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The Water-Seller of Seville, Velazquez

Jonathan Jones
Saturday December 2, 2000
The Guardian

· View the work online

Artist: Diego Rodriguez da Silva Velazquez (1599-1660), born to a family of the
minor nobility in Seville, who set up his own studio at the age of 18. Soon
afterwards, already revered, Velazquez set off for Madrid, where he was
appointed court painter to Philip IV in 1623. He held the position for the rest of his
life, making portraits regarded ever since as among the greatest European
Subject: A street water-seller nicknamed the Corsican of Seville who, according
to accounts from the end of the 17th century, wore a smock with holes in it to
show his scabs and sores to potential customers.
Distinguishing features: The vendor's face is downcast, expecting nothing, not
looking at the boy to whom he gives water in a clean, fine glass with a black fig to
freshen the taste. In the shadows another customer drinks. The water-seller
seems unaware of either; as if in deference to his sorrow, the boy looks down. He
respects the poverty and age of the street-seller, as does Velazquez, who gives
the man an immense dignity.
The water-seller's body is as monumental as the round container on which he
places his left hand. His robe is torn like a saint's, his face lined with experience,
the scarred, creased antithesis of the boy's white, smooth features. This is the
face of a man who has spent a lot of time in the sun, standing on dusty street
This painting crackles with Seville's scorching heat. The water-seller's robe has a
flaky, crisp texture. His face, around his mouth, is marked by deep canyons like
dried-up river beds. His beard is desert grass, his hair shaved short, in contrast
to the boy's lively locks. He touches the water jar, on the surface of which three
drops of water glisten, shining globules of life.
The paintings in which Velazquez specialised during his early career were known
as "bodegones", from bodegon, a cheap eating-house. They are scenes of
lowlife, but with a sombre, static quality that is the opposite of contemporary
Dutch genre scenes with their cheerful peasants. In The Water-Seller the
simplicity of the clothes and ceramics, and the ritual of pouring and drinking
water, gives the painting the feeling of a fable or parable.
Years later, Velazquez was to paint an old man impersonating the ancient
storyteller Aesop. In early 17th-century Spain Cervantes and other writers gave
voice to outsiders, the destitute, the mad; Cervantes even wrote a conversation
between two dogs about Seville's street life.
Part of the Spanish royal collection, The Water-Seller was seized by Joseph
Bonaparte in the Napoleonic wars, taken back from him by the Duke of
Wellington at the battle of Vittoria, then given by the restored Spanish royal family
to the Iron Duke as a token of gratitude for defeating the French. Today it seems
a little forlorn among Wellington's trophies, but this only adds to its status as a
memorial to the overlooked and despised. The water-seller emerges forever from
history's shadows, the light touching his face.
Inspirations and influences: The most important influence on Velazquez was
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), the Italian baroque painter of
saints with the faces of street people. Caravaggio's use of dramatic light sources
to illuminate staged scenes with the rawness of real life is directly emulated in
The Water-Seller - in particular the boy's face, lit up and youthful.
Velazquez's imitators were numerous.His fellow Sevillian Bartolome Esteban
Murillo made the city's streets his own in imaginative lowlife scenes, such as
Invitation to a Game of Pelota (c1670) and The Flower Girl (c1670). But
compared with the reality and compassion of The Water-Seller, these are soft
fantasies of street urchins.
Where is it? Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London W1 (020-7499 5676).

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