Thursday, December 13, 2012

A New Perspective on Velazquez

Velazquez has us standing high above the action in Old Woman Cooking Eggs, but I’ve never fully understood why, though we are clearly staring down on every object in the room, the old woman’s head is out of whack in terms of linear perspective.

The boy is in correct perspective, so that we can see the top of his head (and imagine an ellipse around his hairline) in keeping with all the other objects in the room, and yet she is perfectly in profile. Why is that? The only conclusion I have is that it deliberately creates a disjointed reality. Here is this old woman cooking a meal she’s done a million times before, absent-mindedly staring away into space. The distorted perspective physically reinforces the effect that she’s psychologically not present.

Her detached gaze has often been interpreted as blindness, but I don't think that she's blind. I think it's that she seems detached due to the off-kilter angle of her head. Maybe it's down to his being barely 19 years old when he painted it and it was simply a 'happy accident', but I like to think that this is his genius on display and that it just 'felt' right. Or perhaps it was a deliberate calculation: perhaps Velazquez manipulated perspective in the same way that we might deliberately manipulate value in a painting to establish a focal point.

Drawing ellipses on some of the major shapes in the painting, and a green line across her shoulders, clearly demonstrates a horizon line that's at least at the top edge of the canvas, if not above it.

Woman teaching Geometry, 1310

This 14th Century illumination shows the personification of Geometry. I'm glad she's not teaching me about geometrical perspective, as all the objects appear to be sliding onto the ground.

Equally, in Old Woman Cooking Eggs, either the table is correct and it's the woman's head that's tipped back, or her head is correct and - like the illumination - it's the table that's tipping forward. Either way something's wrong, but oddly it all seems right.

They could almost be from two separate paintings

The Fruitseller, Vicenzo Campi (1580)

It wasn't that unusual to play around with multiple perspectives in a single painting when trying to create a point of attention. Vicenzo Campi unnaturally tips the bowls of fruit towards us for pictorial effect, despite the fact that they are clearly on a different plane than the woman and the landscape.

Since we're ripping apart masterpieces, why does is seem as though are there two separate light sources? Maybe I'm wrong, but is her face is lit from lower down than everything else? The shadows on her headscarf seem almost horizontal, and her eye is fully lit.

Linear perspective is like any other tool in painting. You can use little bits of it, or ignore it completely. It's up to you. It's a topic that a lot of painters avoid as being overly mathematical, but as Velazquez shows us with his early masterpiece, even in a rigidly constructed pictorial space there's room to be intuitive. 


  1. What I think is interesting about the old woman's head is that, while it is not in the proper perspective, the head scarf appears as though it is. I could quibble about details like the egg having no shadow, but I sure wish I could paint like that 19-year-old!

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  3. Two or more places at once. Time travel. Do you know if this piece was ever in an eggshibition by the way?

    1. Every now and then the Prado opens the gates and winged chariots streak across the heavens carrying a Velazquez or two to far-flung exhibitions, but I'm not sure about this particular painting. Hi Paddy!

  4. Too much good stuff! I keep trying to tilt her head to the side so that the perspective works, although if it were so you'd probably see more of her neck. What's almost more curious to me is the varying perspective of crocks and bowls in front of her. Almost a proto-cubist approach of "I show you what I want you to see". 19 years old- just kill me now!

    I'll be in NYC from Jan 2-17; hope we can get a visit in then.

    1. I didn't want to get too picky, but yeah those ellipses are all over the place on the table surface. Does it "matter"? Not at all! What a totally amazing painting by the best in the world.

      Let's definitely meet up. Have a total nerdfest and go to the NY library on 42nd. Grab a bunch of original Berain engravings and geek out on ornament. Bring your camera!