My favourite painting: The Duke of Wellington

'The image of the old man selling water from a jar is so well painted that you can almost feel the cool surface covered in condensation.'

The Waterseller of Seville, about 1620, by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), 421⁄3in by 32in, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London.

The Duke of Wellington says:
I have known this painting all my life and it was always my favourite in the collection at Apsley House. The image of the old man selling water from a jar is so well painted that you can almost feel the cool surface covered in condensation. Velázquez captures the enigmatic contrast of the face of the dignified old man and the young boy, who may either be helping his master or buying water. It’s an unforgettable image of what must have been a typical scene in the streets of Seville in southern Spain.

The 9th Duke of Wellington succeeded to his father at the end of 2014. He is Chairman of King’s College London and lives, when in London, at Apsley House, and in Hampshire at Stratfield Saye.

John McEwen comments:
The  art historian Jose Guidol described this masterpiece of Velázquez’s youth as ‘the work that crowns a whole method and concept of representation’; the jugs particularly took ‘realistic representation’ to ‘a simply unheard-of degree of naturalism’.

The provenance states ‘captured at Vitoria, 1813’. Vitoria saw Wellington rout the French army of Napoleon’s eldest brother, Joseph, thus ending the latter’s five-year usurpation of the Spanish throne in a prelude to the climactic Waterloo. The 200 pictures captured were sent to London, where The Waterseller was attributed to Caravaggio; a reasonable mistake, as Velázquez’s bodegones (scenes of tavern life) were indebted to Caravaggio’s dramatic style.

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Velázquez left Seville for Madrid in 1623, to become a ‘Royal Painter’ to Philip IV. The Waterseller was first acquired by his friend Fonseca y Figueroa (1585–1627), ‘Chief Officer’ of Philip IV’s chapel. As it is considered the finest and probably last of the bodegones, Velázquez may have brought it as a sample of his skill.

When Fonseca died, Velázquez valued it at a higher price than any other picture in the Fonseca collection. It was listed in the royal collection from 1701, titled el Corzo (The Corsican), thought to identify the waterseller. This interpretation has been disputed, as have allegorical ones. even the fig (commonly used as a water freshener) in the glass is argued to be a decorative Venetian glass bubble.

‘There are three copies of the work, in each of which the waterseller is shown wearing a cap’ (Wellington Collection catalogue).


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