Sunday, 6 September 2009

Diego de Velázquez

Aesop, 1638
Oil on Canvas 180 x 94 cm
Museo Nacional Del Prado
18 April 2009

During my visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings I took the opportunity to see this portrait by Velázquez. Painted as one of a pair as a test of whether he could outdo Rubens for powers of invention and assert his challenge for the patronage of Philip IV.

Although the philosopher Aesop was a renowned figure of antiquity, he had for many years had to perform menial tasks as a slave. He was also described as ugly with a humped back, a pot belly and large feet. This data taken from an anonymous biography of the author is brought to life by Velázquez in this full length (life-sized) portrait. Under his arm is his book of fables whilst at his feet, a water bucket and rags associated with his household duties.

The figure is thinly painted with broad rapid brushstrokes using a very limited palette. The face is more varied; the highlights on the forehead are thickly applied whereas in the shadows on the cheeks the primed canvas is barely covered. The background colour is pale grey over a red oxide ground. Such is the mastery of the brushwork that he creates the impression of a man prematurely aged with sagging flesh and grey hair. He seems to be standing awkwardly with his weight on one foot, which may just be a trick of the perspective or a deliberate device to make him look ill at ease.

The gaze is directly at the viewer and the eyes are intelligent but sad. In fact the aura of this imaginary portrait is one of dignified wisdom maintained in the face of adversity. A much more sophisticated interpretation than Rubens managed with his pair of paintings for the Torre de la Parada of the laughing and crying philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Oh, a masterwork of portrait, and Velázquez has given all the dignity back to Aesopus he as human being, as wise philosopher and author/collector, and great personality has deserved- I 'see' his wisdom and his humanity reflected and expressed in his face and his eyes, a wisdom basing on the experiences of a hard life! Also a gesture of melancholy! A wonderful painting, "the gaze" of Aesopus "directlyat the viewer" you cannot forget- it is going trough and through into my heart/soul! I very appreciate your analysis and I admire you to have seen this painting in Madrid!

  2. Wise words whose message are never ceased to be actual- formerly and today!

    Aesopus, The boys and the frogs

    Some boys, playing near a pond, saw a number of frogs in the water and began to pelt them with stones. They killed several of them, when one of the frogs, lifting his head out of the water, cried out: "Pray stop, my boys: what is sport to you, is death to us."

  3. Yes I really enjoyed this one - humanity in the eyes is right. So much more to it than all the court paintings. Sorry it is such a poor reproduction.