display featured paintings for today and tomorrow are both by Francisco Goya and they depict events which happened in Madrid on two consecutive days in 1808.  I am guessing that most of you will have seen one or both of the paintings but may not have realised the connection between the two.  Today I am going to look at the painting entitled The Second of May 1808 which Goya completed in 1814, just a couple of months before he finished the companion work entitled The Third of May 1808.  So what happened on these two days that made the Spanish Romantic painter, Goya want to pictorially record the events.

I need to go back a little from 1808 and go over the run-up to the terrible events of May 1808.   The main protagonists in this story were France and Spain.  In 1799, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself First Consul of the French Republic and five years later he was crowned Emperor of France.  Meanwhile in Spain King Charles IV had reigned supreme since 1788.  He had proved a weak and ineffectual leader who left the governing of the country to his wife, Maria Luisa of Parma and his Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy, a wealthy nobleman who had taken office in 1792.

Napoleon seeing an opportunity of gaining more territory suggested to Charles that they join forces, attack Spain’s neighbour, Portugal and divide up the conquered land between themselves, one third to France, one third to Spain and one third to the Spanish prime minister Godoy, who would be given the title of Prince of Algarve.  Godoy was seduced by such an idea and persuaded the king to agree to Napoleon’s plan.  Unfortunately Napoleon had an ulterior motive and a different scheme in mind when, in November 1807, 23,000 French troops marched into Spain unopposed under the guise of supporting the Spanish army prior to the joint attack on Portugal.   Napoleon had hatched a plan with Charles’ eldest son Ferdinand that France would, with his help, overthrow the Spanish monarchy, which of course was his father, and the Spanish government of Godoy and Ferdinand would become King of Spain.

It was not until February 1808 that it became apparent to the Spanish what Napoleon’s true plans had been but even so the French army met with little resistance.  Charles IV and Ferdinand his son were, at the insistence of Napoleon, in the French city of Bayonne for discussions on the terms of the abdication.  At the beginning of May 1808, the French commander and Napoleon’s, brother-in-law, Joaquim Murat, tried to forcibly move the daughter and the youngest son of Charles, the Infante Francisco de Paulato from Madrid to Bayonne and this was the catalyst for the rebellion of the local Spanish population and the fierce street fighting in Madrid on May 2nd.

On that day, a crowd gathered in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid. Those gathered entered the palace grounds in an attempt to prevent the removal of the Infanta.  Marshal Murat sent a battalion of grenadiers from the Imperial Guard to the palace along with artillery detachments. The latter opened fire on the assembled crowd, and this sparked the start of the rebellion which soon spread to other parts of the city.

What followed was street fighting in different areas of Madrid as the poorly armed population confronted the French troops. Murat had quickly moved the majority of his troops into the city and there was heavy fighting around the Puerta del Sol and the Puerta de Toledo.   Martial Law in the city was then imposed by Murat and the French commander assumed full control of the administration. Slowly but surely, the French took back control of the city, and many hundreds of people died in the fighting.   There were Spanish troops in the city at the time but they were confined to their barracks and with the exception of one brigade did as they were commanded.   The bloody rebellion lasted several hours before the French troops recovered control of the city.

My featured painting today, The Second of May 1808, sometimes known as The Charge of the Mamelukes, depicts the street fighting that took place at the Calle de Alcala near the Puerta del Sol in the heart of Madrid.  The Mamelukes, which were a fierce band of Muslim fighters in Napoleon’s French Imperial Guard, charged the crowd and the ensuing savagery was captured by Goya in his painting.  Goya did not actually paint the picture until 1814 at which time the French army had been expelled from Spain.  He applied to the ruling council of Spain for financial aid to paint the picture as he put it:

‘…to perpetuate with the brush the most notable and heroic actions or scenes of our glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe…”

There is differing opinions as to whether Goya actually witnessed the scenes of the rebellion at first hand.  This massive painting measuring 265cms x 345cms (almost 9ft by 11ft) depicts the bloody skirmish.  Goya chose to depict the people of Madrid armed just with knives and rough weapons as unknown heroes attacking the might of the Mamelukes and a French cavalry officer.  The whole painting depicts a scene of chaos which in some ways stirs up a feeling of realism and authenticity.  The two figures you need to focus on are the man who is plunging the knife into the thigh of the white horse and the man who is at the rear of the horse and who is just about to plunge his knife into a Mameluke warrior who he has dragged from the horse.  Why?  In tomorrow’s painting The Third of May 2008 we will again see these two men and what happened to them as a result of their deeds.

Art historians have been somewhat critical of Goya’s handling of the painting stating that the horses appear static and the figures in the painting seem posed.  Of the two paintings, the Third of May 1808 is considered the better and more memorable

As a footnote, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, when Madrid was bombed by Nationalist troops, the Republican government decided to evacuate the paintings from the Prado. A truck carrying Goya’s paintings had an accident, and The Second of May was badly damaged: there were tears and even pieces missing. When the painting was later repaired, some damage was left unrepaired at its left border to remind viewers of the events of the civil war.

Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán

Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran (1635-9)

Francisco de Zubarán was a Spanish painter whose painting genre was that of religious works depicting monks, nuns, saints and martyrs.  He was also a popular still-life painter.  He was an artist who was renowned for his use of chiaroscuro, a form of art which is characterised by strong and bold contrasts between light and dark, which affected the whole composition.  It was for this use of chiaroscuro that he was known as the Spanish Caravaggio, named after the Italian Master and his use of the technique to dramatic effect.

Francisco was born in Fuente de Cantos in Extremadura in 1598.  As a child he liked to draw images in charcoal and at the age of sixteen his father sent him to Seville to train as an artist.  It was whilst he was a student that he took up Caravaggio’s realistic use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, a style of painting using a very pronounced chiaroscuro in which there are violent contrasts of light and dark and in fact the darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image.  Because of Caravaggio’s frequent use of tenebrism in his paintings the word Caravaggism or Caravaggesque tenebrism are often used synonymously for the term.

My Daily Art Display for today is a perfect example of this style used by Zurbarán.  It is a painting he completed in 1639 entitled Saint Francis in Meditation.  It is not what you would expect of a painting of a saint. It is one of the most bleak and gravest of Zurbarán’s paintings of saints.   To me, there is an air of menace about the work of art.  It is a matter of conjecture as to whether it was the artist’s idea or that of the people who commissioned the painting, to make the work dark and sinister.   It has to be remembered that at the time Zurbarán painted this picture several monastic orders in Spain had gone out and challenged both painters and sculptors to bring more life to the religious figures in their works and by doing so the religious orders believed that viewers would be inspired to imitate the saints they came across in art.  The viewers were coming face to face with their religious heroes.  In those days many Spanish artists studied the polychromatic wooden sculptures by the likes of of Martínez Montañés, Gregorio Fernández, Juan de Mesa, Pedro de Mena and Alonso Cano and by doing so were able to add an austere realism to their paintings.  In fact many of the young Spanish artists, including Zurbarán and the young Velazquez, learned how to paint the surfaces of these sculptures as part of their artistic training.

Let us now look more closely at the portrait of Saint Francis.  The background is plain and dark adding to the intensity of the painting.  Nothing is allowed to detract from this solitary figure at prayer.  We see him on his knees.  It is a lifesize portrait.  As he clasps a skull to his chest,  the artist would have us believe that he is meditating on the subject of death.   Such meditation on death was looked upon, especially by the Jesuits, as a religious exercise,  as it was considered to be the probable point of union with the ultimate truth.  Saints contemplating skulls was often seen in Spanish and Italian paintings in the early 17th century.  Saint Francis is lost in meditation and does not see us, the viewers,  as we stare in at him. 

We cannot see his face clearly as although there is light eminating from the left hand side, his face is almost in darkness due to the deep shadow cast  from his cowl.  We can barely make out his eyes and so we are deprived of his facial expression.  Actually there is a similarity to the eye-sockets of the upturned skull he is holding and what we can make of the eyes of the saint.  Just a coincidence ?  We can just make out his mouth.  His lips are parted as he utters the words of his prayer.

Look at his habit.  It is patched and well worn and looks to be made from a coarse  material, which would not afford the wearer any comfort.  It is held together by a dark brown knotted rope.  See how the light falls on the threadbare part around the elbow.  Zurbarán is reminding us of the Saints vows of poverty.  We are also to believe that this is a ‘working man’ by the way the artist has shown his hands and his dirty fingernails.

This is both a moving and disturbing painting but, at the same time, one I will make sure to go and see the next time I visit the National Gallery in London.  This abrasive style of Zurbarán made him very popular in the mid sixteenth century but then along came another artist from Seville with a much gentler and softer style of painting which then became more fashionable.  The artist was Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and his rise to fame and fortune was in direct contrast to Zurbarán’s fall from favour and his last days were spent in poverty.  Like life in general, I suppose one should clasp hold of the good times as you never know when they are about to end.

El bufón don Sebastián de Morra by Velázquez

El bufón don Sebastián de Morra by Velázquez (c.1646)

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?

Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and his Son by Pedro Berruguete

Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro by Pedro Berruguette (1476)

My Daily Art Display today is a double portrait entitled Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and his Son.  The artist who painted this work was Pedro Berruguete.  He was a Spanish Renaissance painter who was born around 1450 in Paredes de Nava, a town close to Valladolid.   He went to Italy in 1473 and it was whilst there that he received his early artistic training.  He began working for the Federico de Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino.  Montefeltro was one of the most sought-after and most feared condottieri (mercenary captain) of that time.  He was an excellent commander and an expert in military technology and the art of warfare.    He was a successful warrior who was rarely defeated in battle.  This was a very lucrative trade and with the money he amassed he became a great patron of the arts. 

Montefeltro’s land, the Duchy of Urbino, was a small and a somewhat insignificant territory sandwiched between Romagna and the Marche region close to the Adriatic Sea.  To counteract the insignificance of his duchy he would invite the leading artists and intellectuals from different areas to come to his palace.  Around 1480 he summoned Joos van Gent, the Netherlandish painter, to come and decorate the library and study, in his magnificent palace with allegories of the liberal arts and portraits of Biblical and pagan thinkers.  It is believed that Pedro Berruguete helped in this commission.  His library was ranked as one of the best in fifteenth century Europe housing studies in geography, history, poetry and theology and included many works in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic.  As well as the books, his library and his study, which was specially designed for intellectual contemplation and the reception room for important guests, housed musical and scientific instruments and coats of armour.

Montefeltro commissioned Berruguete to paint the portrait of him and his young son Guidobaldo.  Looking at the portrait we see Montefeltro seated before a lectern with his young son, Guidobaldo, standing on his right hand side, resting his arm on his father’s thigh.  The portrait is a left hand profile of the duke, which was what he preferred as he had lost his right eye in a jousting accident.  The portrait, and the way in which Berguette portrays Montefeltro to us, is as a man of many talents.   The Duke sits upright reading a manuscript which has been identified by art historian, Marcello Simonetta, as being Saint Gregory’s Commentary on the Book of Job.   He is dressed in an ermine-bordered cloak which is topped by the collar of the Golden Fleece.  I am sure Berruguete has captured the look the Duke wanted portrayed – that of a well-read man of great intelligence.  He would also have wanted to be portrayed as an international diplomat and this is probably the reason for the inclusion of the pearl-studded tiara which is on top of the lectern, and which was a gift from the Sultan of Constantinople.

However besides wanting to be just shown as an intellectual, Montefeltro wanted to remind viewers that he was a military man and that this is probably why he resorted to wearing his armour underneath his robes for the portrait.  His sword and baton of command are shown at his side and his helmet is placed by his feet in the foreground.   If you look closely at his left leg you will see a ribbon tied just below the knee.  This is the Order of the Garter which the Duke of Urbino received from King Edward IV of England.

Frederico’s son Guidobaldo who was heir to the Duchy is seen standing besides him.  There is a look of complete innocence in the young child’s face and although he symbolically holds the baton of command in his right hand, one senses that for him it is just another toy.  The large string of pearls around his neck symbolise his and his father’s wealth and standing.

It is an interesting portrait in the way the artist and sitter have decided on how the Duke should pose and what inanimate objects should be included in the work so as to convey all the messages the sitter wanted revealing.

La Lecture by Pablo Picasso

La Lecture by Pablo Picasso (1932)

Check your finances.  Have you a little spare money to buy yourself a painting ?  I know of a bargain to be had on February 8th.  It was only painted seventy nine years ago.  It is highly colourful.  Lots of yellows and greens and I am sure it would blend nicely with the colour of your lounge carpet or the fabric of your settee.  So how much spare cash have you got ?  Is that all ?  Sadly you will need a little more than that as you will probably have to come up with at least £18 million and some reckon the final figure could triple that.

My Daily Art Display offering today and the painting in question, which is due to come up at the Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in London this coming Saturday, is Pablo Picasso’s La Lecture.   The thing that fascinates me the most about this painting is the background story.  It was completed by Picasso in January 1932 in time for his exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich,  entitled Picasso by Picasso: His first Museum Exhibition 1932, and is a portrait of his muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who it is said transformed the life of this great Modernist artist. This painting was among a series from the beginning of 1932, which introduced this young woman as an extraordinary presence in Picasso’s life and his art.

The story goes that the then forty five year old artist introduced himself to the seventeen year old girl outside a Paris Metro station.  On recounting the tale of the meeting, Marie-Thérèse said she remembered Picasso’s words as they came face to face:

“…I knew nothing – either of life or of Picasso… I had gone to do some shopping at the Galeries Lafayette, and Picasso saw me leaving the Metro. He simply took me by the arm and said, ‘I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together’…”

Today, I am sure we would think this bold introduction of the Spanish artist was simply a very cheesy chat-up line and would nowadays probably get a middle-aged man a slap in the face!   However for that forty-five year old man standing outside the Metro station in 1927 those words and his possible charm won over the young girl.  For in that year Marie Thérèse Walter became the secret lover of Pablo Ruiz Picasso and their relationship lasted eight years despite the artist still living with and still married, if unhappily, to his wife Olga Khokhlova, a Russian-Ukrainian dancer whom he  met whilst she was on tour with Diaghilev.

Their liaison was a closely guarded secret for many years for two main reasons.  Firstly, because of Picasso’s marriage to Olga and secondly, because of Marie-Thérèse’s age.  Their secret liaisons took place in a chateau  he had bought at Boisgeloupe, near Gisors.  His studio here was much larger than the one he had in Paris and it enabled him to create monumental plaster busts of Marie-Thérèse that were later depicted in several paintings.

La Lecture belonged to a group of paintings, painted by Picasso in January 1932 in anticipation of the major retrospective he was planning that June.  Today’s painting is Picasso’s depiction of Marie-Therese and it was the first time that she had appeared in one of his works.  Earlier paintings of his showed her features implanted discreetly in the background and it was this unconcealed portrayal of his mistress which led his wife to realise that there was another woman in her husband’s life.

Picasso’s lover and muse’s potent mix of physical attractiveness and at the same time her sexual naivety had an intoxicating effect on him and his rapturous desire for her brought about a number of compositions that are amongst the most sought after of his long career.  In 1935, Marie Thérèse Walter had a daughter with Picasso, Maria de la Concepión, called Maya.  Sadly for Maria-Thérèse, a year later in 1936, Picasso switched his affections to a new love, Dora Maar a woman he met when he was painting Guernica.  Marie-Thérèse left Picasso and took their daughter to live in Paris. 

Picasso died in April 1973 and four years later in October 1977, Marie-Thérèse committed suicide by hanging herself.  For the young seventeen year old who first met the Spanish painter life with him was almost certainly exciting and fulfilling but alas, like Picasso’s wife Olga, she was to suffer the humiliation and sadness caused by her lover’s unfaithfulness but for Marie-Thérèse life was just never the same again and life was not worth living without her elderly lover.

Sad Inheritance by Joaquín Sorolla

Sad Inheritance by Joaquín Sorolla (1900)

 My Daily Art Display artist of the day is the Spanish prolific painter and illustrator, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida who was born in Valencia in 1863.  Both his father, also named Joaquin and his mother Concepción died of cholera when he was only two years of age, leaving him and his younger sister Concha orphaned and brought up by their maternal aunt and uncle.  From an early age Joaquín acquired a great love for art and developed into a fine young artist, winning major prizes for his works at the Academy of Valencia.  At the age of 18 he travelled to Madrid and spent time studying the works of art of the Masters at the Museo del Prado.   Military service temporarily put an end to his art studies but on its completion, he applied for, and was granted a four year scholarship to study painting in Rome

In 1888 he returned to his home town, Valencia and married Clotilde García del Castillo a girl he had met almost nine years earlier when he was working at her father’s studio.  At this time Joaquín had established himself as an artist in Spain and by the age of 30 his paintings had been exhibited in Madrid, Paris, Venice, Munich, Berlin and Chicago.  He won  numerous gold medals in major international art exhibitions and by the time the twentieth century had arrived, he was recognized as one of the world’s greatest living artist

My Daily Art Display today was Joaquín Sorolla’s painting Sad Inheritance which he completed in 1899.  This was a very large oil on canvas painting measuring 284cms wide and 208cms high.  The painting was in tune with Sorolla’s desire of capturing the immediacy of everyday life, warts and all.  This is often termed Social Realism.  Social Realist artists try to illustrate people and their lives in a realistic way and because of this it is often the case that people in their paintings are not continually shown as beautiful, attractive and happy.  It is often the case that these Social Realism artists will focus on the elderly and the sick, the sad and the insane or those people who have to endure a disability.

The subject matter of the painting Sad Inheritance is a party of crippled children bathing at the sea in Valencia under the watchful eye of a monk.  It was in the late nineteenth century that a polio epidemic struck the Valencia area and in the painting one can see two of the boys affected by this affliction.  When Sorolla exhibited this painting in the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 he was awarded the Grand Prix and a medal of honour.  A year later he received the medal of honour at the National Exhibition in Madrid.  Award after award followed for Sorolla and in 1906 following a special exhibition of over five hundred of his paintings in Paris, he was appointed Officer of the Legion of Honour.  From then on Sorolla was inundated with commissions.

Sorolla suffered a paralysing stroke in 1920 and he died three years later in 1923 aged 60.  His former home in Madrid is now a museum dedicated to his work.

The Beggar Boy by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The Beggar Boy by Murillo (c.1650)

On December 31st the painting of the day was The Beggar known as the Club-foot by Ribera.  It was a painting of a smiling boy, despite his physical disability, on his way to town to beg for food.  Today’s painting is also of a beggar but in this work of art we are not treated to the sight of a happy child.    My Daily Art Display offering today is The Beggar Boy by the Spanish Baroque Bartholomé Esteban Murillo, the Spanish Baroque painter who was born in Seville in 1616.

Murillo came from a very large family, the youngest of fourteen children.  His father was both a barber and surgeon.  His parents died when he was young and he went to live with a distant relative and artist, Juan del Castillo who started Murillo’s artistic education.  He stayed with Castillo until 1639 when his mentor had to move to Cadiz.  Now Murillo, aged twenty two, had to fend for himself and scraped a living by selling some of his paintings.  In 1643 he travelled to Madrid where he met Velazquez who was also from Seville and had now become a master of his craft.  He took pity on Murillo and let him lodge in his house.  He stayed in Madrid for two years before returning to Seville.  In 1648, at the age of thirty one, Murillo married a wealthy lady of rank, Doña Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayor.   Murillo died as he lived, a humble, pious and brave man, in 1682,  leaving a son and daughter, his wife having died before him. 

Murillo has always been one of the most popular painters.  His works show great technical attainment and a strong feeling for ordinary nature and for truthful or sentimental expression without lofty beauty.  He was the last pre-eminent painter of Seville, a prolific worker hardly leaving his painting-room save for his devotions in church.  His works of art achieved high prices and made him a great fortune.  Probably best known for his religious works but produced a large number of paintings depicting contemporary people, mainly women and children.  His realist style when painting those struggling with poverty, such as beggars, street urchins and flower girls gives one a good insight of life in those days for those who were impoverished.

Today’s painting The Beggar Boy, painted circa 1650 and which now hangs in the Louvre, shows a bare-footed young boy sitting, lit up by sunlight streaming in through an opening in the thick walls of the building.  He, dressed in ragged clothes and is slumped on the stone floor of the darkened room with a sad downcast expression.  His feet are bare and the soles are blackened and bloodied.  There is no hint of happiness in his expression, which is in complete contrast to Ribera’s Boy with Club-Foot.  We can only imagine what is going through his mind.  Desperation and sadness with his lot in life must be uppermost in his thoughts.  The feeling of dejection and hopelessness pervades his being and the future for him looks bleak indeed.

The Beggar known as the Club-foot by Jusepe de Ribera

The Beggar known as the Club-foot by Jusepe de Ribera (1642)

Jusepe de Ribera, the Spanish painter, also known as José de Ribera was born in Játiba near Valencia in 1591.  After visiting Parma, Padua and Rome, he settled down in Naples in 1616, which in those days was under the control of Spain.  It was here that he spent most of his career.  His developed style of painting owed a lot to the influence of the Italian artist of the day, Caravaggio.  Ribera became a painter to the Spanish Viceroy who was later succeeded by the Duke of Monterey, a person who secured many commissions for him from the Augustine Monastery in Salamanca.  Ribera remained in Naples where he died in 1652.

His painting Boy with a Club Foot, which can be found in the Louvre, Paris, is today’s featured work of Art and was completed in 1642 and highlights his more mature style both through its composition and also because of the subject.  It is believed a Flemish art dealer had commissioned this painting as the theme of beggars in paintings such as The Beggars by Bruegel the Elder and Murillo’s The Young Beggars had become very popular.

The painting, which is typical of his more mature style, shows a disabled Neapolitan beggar, probably a dwarf  (originally the painting was entitled The Dwarf) with a club foot, clutching a piece of paper with the words “ Da mihi elimosinam propter amorem dei” which translates to “For the love of God give me alms”.  The reason for this piece of paper to be held by the young beggar could be that it was his licence to allow him to beg, which was mandatory in Naples in those days.   It also could be, as some have interpreted, that he, the boy, suffered from speech problems and was unable to voice his request for help.  It is interesting to see how Ribera has portrayed the beggar, not as a grovelling child, looking downcast and miserable in some dark and grubby alleyway.  Here before us is not a down-trodden child but a youngster, standing upright, with a cheeky smiling face and a look of defiant pride as he almost gaily carries his crutch over his shoulder, set against a light and tranquil background. The boy is shown close up and we are looking at him from a low viewpoint which gives the subject a sort of monumentality and self-esteem which would normally have been afforded to a noble person.

Las Meninas, after Velazquez by Pablo Picasso

Las Meninas, after Velazquez by Pablo Picasso (1957)

The last art gallery I visited when I was in Vienna earlier this month was the Albertina.  They were advertising two main exhibitions, one of Michaelangelo sketches and one of works by Picasso.  I made this gallery my last port of call and in a way I was pleased with that decision.  I liked the Michaelangelo sketches but, sad to say, I am not a lover of Picasso’s works of art.  As an art lover, I know that is a terrible thing to admit to, but one knows what one likes and vice versa.  Why should I pretend that I love his work when in fact I can find little to like about it.

So why am I making it one of My Daily Art Display offerings?  The reason is that yesterday I offered you Las Meninas by Velazquez and today I am offering you one of Picasso’s many interpretation of that work of art which I saw at the Albertina and I will let you judge which version pleases you the most.

Pablo Picasso was fourteen years of age when he first saw Velazquez’s painting of the two Maids of Honour and the Indfanta entitled Las Meninas and this was just a few months after his seven-year old blonde-haired sister had died from diphtheria.    Two years later, at the age of sixteen, Picasso produced his first sketch relating to the Las Meninas characters.   In all, from the time of his adolescence, Picasso, who adored the Velazquez painting,  devoted much time to analysing and interpreting this work of art.

Today’s painting for My Daily Art Display is Las Meninas after Velazquez by Pablo Picasso and was completed in 1957.  It is one of his fifty eight interpretations of Velazquez’s original painting of the same name.  The main characters in Picasso’s work remain the same as in the original Velazquez painting, namely, Velázquez;  Doña Agustina de Sarmiento and Doña Isabel de Velasco the two maids of honour (las Meninas) , Doña Margarita, the Infanta; the two dwarves, Maribárbola and Nicolasito Pertusato, and he even reproduces the shape of the dog lying on the floor.  In the background, he also keeps the looking-glass, in which one can see two images which represent the king and queen of Spain.

So it is up to you to look at today’s and yesterday’s versions of Las Meninas and decide for yourself which you prefer.

Las Meninas by Velazquez

Las Meninas by Velazquez (1656)

My Daily Art Display painting of the day is Las Meninas (the Maids of Honour), an oil on canvas work by Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velázquez.  He completed this painting in 1656 just four years before his death at the age of sixty one.  It is often referred to as “a painting about a painting”.

 

In the painting, the setting of which is believed to be Velazquez’s high-ceilinged studio in Madrid’s Alcázar palace, the painter has just stepped out from behind the great canvas.  At the centre of the painting is the five-year old princess Doña Margarita Maria of Austria, simply known as the Infanta, with her two maids of honour (las Meninas), Doña Maria Agustina on the left and Doña Isabel Velasco on the right.  These girls, who were brought up to serve at court and come from aristocratic families, look respectfully at the Infanta.   Various courtiers stand in the background.  José Nieto the Queen’s Chamberlain stands in the doorway.  Doña Marcela de Ulloa and a Guarda Damas (male escort for ladies of the court) stand directly behind the two Maids of Honour.   In the foreground with his foot on the dog is the dwarf Nicolasito Pertusato and to the left of him is a second dwarf,  Maribárbola

 

  So who is the subject of the painting?  Although the two maids of honour, are focusing their attention on the Infanta, almost all the other characters are looking out of the surface of the painting.  So who are they looking at?    If one looks carefully at the mirror on the rear wall, one can make out the fading reflection of the Infanta’s parents, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana.  Are they whom everybody is looking at?  Does this mean the king and queen were spectators watching the artist at work or in some way were they actually the subject of the painting on Velazquez’s easel?  One interpretation of this faded reflection in the mirror is that Velazquez’s drew it thus in the belief that the fall of the Spanish empire would begin, and its power fade, once the king had died

 

The size of this painting, over ten feet tall and nine feet across place it in the noble convention of portraiture of the time and an exceptional example of the European baroque period.   Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, wrote of the painting in his book Great Works of Art of Western Civilisation:

 

“… [it could] well be the most thrilling portrayal of humanity ever created, a combination of portrait, self portrait, illusion, reality, dream, romance, likeness and propaganda ever painted…”

 

Frederic Taubes, American artist and author, in his book The Illustrated Guide to Great Art in Europe, For Amateur Artists wrote of the painting:

 

“….the overall mastery in the use of pictorial means, the fact that it (Las Meninas) stands at the highest level any artist could attain, would not alone establish the painting in the galaxy of masterpieces. It is rather the imponderable that raises the realistic representation to the sphere of the transcendental….”