Perspective | Velazquez gave marginalized people at the Spanish court great dignity

Not everyone agrees that this painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art is a Velázquez, but there’s a good chance it is. Regardless, it’s a fascinating work of art. It’s a portrait of Juan Calabazas, a jester who was a documented presence at the Spanish court when Diego Velázquez was court painter.

Calabazas was probably mentally impaired. The Spanish court employed many people with dwarfism, as well as jesters or “buffoons,” as they were called. They were playmates to the royal children, and, with their distinctive appearance, humorous costumes and permission to behave in unusual ways, they provided entertainment and a release from the pressure of the formidably severe and hierarchical Spanish court.

All this is jarring to think about. But of course, the excellent idea that all humans are equal did not, in the 17th century, enjoy the currency it later gained. In paintings, these marginal — but at the same time, curiously central — figures were sometimes shown in isolation and sometimes as ancillary figures in double or group portraits, and often in ways that carried a moral or humorous message. Here, Calabazas appears to be holding a toy windmill in one hand and, in the other, a miniature portrait of a woman, perhaps intended by Velázquez as a commentary on the inconstancy of love.

The Prado in Madrid has another, uncontested portrait of Calabazas painted by Velázquez. It shows him crouching on the ground with clasped hands, dressed in the green of a buffoon, with a gourd on either side. “Calabazas” means “gourd,” which was also a colloquial term for madness or rash behavior. So the gourds in that portrait (one an actual pumpkin, the other for holding wine) were probably alluding to his mental faculties and perhaps to the effects of wine.

Velázquez could take liberties with his portraits of little people and jesters because they were neither members of the royal family nor nobility. That’s why the paintings he made of such people are among his boldest, most compelling and — to modern eyes — most sympathetic and compassionate works. Under less obligation to please the sitter, he could veer further from the expectation of seriousness and sobriety and be more responsive to character. The Velázquez authority Jonathan Brown has pointed out qualities of “humor” and “bravura” in these portraits, as well as “remarkably perceptive observations about mental deficiency” and “a kind of smoldering defiance.”

Advancing a stylistic technique he had developed himself (and that would have a huge influence on such 19th-century painters as Édouard Manet and John Singer Sargent), Velázquez could leave his sitters’ faces more blurred and imprecise, the better to suggest the ever-changing mobility of facial expressions. He delicately brushed extremely thin layers of paint over neutral gray or sandy grounds, achieving a level of shimmering luminosity that no other painter could match.

Velázquez also found a way to suggest three-dimensional volume without planting visual clues (like smaller background objects or the meeting points of walls and floors). He did it by combining extremely subtle tonal shifts and directional brushwork to evoke contours corkscrewing through space. In this way, he shifted the creation of volume on a two-dimensional surface away from the fictional constructions of Renaissance perspective and closer to the way the eye naturally sees.

In this full-length portrait, my modern eyes are struck by the sweet and unaffected appearance of Calabazas. He is smiling so contentedly. He looks proud of his rich, black costume, proud to be playing a role at such an important court and proud, perhaps, to be in possession of some potent knowledge: namely, that everyone at court was playing a role.

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