Why Does This Painting Move Me?

13 Aug 2013

Ask yourself that question when you see an artwork you respond to and it might reveal what you strive for in your own artistic practice. In Diego Velázquez's Kitchen Scene in the House of Mary and Martha, the answer (for me at least) is the psychological intensity of the foreground figures and the layered composition.

Kitchen Scene in the House of Mary and Martha by Diego Velázquez, c.1618.
Kitchen Scene in the House of Mary and Martha by Diego Velázquez, c.1618.

The young girl in the foreground has an expression that's not easy to read. It's a combination of weepiness, resentment, regret, and a little bit of pure teenage misery. The kitchen task that occupies her hands cannot hold her attention. Neither can the elderly woman at her side whose subtle hand gesture and tilt of head could be gently chiding or comforting the girl, or directing our eye past her to the other scene in the painting.   

As a master of composition, Velazquez provides us with multiple ways of reading the scene. The background figures could be part of a Biblical illustration tacked to the wall of the dusky room. But it could also be that we are seeing through a entryway into another room in the house. Or it could be a mirror, and those figures are positioned where the girl in the foreground directs her gaze.
We haven't touched on the Biblical story behind the painting or its historical context as a Spanish bodegón painting. Those are interesting points, but I wanted to focus in on what attracted me on an emotional level. Doing so is like holding up a mirror to our artist selves--and we get a stronger sense of what is importance to us when it comes time to decide what and how to paint. I'm a sucker for subtle emotions and a multifaceted story or competing interpretations.

As you develop your creative process, it's helpful to take cues from the work you admire and to stretch ourselves when we feel like we are in a rut. Often we focus on technique, but it is equally useful to note one's emotional response to work as well as how we are working and creating. Art Escapes offers thoughtful exercises for bolstering creative expression and increasing artistic confidence. That is a rich mix, and if it is the right resource for you, you'll be able to pick and choose what suits your practice and tastes, and conveniently take it with you wherever you go. Enjoy!

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Margo5 wrote
on 9 Aug 2010 9:21 AM

Great article. Thanks for writing it.

on 9 Aug 2010 12:17 PM

Courtney, I was attracted to Velasquez`s masterpieces way back in high school.  He was a master story teller integrating symbolism into his realism.   The human condition seemed to be his plight.  That is my opinion and I am not an expert.  He was certainly trying to pull the viewer in by the multiple scenarios he portrayed.   We are still analyzing the works today.

Yakky1 wrote
on 14 Aug 2013 9:44 AM

Thanks for your interesting comments on today's painting by Valasquez!  It is a very thought provoking piece.  It's also  interesting to consider that what draws us to particular pieces of artwork is what we strive to achieve in our own artwork.  I will definitely consider that from now on when I am drawn to a particular piece of artwork. Thanks!

KG Hunter wrote
on 15 Aug 2013 7:35 AM

When I look at a painting that moves me, I ask myself how accurate are the drawings and how were the values and composition handled?  I think that it's these three things that I pay most attention too.  I use thin paint so I really don't pay much attention to edges, maybe I should though!  I try not to stress the drawings too much when I'm doing one session paintings but I'm very sensitive to drawing, I can't help it.  Dissecting your favorite paintings is a great way to learn and I will be doing it for the rest of my life.  It's how I learn.