Velasquez’s Pentimenti

A painter has to be a kind of magician with a brush. He must put on just the right color in just the right amount in just the right place of his canvas. Diego Velazquez did that better than even the best of painters. His touch was sure, it was perfect.

And yet: everyone has heard about Velazquez’s pentimenti. Those are corrections an artist makes. If he was so sure with the brush, why did he make so many corrections?

Velazquez had to oversee the decoration of the king’s palaces. He had to decide where to hang up his own pictures. Every day he would walk past them and reconsider. Wouldn’t that leg look better a little more forward? Or: isn’t the king’s musket a little too long?

Here is a portrait of King Philip with changes, pentimenti, in his left leg, his glove, and his musket:

velasquez king philip of spain

See the comments below on Velasquez’s curious brush-cleaning habit.

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12 Responses to Velasquez’s Pentimenti

  1. iondanu says:

    Thanks for the term “pentimenti”… I didn’t knew that one (and many others)… could be an interesting subject, why so many Italian words became THE words to say things in painting? A la prima, vellatura, chiaroscuro, pentimenti etc. etc.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Above all a great artist must be flexible. So you have a great plan, execute it (I hope I’m not sounding too much like a Harvard MBA!!), and THEN see what is wrong. A great artist doesn’t worry about looking like he didn’t have a perfect plan. He just does whatever is necessary to make it as perfect a painting as he can. This may be a personal bias of mine, but I like art all the more if I can see where the artist made changes and corrections.

    All said with this huge caveat: I don’t have the luxury of looking at so many Velasquez paintings firsthand as Swallows does. Sad to say. I wish I could admire Velasquez’s sure brushwork in person!

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Velasquez used to clean his brush on the unpainted part of his canvas after a session, making big parallel sweeps with his brush. Maybe rags were too scarce. Anyway, now after the years, the paint he used to cover up the sweeps has become transparent and you can see the darn things. They are on almost all the paintings, I think, though some of them are visible only in X-rays. Experts look for them when they want to authenticate a Velasquez. That’s another kind of brushwork!

      • Ken Januski says:

        Ha! Well that’s a pentimenti of a different color entirely! I had no idea of that Swallows, or that experts used it to authenticate Velazquez paintings. I continue to learn when I visit here. As I’m sure do all your readers.

        • 100swallows says:

          Ken: Here are four examples of Velasquez’s brush cleaning habit:



          • Ken Januski says:

            Hi Swallows,

            Those last couple are really pretty strong. I jokingly referred to the word ‘detrimenti’ but now that I see them I almost think that’s the term that should be used, not ‘pentimenti.’ I just checked and see that Wikipedia says that pentimenti comes from ‘pentirsi’, to repent. That’s how I’ve always thought of it, in a very offhand way. The artist had second thoughts and reworked something. But Velazquez’s brush cleaning is something else entirely!!

            I’m fine with ‘pentimenti’ and generally find them valuable, even when they might seem to ruin a perfect painting. But to have brush-cleaning strokes rise up from the dead to ruin a masterpiece: that is sad indeed. Not much redeeming there!

  3. wrjones says:

    What is the term for huge desperate changes that lead to a mediocre piece. This would seem to be a word much more in demand.

  4. christopher says:

    Holy smoke, that’s FASCINATING about his brush cleaning!!! I’ve never heard of that or even considered it. I did find some references to his brush cleaning habit but I can’t find any images – your links aren’t working. Can you find your images for us again?

    • 100swallows says:

      Christopher: Thanks very much for telling me my links didn’t work. I hope these will. Maybe I ought to do a post on this subject instead of burying it in a comment, where few will look.

  5. Rich says:

    I may throw in the “pentiti” here; that’s the testifying mafiosis breaking their “omerta”.
    Wow! This dog is alive!

    Somewhere Cezanne had lamented about the fate of Velazquez, having painted Los Borrachos and given us The Forge of Vulcan, “enough to fill all the palaces of Spain”, had he been allowed to continue.
    He then regrets that his genius had been squandered, after having been introduced to the king and hired. He then had to follow orders, as there was no photography then. Becoming this weird man’s toy: “paint me this dwarf, my portrait afoot, on the horse, my wife, my daughter, this one, that one”. Cezanne then ventures on a theory that Velazquez took revenge for his imprisonment, by mercilessly painting them with all their faults and scum and marks of decadence…

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: Yes, there is that look of suspicion in the dog’s stare that gives me the willies. Isn’t he suddenly going to bark and lunge? I always liked the big sleepy one too in the Meninas painting, the one who doesn’t stir when the midget puts his foot on him.

      I wonder what Cezanne’s source was for such speculation. There isn’t much contemporary writing on Velazquez. Most critics get their info from his father-in-law’s book and then another written 75 years later by Palomino and neither of those support a theory like that. I used to go along with a view that was conventional for awhile that painting didn’t really fill Velazquez, that he painted only when he had to and now and then, almost as if it were a hobby. But after thinking about it and seeing his perfect works, I’m sure he loved his work and worked as hard as any other genius, though it’s true his palace duties stole more and more of his painting time. Excepting the portraits,the king seems to have let him paint what he wanted to. Remember that many of his works were destroyed when the old palace (alcázar) burned down.

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