Diego Velazquez, Peasants at the Table, ca. 1618-19, oil on canvas, 96 x 112 cm, Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest
As an artist, the beauty of living in New York City is that I get to experience first hand the numerous exhibitions put on by museums and galleries. Most blockbuster shows make a stop here after or before they head to other major cities in the states or the world. Sometimes some exhibits are exclusive to New York, which was the case with the Guggenheim's Spanish Paintings from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History, November 17, 2006 - March 28, 2007. The second best show, after a Caravaggio show in Hartford in the late 90's, that I have ever seen. As any major exhibition the walls contained a large amount of work borrowed from many museums and private collections from around the glove. As the title suggests, this event was a celebration of the history of Spanish art from El Greco's time to Picasso, and with such names one may assume that most of the show will feature both artists works. It came as a surprise to find not too many El Grecos on the walls, as matter of fact I can only remember a handful maybe less. Picassos there were many, but they all seemed to fall short hanging next to other great painters like Murillo, Goya, Ribera, Cotan, Zurbaran and Velazquez. Time after time I was stopped dead in my tracks and left breathless in front of a 17th century painting. But the one painter who seems to do it for me all the time is Velazquez, and it was Peasants at the Table, a painting I have always wanted to see in person, that with pure magic hypnotised me for about half an hour.
Velazquez has been considered a genius of painting and a technical innovator, but as many other artists he had to start somewhere. He had to admire and emulate somebody. Peasants at the Table is one of a number of paintings Velazquez executed during his early years before joining the court of King Philip IV. In these works, Velazquez takes the naturalist and dramatic style of Caravaggio and explores its possibilities to tell his stories of domestic life. "This style appealed to the young Velazquez, though it was considered scandalous by other Spanish painters who were unable to assimilate Lombard naturalism. The atmosphere of the taverns not only gave rise to scenes of prostitutes, musicians, and gamblers, but was also used in the representation of religious themes like the Supper at Emmaus, a subject painted by Caravaggio himself (1601, National Gallery, London)."*
Peasants at the Table (detail), after Velazquez, 2007, ball point pen in Moleskine sketchbook
As a fan of Velazquez and Caravaggio I had no choice but to make a couple of sketches of this picture. Hanging by itself on a modern white wall, the painting, with its excellent use of bright and dark colors, demanded the attention of museum visitors.
*Francisco Calvo Serraller, Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History, 2006,The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York