Diego Velázquez - The Waterseller of Seville

by Lucie Klysch


When Diego Velazquez was born in Seville in 1599, the capital of the southern Spanish region of Andalusia had the highest population density in Europe, making it a lively hub of activity. A colorful city as a gateway to the old world and the new, where novelties, curiosities and works of art meet. Even in his early works, the special technique reveals the exceptional talent. Velázquez painting is sensual and mysterious, leaving his master Pacheco del Río behind him immediately after his training. The choice of his motifs do not seem particularly original at first. He devotes himself to religious representations, just like many other artists. But what distinguishes him from the others is his sense of light and composition . "The Water Carrier of Seville" tells of everyday life in the Andalusian metropolis.

But the narrative of the painting goes far beyond the everyday. The bulbous clay pot is strikingly positioned in the lower half of the picture. Its protruding convex form pushes to the edge of the picture and is intensely illuminated in comparison to the background. Individually, the fresh water drips over the uneven vessel. The central figure is the water seller. An old man in a torn cloak who hands a glass goblet. Selling water was a necessity in those days during the summer because the public fountains often dried up and the water from them was never as refreshing as that of the street vendors. The water was kept cool in clay jugs and often flavored with figs or herbs. An elegantly dressed youth, apparently of higher status, asks for the water and reaches for it. Although both figures are in action with each other, they look neither at each other nor at the glass. Both seem to be daydreaming and lost in themselves. The two figures do not seem to be able to be different. Here, the essence is in the ordinary. Velázquez shows that a dented jar can appear alluring.


Without much embellishment, his motif gains astonishing presence. Velázquez depicts the humble things of life with an extraordinary naturalness. This subject, banal at first glance, is considered Velázquez's first great masterpiece, for his exceptional talent is already clearly evident here. Our gaze is immediately drawn to the profile of the water bearer, and from there it is directed as if automatically to the pitcher, which can be seen in the foreground. But as soon as we concentrate on the jug and all the illusionistic details like the drops and grooves on the ceramic, our gaze begins to wander in the painting, we compare the materials with each other, the hardness of the jug with the fragility of the glass and then we turn to the gazes of the depicted persons and realize that the gazes of the depicted persons also wander. With this painting Velázquez develops a new dramaturgy. The artist becomes an agitator and holds the viewer literally captive for a certain time, whereby his effect goes beyond the confines of the canvas. With only a few means, such as a very reduced color palette of ocher, brown and yellow in all shades, Velázquez achieves amazing effects. Through very fine brushstrokes, he gives white a glistening presence. Thus, painting perpetuates the moment and the sublime moment of materiality.


The central moment of the painting is the gesture of the two hands. The old man handing the glass goblet and the youth receiving it. Well camouflaged in front of the dark robe of the boy, a fig floats in the filled glass. A mysterious fruit full of symbolic power, around which myths and legends entwine. In antiquity, the fig tree was considered a symbol of fertility, sensual pleasure, abundance, wealth and a variety of erotic aspects. Dante depicted in his "Inferno" how highly valued the fig was in Italy. To him, the fig tree is a metaphor of human development towards good, of goodness itself. Does the old man hand the fruit of knowledge to the young? In the New Testament the fruit of knowledge is the apple, but in the Old Testament it is a fig. The third figure, who almost disappears in the darkness, seems to be older than the boy, but younger than the water bearer. He is already quenching his thirst. An admirable play with transparency and contrasts. At the time of the rapidly developing Baroque , the successive overcrowding by color, ornaments and jewelry, Velázquez captivates with a certain sobriety.


There is nothing superfluous in his paintings. He deliberately keeps the structure of the paintings clear and free, drawing our attention to simple and rare elements. In this way he seems to stop time and depict a perfect snapshot. In this way he gives his compositions an incredible charm. When Velázquez is ordered to the Spanish royal court to paint the portrait of Philip IV, the king recognizes his talent. The king does not have to be beautiful, he does not have to please, he has to be glorious. The importance of Velázquez in the history of art is confirmed only once more by comments of other artists. Manet called him "the painter of painters." If you look closely at his paintings, you can already see the first inklings of Impressionism in this clash of brushstrokes.


Diego Velázquez - The Waterseller of Seville

Oil on canvas, 1618, 130 x 173 cm, Wellington Museum in London

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