In this mature masterpiece, Velázquez returns to a compositional device from his earliest bodegones.
A relative of the Italian pittura ridicola and Dutch genre scenes, the Spanish "bodegón" (derived from the Spanish word bodega, which can be translated as pantry, tavern, or wine cellar) is another type of genre scene that shows common people with food, often with an implicit moralizing message.
Velázquez was a pioneer of this genre, and his early works (from 1618-1620) are almost all bodegones. Compared to Italian or Dutch examples of similar themes, these paintings are relatively sober, restrained and dignified, lacking any overt mockery or buffoonish humor.
Velázquez's bodegones are characterized by:
• Sobre, limited palette of earth tones (reds, browns, black)
• Shallow pictorial space (typical of Spanish painting)
• Careful attention to still-life elements
• Dignified portrayal of the human subject
• Serious tone
Just like in works such as The Supper in Emmaus, Velázquez divides his composition into two distinctly separate realms, a separation made clear both by space, the elevation of the background scene, and differences in light and brushstroke.
Las Hilanderas is lighter in tone and brighter in palette than most of Velázquez's earlier works, which most likely speaks to the influence of the artist's second trip to Italy. This being said, the painting still evidences the interest in chiaroscuro so typical of Velázquez's style, and is dominated by one of his favorite triadic palettes, red, blue and brown.
The various interpretations of Las Hilanderas (see Critical Reception) mean that there are different tones that can be detected in this painting. One art historian has suggested that Las Hilanderas could have erotic undertones and in contemporary Spanish culture, spinning was a popular sexual metaphor.
Bird makes a case for this painting as referring to this popular imagery for a number of reasons. The lower-class women in the foreground are shown in an intimate, unguarded moment, provocatively revealing what most Spanish women took great pains to hide: ankles, arms and necks.
Furthermore, certain symbols in the painting were common symbols of "luxuria," or lust, during the Renaissance and Baroque periods: the cat, a fickle creature, symbol of femininity and prostitution; the bobbin that one spinner holds in her lap, a symbol of female genitals; and the viola da gamba propped up in the background, a common metaphor for sexual relationships between men and women.
In this context, the separation of the women in the foreground and background would take on another meaning. The earthly, laboring figures in the foreground represent sensuality and physical appetites, while the modestly clothed maidens in the background, protected by Pallas Athena, the goddess and protector of virgins, represent a higher spirituality.
Las Hilanderas ("The Spinners") is a painting by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, housed in the Museo del Prado of Madrid, Spain. It is also known by the title The Fable of Arachne. It is usually regarded as a late work by the artist, dating from around 1657.
Traditionally, it was believed that the painting depicted women workers in the tapestry workshop of Santa Isabel. In 1948, however, Diego Angula observed that the iconography suggested Ovid's Fable of Arachne, the story of the mortal Arachne who dared to challenge the goddess Athena to a weaving competition and, on winning the contest, was turned into a spider by the jealous goddess. This is now generally accepted as the correct interpretation of the painting.
It was painted for Don Pedro de Arce, huntsman to King Philip IV. It entered the royal collection in the eighteenth century, and was probably damaged by the fire at the Royal Alcazar of Madrid in 1734. New sections were added at the sides (37 cm in total) and over 50 cm to the top of the canvas. The painting remains at the extended size but is currently (in November 2013) displayed behind a screen with a frame added over a cut-away section revealing only the original dimensions.
Stylistic elements, such as the lightness, the economical use of paint, and the clear influence of the Italian Baroque, have led many scholars to assert that it was painted in 1657. Others place it earlier, at some time between 1644–50, perhaps because certain aspects of its form and content recall the bodegones Velázquez painted in his early career.
In Las Hilanderas, Velázquez developed a layered composition, an approach he had often used in his earlier bodegones, such as the Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. In the foreground is the contest. The goddess Athena, disguised as an old woman, is on the left and Arachne, in a white top facing away from the viewer, is on the right. Three helpers assist them. In the background, a raised platform (perhaps a stage) displays the finished tapestries. The one visible to us is Arachne's, showing The Rape of Europa — another Greek myth. This is in fact a copy of Titian's painting of the subject, which was in the Spanish royal collection.
The painting has been interpreted as an allegory of the arts and even as a commentary on the range of creative endeavor, with the fine arts represented by the goddess and the crafts represented by Arachne. Others think that Velázquez' message was simply that to create great works of art, both great creativity and hard technical work are required. Other scholars have read political allegories into the work and interpreted it through popular culture.
- Romano, Eileen (2006). Art Classics: Velázquez. ISBN 0-8478-2812-3.
- Bird, Wendy. "The Bobbin and the Distaff", Apollo, 2007-11-01