Secret Grandeur: Leo Steinberg on an Early Velázquez Masterpiece, in 1971

Diego Velázquez, detail of The Water Carrier of Seville, 1623, oil on canvas. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Diego Velázquez, The Water Carrier of Seville (detail), ca. 1619–20, oil on canvas.


In the early 1970s, art historian and critic Leo Steinberg wrote a series of short articles for ARTnews about works he believed were masterpieces, mainly ones from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. (Steinberg was known for writing about Renaissance and Baroque art, but he didn’t hesitate to air his opinions on contemporary work—he famously countered Clement Greenberg’s essays on abstract art by arguing that Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were the next wave.) In honor of a major show of Diego Velázquez’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris, we turn back to Steinberg’s piece from that series about The Water Carrier of Seville (ca. 1619–20), which appeared in the Summer 1971 issue. The Grand Palais has over 100 works by the 17th-century Spanish master on view, making it one of the most comprehensive Velázquez shows ever staged. Because Velázquez produced so little work, it is rare to have so much art by him in one space—and so much high-caliber art as well, as famous paintings like Venus at Her Mirror (ca. 1647–51) are temporarily on loan to the Grand Palais. (Those who want to see Las Meninas [1656] will still have to go to the Prado in Madrid.) Steinberg’s thoughts on The Water Carrier of Seville, one of Velázquez’s early works, made before he was employed as court painter by the Spanish king Philip IV, follow in full below. —Alex Greenberger

Diego Velázquez, The Water Carrier of Seville, ca. 1619–20, oil on canvas. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Diego Velázquez, The Water Carrier of Seville, ca. 1619–20, oil on canvas.


“The Water Carrier of Velazquez”
By Leo Steinberg

Velazquez was 24 when he left his native Seville to take up an appointment at the Court of Madrid as first painter to Philip IV. He brought with him a thorough professional education, a reputation for wasting his gifts on unworthy subjects, and one picture to present to the King: The Water Carrier of Seville. Thenceforth, until his death 37 years later, Velazquez “served the King with his brush.” There were periodic promotions, a few memorable encounters (Rubens came in 1628) and two journeys to Italy. Rarely have men of genius and prominence managed to keep their lives so uncluttered by incident.

The picture is uneventful. A glass of water is changing hands, another is being drained. The old aguador, in his felt smock torn at the shoulder, is gravely conscientious. The water he hands to the boy is sweetened by a fresh fig lodged in the glass. One feels that this is a parching dry place and the water a gift of life bestowed like a sacrament.

The aguador’s left hand rests on a jug whose bulge swells on this side of the frame. From its lighted belly to the shadowed man in the rear—his substance barely evolved from the canvas ground—we can plot the whole scope of the painting, from almost tangible to barely visible. The jug works like a fulcrum between here and there. It equivocates, clearing a site for itself on disputable ground. It connects with the viewer’s space, yet serves as his barrier, like the rope placed before an important museum picture to keep people away. But it is friendlier, for whereas the whole painted depth of the scene is somber and dry, what is offered to us on this ridged earthenware surface is the cool shimmer of condensed drops and runnels. It is as though Velazquez had charged the object with both hospitality and reserve.

The pictorial threshold does not declare itself until well inside the picture—behind the jug. It is defined by the near edge of the table and in the flattened bell shape of the aguador’s smock. But the narrow remaining space accommodates remarkable ranges. The three spatial zones—foreground, middle and rear—are distinctly staked out by the three men, and again by a chain of vessels—jar, goblet and cup—whose diminishing size, at intervals on a single curve, simulates a profounder perspective. The jar is inactive; the goblet suspended; the cup, raised and tipped. The three men respond, each in his own phase of possession, recalling Shakespeare’s compressed wording: “had, having, in quest to have.” The reflective old man is surrendering, the grown man possessing, the boy about to receive. Their eyes confirm their respective roles: the aguador’s inturning gaze; the man’s outright gaze, meeting ours; the uncertain look of the boy. This triple staging determines even the painter’s choice of angle and light. His three faces exhibit the full range of profile, frontality and three-quarter view. And they set forth three modes of illumination—full light on the aguador, full shadow on the grown man, flickering half light on the boy. The picture enacts the ages of man, and its secret grandeur is the totality whose end reaches to the beginning.

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