Look at this painting:
Look at the painting in this link. It is a special favorite of mine.
(you can resize the graphic by clicking on it, putting the pointer over one of the corner circles, and – when the diagonal two-headed arrow pops up on top of the circle — pulling diagonally in or out on the small circle):
Now imagine a man and a woman discussing this early work by the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez [1599-1660]).
“Do you know El Aguador by Velázquez?” she asked.
“Painted in 1623. When he was still in his mid-twenties. A truly remarkable work.” He paused. “Yes, of course I know it.”
“I thought you would.”
“I even saw the real thing once in London. At the Wellington Museum.”
“Lucky, lucky you,” she beamed.
“Even more remarkable, vibrant almost.”
He got up and got himself a glass of water. “It stays with you. Can you articulate what it is about it that gets to you?”
It was getting on to the end of our formal meeting, and she knew that once he got going on his passion for the seventeenth-century Dutch and Spanish masters it would not be over in ten minutes or so. And the truth is that Velázquez’ painting had long intrigued her in reproductions, pale instars of the real thing that she had seen in a show just last week for the first time. It was one of the pieces she wanted to study more closely on the return visit she was planning.
“Well,” she began cautiously, “it’s because it’s about me. And it’s about you, and everybody else, too. And it is done with compelling authority.”
He nodded slowly, encouraging her to go on.
She had in fact given the piece a lot of thought.
“I know it’s not generally considered among his greatest works, but it’s probably my favorite. It moves me deeply. As does that majestic portrait of Juan de Pareja – I always wonder what Velázquez was thinking while was doing him. Or what Juan was thinking. And all those sad court dwarfs he seemed so fond of painting.
“Do you know any of these paintings?”
“Yes. In reproductions, of course. Please, go on.”
“Fine, El Aguador. First, of course, is the superb technique, a truly classic example of a realist’s realism, from the water-beaded urn in the foreground to the two main characters in the middle distance. The composition is, again, classic, a doubled structure: large water urn in front to the right, medium water urn in the next plane to the left, and between the two of them in the more distant plane the glass of water; the old man in front to the left, the young boy to the right in the next plane, and the murky drinker between the two others and in the background. The triadic compositions of humans and water “talk” to each other.
“Am I making any sense to you?”
“More than you know. Why didn’t I meet you twenty-five years ago?” he sighed, only half self-mockingly.
I laughed lightly. But I was getting turned on by talking about something dear to me. I never took an art course and I certainly don’t have the art historian’s sere intellectualism to conduct me. But I feel that I know what I am talking about.
Hoacman was on the edge of his seat, and I continued.
“There is the striking juxtaposition of old man and youth, of old age and young life, and you can’t help imagining what they are saying to each other. Is the old man – the worldly wise old water carrier — handing a full glass of water to the boy, or is the boy handing an empty glass to the old man and requesting water? If you take the symbolism of water as aqua vitae, or agua de vida, ‘the water of life’, either the man is passing it on the boy or the boy is asking for it from the old guy. In any event, I do see the water symbolically, and therefore the exchange, in whatever direction, strikes me as a profound one — between the generations, a passing on of things, a human sharing between them. Something like, what you are, I was; what I am, you will be.
“The use of color here is important. The white collar of the boy speaks to the white shirt covering the old man’s forearm, yet his clothing lacks all detail and contrasts strikingly with the refined rendering of the old man’s torn and shabby attire. The color bridge, as it were, between the two areas of brightness is, appropriately, the white highlights that circle the foot and rim of the glass and its sides, and the physical bridge is the sense that the hands holding the glass almost touch. Or do they? The particular color antithesis is paralleled by the boy’s pale smooth face and the old man’s darker, wrinkled visage, one with no facial hair and the other with beard. The whites of the clothing and the highlights of the urns and glass aside, the general tone is somber, dominated by ochres and earth-tones, creating a muted encounter of the type you could well imagine happening daily on any street corner or inn of Sevilla in the early seventeenth century. This quotidian detail is elevated into great art.”
Hoacman was entranced. “And the character in the middle?”
“If I’m on target as seeing this paining as a version of the age-old theme of the ages of man and the contrast between youth and age, then you’re on point. You have to be intrigued by the murkily limned character in the background between the boy and old man: his face is undefined! He’s drinking water, too, and I have often pondered if perhaps Velázquez intentionally left him ‘unfinished’ or simply did not get around to doing him fully. There are five planes in this painting: large urn, small urn and old man, glass and hands, young boy, and the fuzzy character. Only the last one is not cripsly rendered, and certainly Velázquez could have employed a ‘spatial perspective’ while at the same time detailing the man’s face. Think of a spatially much more complex painting like Las Meninas where the most distant plane — the man in the doorway who is probably the artist — is meticulously rendered. Perhaps the middle character represents adulthood, and was de-emphasized since Velázquez was interested only in the connection between old and young. Who knows?”
“And that’s why it’s about you and me?”
“Sort of. We are both the old man and the youth. But, relatively speaking, I am young and you are old.” He made a wry moue. “All right, older, let’s say.”
“That’s certainly an interesting view of the painting. I’m going to have to go back and check it out more carefully. I know I have a good reproduction of it at home, and I also bought the postcard at the museum.” He put on a thoughtful mien. “And the water? What are you and I exchanging?”
I shrugged. “It could be anything. Look at our drinks!” He nodded again, but not with much conviction. “Or do you want to make it your version and mine of the agua de vida, our life forces, our wetnesses? Is that what you want to get at?”
“That’s certainly a possibility, isn’t it? Interpretations like to be protean. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. I suppose.
“I’ve looked at this painting for many years, and it continues to intrigue me. As with a great work of literature, no matter how often I come back to it, I see something fresh each time and get some new notion of what is going on. It has a timeless silence that, oddly speaks to me forever. If it were on the market and I were immeasurably rich …”
“Yes,” he agreed. “One can always dream, can’t one,” he sighed wistfully. “About all kinds of improbable possibilities … .”