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Reviewed by:
  • The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others.
  • Mindy Nancarrow
Svetlana Alpers . The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. x + 298 pp. index. illus. $50. ISBN: 0-300-10825-7.

The Spinners, Velázquez's other masterpiece from the end of his career, gets much less attention than Las Meninas. For Alpers the consequences are both positive and negative: The Spinners is "less burdened by commentary but the cost of its having been overlooked is that in looking at it we are singularly on our own" (148). Alpers, whose interests range from Bruegel to Tiepolo, although she is best known for her work on Dutch art, sees an opportunity to ruminate on the practice of painting from Velázquez and Vermeer all the way to Manet and Picasso. She situates The Spinners within the visual laboratory that was the studio in which artists came into contact with and formed their visual understanding of the outside world. Later in the book she fuses the studio with the museum — in Velázquez's time artists often doubled as curators of museums — where artists came into contact with other artists. The studio-laboratory placed certain productive pressures on the practice of painting, thus the title, The Vexations of Art, borrowed from Bacon.

But Alpers develops the phenomenon of the studio with examples taken from Dutch painting, making her train of thought difficult to follow. Her segue into [End Page 551] Velázquez occurs in chapters 4 and 5 collected under the section heading "The Painterly Pacific." In chapter 4 Dutch artists painted out conflict in the seventeenth century by not painting it (there are some exceptions); in chapter 5 Velázquez equalized the victim and the victor before fate in his mythological painting Mercury and Argus. We are halfway through the book when Alpers turns her attention to The Spinners, the Spanish artist's singular statement of his singularity in the "gilded cage of art" that was the Spanish royal palace. In this painting Velázquez creates a virtual museum of art, something like the actual museums represented by Teniers and also Velázquez in Las Meninas. Instead of representing actual paintings he quotes and cites from famous paintings by Rubens and Titian or, more correctly, he copies Mazo's copy of Rubens's Minerva and Arachne and a tapestry after Titian's Rape of Europa. For Alpers, The Spinners qualifies as a virtual museum because it copies without copying either artist. She links with her earlier chapters on the painterly pacific: The Spinners is the artist's statement of his independence from other artists while reflecting, at the same time, his courtliness, his location within the gilded cage of art. It is his way of demonstrating his singularity while avoiding conflict at the same time.

Alpers's ingenuity comes to the fore when she turns to the relationship between art and life in The Spinners. In the literature (and also the Prado website) the picture represents a tapestry workshop; in fact, however, women accomplished the labor of carding and spinning in their homes and men wove tapestries in the workshops. For Alpers, the graceful women in the foreground of The Spinners are rooted in art: they reinterpret the naked females in Titian's Diana and Callisto painting, which Velázquez had watched Rubens copy during his stay in Madrid. Here Alpers says the Spaniard openly acknowledges his debt and offers homage to his famous predecessors. The eternally reticent Velázquez must have been fascinated by the erotic appeal of the band of women, but he moved them inside to an imaginary studio, or workplace, and set them to work. By locating the erotic interplay in the women's clothed bodies at work he produced a scene that is akin to Dutch images of women attending to domestic chores in the home. For Alpers, it is an extraordinary transformation: in The Spinners "art made out of art appears to give way to common, even ordinary life" (210).

The Vexations of Art challenges readers to find Velázquez amid the author's own tapestry-like weaving of Dutch art and a concluding chapter on Vel...


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pp. 551-552
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Archived 2009
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