What Will Make Us Truly Proud of Ourselves? A Study in the Art of Diego Velázquez

By Dorothy Koppelman

Velazquez, self-portrait from "Las Meninas"

Diego Velázquez


I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the deepest purpose of every person is like the purpose of art: to like the world and oneself at the same time by seeing both as an aesthetic oneness of opposites. Eli Siegel‘s mighty Aesthetic Realism principle, stated for the first time in history, has in it the proud purpose of all men, all women:

All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

I am going to talk about what I learned which has had such a tremendous effect on my work and myself. I shall also talk of the 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, whose study of objects and great paintings of the Spanish court put together those opposites without which, I have learned, there would be no art: pride and humility.

1. “Successful Humility Is Pride”

I first came to know and care for the paintings of Velázquez when I was studying Eli Siegel’s incomparable essays of art criticism. I learned from the essay “Art As, Yes, Humility” how I wanted to be and what affected me so much in a painting. Mr. Siegel writes:

All seeing, while an expression of oneself, is also a submission. In artistic seeing, humility and submission are pride and grandeur….Successful humility is pride.

I saw in this work, The Surrender of Breda, the beauty of submission and pride at once.

Velazquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1635

The Surrender of Breda

This is one of the few historical paintings the artist ever did and I believe he painted it because he was so moved by the drama of opposites in a battle situation, and the story of gallantry at the time of surrender.

Right in the center of the painting opposites are one as the two generals meet. One, in his dark armor, gallantly reaches over to touch the yielding, bowing general who so sweetly holds out the key to the city. The motion of the rising and falling rope echoes the motion of the heads, one high, the other low. But between those heads marches a row of white spears, joining them. In the center, an upright and softly furled flag, proud and humble, signals peace. I was so moved by these two men, taking their hats off to one another, that I wanted to be like them, yielding and victorious.

Velazquez, The Surrender of Breda, detail

The Surrender of Breda, detail

When Mr. Siegel looked at a reproduction of this central detail, he wrote a comment: “destined consent.” I think that is what a person feels when he can say, Yes, and proudly surrender to the beautiful structure of opposites in reality and in himself.

Diego Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599; his mother was Spanish—her name was Velázquez—and his father Portuguese. As a boy he was apprenticed to painters, the second of whom, Juan Pacheco, wrote The Art of Painting in which he tells how, from the age of 11 to 19, Velázquez studied ordinary objects and paid a peasant boy to pose for him so he could study facial expressions. What the artist wants to do is what every person wants to do and Aesthetic Realism teaches how. In “Art As, Yes, Humility” Eli Siegel writes:

To see is to be humble….To be pleased by an object, by what it is, its form, texture, color, relation, is felicitous, sometimes magnificent, humility. It is a humility one has to learn.

I love teaching with my colleagues what we have learned from Aesthetic Realism: the art of liking the world. The first Aesthetic Realism assignment is: Every day write a complete sentence about one thing you like. Liking an object and saying so is the beginning point for liking the world, and being proud of the way you see. If a person is depressed it is because he has made less of the outside world, and he or she is asked: Look at an object close to you: Are you like the tape recorder?—dark, quiet and contained on the outside, and smooth perhaps, but turning around and listening to everything on the inside? Are you like the chair you are sitting on, feet on the floor, back upright, at rest and alert? This is the only way of seeing the world which can combat conceit and contempt. Eli Siegel taught that because the opposites of reality are in us, “when you lessen the meaning of anything you lessen yourself.”

Velazquez, old woman cooking eggs

Old Woman Cooking Eggs

Diego Velázquez painted this Old Woman Cooking Eggs when he was just 19. The critic Raymond Cogniat writes that the artist—

approached domestic interiors as seriously as historical scenes, portraits of peasants with as much respect as those of great noblemen, and a simple still-life with as much exactness and care as a composition on a grand scale.

We can learn from the way Velázquez saw meaning in the forms, textures, colors and relations of objects, and here, in a boy and an old woman.

2. The Universe Is in an Object

Eli Siegel, in his immortal Fifteen Questions, Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? describes the central impetus to art and the effect of every work of art. What Velázquez felt, saw and what we see now is described in Mr. Siegel’s question on “Universe and Object”:Velazquez, Old Woman Cooking Eggs, detail

Does every work of art have a certain precision about something; a certain concentrated exactness, a quality of particular existence?—and does every work of art, nevertheless, present in some fashion the meaning of the whole universe, something suggestive of wide existence, something that has an unbounded significance beyond the particular?

Velázquez has looked at the perfection of that oval egg, held over that light, circular dish, itself crossed by a dark knife, and has seen the great meaning of opposites—an eternal moment of “unbounded significance.” Light and dark, hard and soft, sharp outlines and obscured forms are composed.

A young person, somewhat modest, holds a heavy melon as he faces an older person. Placing youth somewhat further back, gives one a sense of age, while age itself, brilliantly lit, becomes more vividly in the present.

Velazquez, old woman cooking eggs

Old Woman Cooking Eggs

The luminous, whole egg and the softly spreading eggs being cooked, the heavy round melon on the left, and the round dish on the right makes our eyes move back and forth, even though the stirring motion of the wooden spoon in the old woman’s hand is caught and made—in its sculptural quality—timeless.

This is different from the way most women see the objects they use every day in their kitchens. In consultations people study how to see objects with the wonder and meaning they have.

Recently a New Jersey woman, Mrs. Eldridge, told us in a consultation how efficiently she managed her home, her part-time job, her garden; she seemed to whip things into shape on a whirlwind schedule. Mrs. Eldridge felt noble and martyred, but she did not like herself and she did not sound proud. When we asked if her husband had any criticism of her she said, “He says I act superior. I don’t sit down and talk with him.” Mrs. Eldridge’s consultation trio suggested that she look at and study an object her husband cared for and could perhaps teach her about. This is what she wrote for her next consultation:

My husband and I are having a wonderful time talking about hardware!… And I see the opposites in me—hardness and curve, sharpness and roundness.

Mrs. Eldridge was exuberant about how objects she had taken for granted were “so simple and complex—like me, like Harry, and everything else that exists.”

When Diego Velázquez was not yet 23 his paintings had already attracted attention in his native Seville, and he went to Madrid where his work might be seen more widely. By the time he was 24 he had become, as the Metropolitan Museum’s brochure of the exhibition of the artist’s work puts it—

painter to the king, who took a personal liking to him and monopolized the artist’s work for the rest of his life. Henceforth most of his paintings were portraits of the royal family or members of the court.

Velázquez is great because he had the same purpose as he looked at a king, a princess, and later at buffoons and dwarfs, as he did looking at the peasant boy, an egg, the humble objects of a kitchen.

Velazquez, Infanta Maria Teresa

Infanta Maria Teresa

Count Duke of Olivares

Count Duke of Olivares

Velázquez, Francisco Lezcano

Francisco Lezcano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the “Free Poem on ‘The Siegel Theory of Opposites’ in Relation to Aesthetics” in his book Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, Eli Siegel honors, comprehends, explains and puts into proud music, the painter’s vision and his work. These are some lines:

Velázquez’ characters resemble those
Of Shakespeare—stern and delicate; alive:
And so, at times, grotesque. The vision of
What’s here meets vision of what’s far away—
A thing reflected mingles with the here,
The seen. When Hamlet is made one with space,
It is like doings in Velázquez’ work…

Here is Philip IV “made one with space”:

Velazquez, Philip IV

Philip IV

The artist, critical of the tall monarch’s assumed superiority, shows him with two equally tall spaces on either side. Velázquez sees the king in a true relation with space, which makes for both beauty and pride. Instead of accenting separation, in his technique he not only contrasts, he blends. On the right the sharp outline of the cape contrasts with the warm, but plain space, but the low shadow blends with the table legs; and the unadorned black figure has an anonymity that blends with space, but there are swift up and down motions with the legs outlined and low on the canvas.

I think the artist is playful, too; the tall black hat on the light table is, as object, like the tall king on the light ground. But the great glory of this work is in the white paper held in its fold by one finger—it is so small, so not royal. The artist has painted its light edges with the same care as he painted the king’s curl.

velazquez-philip-iv-handvelazquez-philip-iv-head

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a triangle made by the king’s light head, going down each arm to his light hands; that triangle is like that of the humble, but brilliant paper. Velázquez has had the “magnificent humility” to see the abiding opposites of reality in the creases, the shadows, the curves and angles, the warmth and coolness of a folded piece of unwritten-on paper and the King of Spain.

3. Humanity Is High and Low: Aesthetic Opposites, Ethical Opposites

I have learned from Aesthetic Realism that a painting solves in outline, the questions of our lives, including of the artist himself. When we see height and lowness made one in a painting, when we look up and down for the same purpose, humility and pride are closer in us too. Every artist is dealing with these opposites in himself as he paints.

In the court of Spain Velázquez felt he was both “ennobled” and in “bondage” as the Metropolitan Museum catalogue puts it. He had the high esteem and affection of the king but in order to have economic security for himself and his family the artist had to be employed as “Gentleman of the Bedchamber,” and later as “Palace Chamberlain.” He arranged for the construction of buildings, he hired the carpenters; he served as the king’s ambassador all over Italy choosing and buying works of art for the Palace. Meanwhile in 17th century Spain being an artist was a “low and base calling.” On the one hand, he was the king’s preferred painter—and famous—on the other hand he was given duties “onerous, burdensome, time-consuming.”

Velázquez felt justly that his true pride came from his way of seeing, and he wanted the profession of painting to be lifted from its low status. At the same time, he was intent on being admitted to an order of Knighthood, and spent many years trying to obtain documents proving that his Portuguese father was of noble birth with no taint of “impure blood.”

It is likely that his tiredness as time went on came from an unseen conflict in him about where his vanity might take him and where his true pride was. In “Art As, Yes, Humility,” Eli Siegel writes:

The self gets in the way of humility; and artists have had to learn how to stop the tendency of the narrow, limited, fearful, monarchic self to interfere with pure, rich, just seeing.

The only criticism in the world which understands the harm and can oppose the “narrow, limited, fearful monarchic self” is that taught by the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel: the aesthetic criticism of self.

4. “The Embodiment of Successful Humility”

“Art,” writes Eli Siegel, “can be regarded as the embodiment of the successful humility of a person before the shows of existence, before existence itself….Art, itself, is humility at one with pride.” That is the way of seeing Eli Siegel had all the time; it is the only opposition to what Mr. Siegel described as the “inner sneer” which I once had and which hurts people so terribly.

One of the greatest triumphs of art—and it was the triumph of Velázquez—is the finding of beauty in the ill-formed, the misshapen, the ugly. In the 17th century court of Spain, dwarfs and buffoons were pitied, taken care of, and served as jesters to lighten the burdens of the monarchs. Velázquez, however, looked at the dwarfs for a different purpose; he saw the opposites of reality.

Velazquez, Sebastián de Morra

Sebastián de Morra

Here is Sebastián de Morra. We see a broad, light brow and eyes that in their depth make one almost cry with love. See how the arms, with their light and sturdy fists press down?—the little legs come towards us and the light slippered feet point upwards with their tops glowing softly? Those feet, with their curved motion, and vertical direction make us feel a standing person. The kindness of art is that we cannot look down on Sebastián de Morra without looking up.

The dwarf is in the center of the canvas. His dark green coat is divided up and down the middle, and just where his fists press down there is another division right across the center. We find perfect geometry in that imperfect body. Let your eyes travel around the shape of the whole man. It is a circle, the most complete, continuous, non-stunted shape in the world. Coming out of that circle is the warmth of the whole self of Sebastian de Morra in his light pink and gold cape, with his ever so slightly tilted, questioning head, his wise mouth and those deep brown eyes. This is man as noble, and as Eli Siegel wrote “alive: / And so at times, grotesque.” The purpose of Aesthetic Realism consultations is to teach persons how to see the relation of opposites—the dark and light, the complete and incomplete, high and low, good and evil, in the world and in ourselves. Every painting by Velázquez celebrates that purpose.

In 1656, four years before he died, Velázquez painted the work—to quote Eli Siegel’s poem—in which, “A thing reflected mingles with the here, / The seen.”

Las Meninas, 1656

Las Meninas, 1656

The heiress to the throne of Spain is the center of The Maids of Honor [Las Meninas], but the artist is studying persons high and low as they bow, entreat, kneel and stand by. The large face of the dwarf on the right is so near the imperious little princess. The symmetry of space and rectangle in that dark room has a serene nobility that includes the bumping irregularities of the nobles and servants in the foreground. Velázquez has put together the opposites of all time in the great space of that room; the light that enters as the courtier lifts the curtain becomes warm as it touches the artist’s canvas.

Velazquez-Las-Meninas-detail

Las Meninas, detail

And there is Velázquez himself, looking at the royal couple perhaps, reflected in the distant mirror, and he is looking at us.

Velázquez and his paintings say Yes over the centuries to the most beautiful message in the world: that of Aesthetic Realism, true about the world, true about art, true about every self—it is in these lines of Eli Siegel’s “Free Poem on ‘The Siegel Theory of Opposites’ in Relation to Aesthetics” with which I end my paper:

The opposites are surely elsewhere, too,
In more, more ways, my friends, in more, more things.
Ah, let us see them where they are—because
They make OURSELVES, they make the WORLD, that which
In honesty, we like; in pride, we are.