My Favourite Painting: James Graham-Stewart

‘Is it in the present or in the past? These plays on time and space keep the story alive. None of this would be especially interesting if it weren’t for the unsurpassed humanity that binds Velázquez’s virtuosity.'

James Graham-Stewart chooses Christ in the House of Martha and Mary:

‘I find the ambiguities in this painting endlessly intriguing. On one level, it’s a simple telling of the biblical story as pointed out by the old woman to the careworn latter-day Martha. But is the background scene with Christ seen through an embrasure into another room? Is it a painting on the wall? Or is it a reflection in a mirror?

‘Is it in the present or in the past? These plays on time and space keep the story alive. None of this would be especially interesting if it weren’t for the unsurpassed humanity that binds Velázquez’s virtuosity.

‘It’s impossible not to love the maid for all her truculence, nor to find God all around her: in the folds of the coarse ochre cloth, in the dull gleam of the pewter mortar, in the opalescent skin of the garlic, in the staring dead eyes of the fish ’

Antique dealer James Graham-Stewart will be exhibiting at Masterpiece (June 27–July 3)

John McEwen on Christ in the House of Martha and Mary:

When Jesus called on his follower Mary’s house, where she lived with her sister Martha, Martha complained that now she had to do all the work (Luke 10: 40–42):

But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.

And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part,which shall not be taken away from her.

The old woman points to the moral: the vita contemplativa (spiritual life) is superior to the vita activa (temporal life).

Diego Velázquez’s first paintings were bodegones (bodegón, a tavern), a popular and minor genre showing tavern scenes with the accent on still-life detail. His teacher and father-in-law, the painter Francisco Pacheco, wrote that bodegones deserved ‘the highest appreciation’ if ‘painted as my son-in-law paints them, for he far outstrips all others in this field’.

This bodegon elevated the genre by incorporating the highest cate-gory, a scene from the life of Christ: a ‘picture’ within the picture, sacred yeast within supposedly mundane dough. Velázquez was only 19 when he painted it.

The 20th-century art historian José Guidol considered the focal point of the bream, so intensely realised they seem to have personalities, as having ‘no rivals in the whole history of Spanish still-life painting’.

The freer handling in the rendering of Christ and the women anticipates Velázquez’s later virtuosity as a supreme master of painterly painting.


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