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Velázquez, Vulcan's Forge

Diego Velázquez, Vulcan's Forge, c. 1630, oil on canvas, 223 cm x 290 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: We're in Madrid at the Prado and we're looking at a Velazquez. A large painting, this is the Vulcan Forge. It's been described by some of our historian's as a kind of burlesque actually. Dr. Harris: Here's Apollo, here we can see the God of the Sun and the God of Poetry with the halo on his head on the left who's here telling Vulcan, Dr. Zucker: A suit of armor. Dr. Harris: ... and is very hard at work all day and Apollo has just come to tell him that his wife, Venus, has been having an affair with Mars, the God of War. Dr. Zucker: Now, just look at the attitudes of those two faces, forget about the rest of the painting for just a moment. Apollo, his back arches, his head is up, he's rather full of himself actually. Dr. Harris: Yeah. Dr. Zucker: As he has this very powerful message to, sort of, almost scold Vulcan with. Vulcan looks horrified and dangerous. He's holding this red hot metal in one hand, he's got a hammer in the other and it looks like he's ready to just strike anything. Dr. Harris: Look at his body, he's got this beautiful torso, muscles, and these ripples and his abdomen, but his face has that kind of Carvaggio feel Dr. Zucker: Of this world. Dr. Harris: ... beautiful. He's got this ideally beautiful body, in fact all of the male figures have ideal bodies as though Velazquez was looking at Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and looking at the artists of the Renaissance, maybe Michelangelo and also looking at the art of Carvaggio. Dr. Zucker: But the hands are different aren't they? Dr. Harris: They are. Dr. Zucker: They're not so idealized ... Dr. Zucker: ... as you pointed out, in fact the heads are incredibly naturalistic even though they're painted in a fairly loose manner. Dr. Harris: There's this conflict in this painting between this kind of realism and down to earthness in the figures and what they're doing, and their gestures and the emotions that they convey, but also this sense of that they're kind of standing like classical sculptures and their bodies look like classical sculptures. Dr. Zucker: Here's the thing is that I don't think the French or the Italian's would have rendered an important mythological subject with this much, almost comedy involved, right? Dr. Harris: Yeah. Dr. Zucker: Look at the man who is second from the right, he looks sort of astonished, literally absurd. There is this kind of direct human, sort of sense of conflict and humor that seems very debasing in some way, really not treating the classical with the honor that it's usually accorded. Dr. Harris: At the same time, though, this looks like an academic exercise because we have the three male figures in the center shown from three different points of view. The one on the left, Vulcan, shown frontal. The next one shown from behind, the third one shown in profile and the last figure on the right shown foreshortened and coming out toward us. Dr. Zucker: Those first three almost like ... if they were female figures, like the three Graces. Dr. Harris: Exactly, it looks very orderly and composed and balanced and a little bit like a performance for maybe possible future patrons. I mean, here's Velazquez, he's still relatively young, he's made a trip to Rome at the urging of Rubens and perhaps demonstrating his skill, as an artist who can paint the male nude. Dr. Zucker: It certainly shows an artist who's willing to reinvent or push the boundaries of the ways in which stories are told. (piano playing)