THE DRUNKARD PROFANE MYTHOLOGY OF VELAZQUEZ



Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was one of the great geniuses of painting. He was a master of the Spanish Baroque style, heir to tenebrism and an inspiration to the Impressionists.

This Sevillian made between 120 or 130 paintings, Las Meninas being the best known worldwide. The bulk of his work were fashioned in the Secular or Profane Baroque with incredible portraits and mythological pieces. 

Report by Karla Darocas, SpainLifestyle.com / KarlaDarocas.com 

Los Borrachos of 1629, was his first mythological work and the most outstanding of his initial stage as the king's painter. It has also been called the Feast of Bacchus and the Triumph of Bacchus. 

Velázquez was already working under the orders of King Felipe IV when he made painting in 1629. His arrival at the palace was not based upon his talents, but on a series of coincidences. The king, who ascended to the crown in 1621, appointed Gaspar de Guzmán (Count-Duke of Olivares), as his right-hand man. Guzmán wanted a court with an Andalusian majority.

This insider information was overheard by Francisco Pacheco, who was Velázquez teacher and father-in-law. Seeing this information as an opportunity, he quickly motivated his contacts to arrange an introduction. 

Velázquez traveled to Madrid for the first time in 1622, with the excuse of getting to know the collection of paintings at the grand palace of El Escorial. He did not achieve his wish to meet the king, so he stayed in the city and studied Titian's paintings. 

In October 1623, Velázquez made a sketch of the king and a subsequent equestrian painting, both works now lost. Finally, the young monarch requested that Velázquez be transferred to Madrid and begin working for him, with a low salary as artists were just staff.

Portrait by portrait, Velázquez gained fame and aroused jealousy within the ranks of the older court artists who accused him of being only capable of painting heads. So, to prove a point, in 1627, Velázquez participated and won a contest against the other three royal painters: Vicente Carducho, Eugenio Cajés and Angelo Nardi. 

A year later he was the most important chamber painter commissioned to paint classic portraits of the royal family and other works to decorate the palaces. Velázquez was allowed to carry out private commissions for third parties, which was a privilege that no other court painter was allowed.

Los Borrachos (The Drunkards) is a piece from that time, for which he was paid 100 ducats from the king's house. The painting shows the god Bacchus together with 7 drunkards at his side.

In Roman literature, Bacchus was the god of wine, the Greek Dionysus, who rewarded men with drink in order to help them to get rid of problems, temporarily. 

This painting, which is in Madrid's Prado Museum, was painted shortly before the artist`s first visit to Italy, barely five years after he began working for the king and at a time when he had just met Rubens. 

Velázquez utilizes a palette, descriptive methods and human types that recall his earlier years in Seville however, The Drunkards has many firsts for the artist.

Here we see the painter showcase his first male nude, a rarity in Spanish art due to the strict Catholic rules. A chubby fellow that dominates the composition, Bacchus shines with youthful luminous skin. Another nude, a satyr, on the left, shows muscle tones and a sideview torso. Hidden, but in plain sight, is another figure in the front left of the frame, who observes the party with is back to us giving us a level of mystery into the mythology.

On the right of the frame, we delight to the rough and ready weathered faces of the everyday folks with their dark-brown capes and drunken expressions. These are the types of faces who dominated his still life genre work in Seville but now they also celebrated by the Baroque literary scene who had scored a best seller picaresque novel in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615,  the author highlights characters who are rough, perhaps dishonest, but appealing in a naturalistic way. Perhaps this is why the crown that Bacchus places on the young man`s head is not of grape leaves, like his own, but of the ivy traditionally associated with poets and writers?

The painting is typically Baroque in style with its characters in the middle engaging us with their direct confrontation. The details are clear and the scene is obvious and close, up front in our space, making us explore and marvel. Is it teaching us something moralistic or is it intended to be just a fun and humorous conversation piece for the king? Both I suspect.