Diego Velázquez, Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, 1630 oil on canvas, Monastery of San, Lorenzo, El Escorial, Spain, 87 3/4 x 98 3/8 in. wikipedia image
Cheating card players and fortune tellers by Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour are among the best-known paintings of deception. Two extraordinary Velázquez paintings completed in 1630, The Forge of Vulcan and Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, above, are also allegories of deception from the Baroque period of art.
Although a Biblical painting and a mythological painting would not seem connected, the canvasses match in height, format and the number of figures, six each. The painting of Jacob and sons has been cut at either end, while the other image has added canvas to the left. Both paintings have large window openings onto landscapes on their left sides. There are only male figures, many of them scantily dressed to show the artist’s extraordinary ability at depicting muscles of the arms, legs, back and chests with fine nuances of light and shadow. Joseph’s Blood Coat Brought to Jacob also has a barking dog.
Velázquez painted these pictures during his first of two trips to Italy, in 1630. In Italy, he seems to have been influenced by the frieze-like compositions of classical sarcophagi, which inspired him to spread his figures along the front of the composition, where the figures can be read from right to left or left to right.
In Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, the lies and deception are still occurring. Joseph’s jealous brothers have sold him into slavery in Egypt, keeping his coat. They smeared blood of a goat on the beautiful coat and then told the father Joseph had been killed. While two of the brothers who are slightly darkened may evoke the shame, the two holding the coat are without remorse. They lie so easily, while a brother whose back faces us is feigning horror. Only five of Joseph’s ten older brothers are present. (More sons would ruin the format of the composition, but this omission also suggests that the other sons had remorse and couldn’t continue to carry out the deception in front of their father.)
Velázquez painted a vivid picture of poor Jacob, who favored Joseph among his sons. He is frightfully upset and disturbed. Below his foot, Jacob’s dog barks with a recognition of the duplicity taking place. The viewer can’t help but feel the old man’s crushing pain. Jacob is a tragic figure. Velázquez shows his ability to depict texture, especially in the carpet and the dog. He’s equally adept at showing an awareness of the dramas of human nature.
Diego Velazquez, The Forge of Vulcan, 1630, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 87¾ in × 114⅛ in. Prado images
In The Forge of Vulcan, the deception is announced by the sun god Apollo, who announces to Vulcan that Vulcan’s wife Venus, is cheating on him. The helpers at the iron forge show curiosity and shock. A young worker on the right, mouth ajar, is particularly comical in his spontaneous reactions. The god Vulcan bends vigorously and is upset. He’s all the more foolish because the announcement comes while he’s making armor for his wife’s lover, Mars, the god of war. It’s comedy more than tragedy, and Apollo, a tattle-tale, looks proud and gossipy.
Velázquez shows that he could portray comedy and he could paint real tragedy. He used his skills to reveal much about human nature, as well as Shakespeare had done writing plays in England two decades earlier. Velázquez’s brushstrokes capture amazingly realistic textures. The fire of the smelting iron, as well as the sheen of a vase and of armor, light up Vulcan’s blacksmith shop. Furthermore, he has painted the workmen closest to the fire in warmer skin tones, true to the colors that light from a fireplace would reflect on their flesh. The colors and sensibility in the entire scene are more earthy than the inside of Jacob’s palace.
While we may get a laugh at the gods of Mt. Olympus, we’re appalled and saddened by the behavior of Jacob’s sons. For an artist in pious Spain, deception in the Bible is tragic while deception in mythology becomes a comedy. Velazquez painted other mythological subjects, but his Bacchus is debauched and flabby, and Mars, god of war, is out of energy and depleted. Mythology is good for stories and subject matter but he didn’t always respect it as much as Italian artists like Titian, or French artists like Poussin.
Though I’ve never been to the Prado Museum in Madrid which has 45 Velázquez paintings, I had the good luck to see these beautiful images in a Velázquez exhibition at the Metropolitan in 1989. These two paintings knocked me the ground, I but didn’t understand how they were linked in meaning until reading the catalogue and other literature.
Valentin de Boulogne, Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice, c. 1618/20
A magnificent exhibition of Caravaggio and His Followers at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth features the Washington National Gallery of Art’s Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice by Valentin de Boulogne. The painting tells a story of deception. Caravaggio had also painted Card Sharks with fewer figures. Boulogne, a Frenchman working in Rome, may have known of his composition. Boulogne’s painting is a tight, close-up composition with masterfully chosen areas of light. Two simultaneous episodes are taking place: dice throwing on the right and cheating card players on the left. The card sharks are the first to demand our attention, as they look startlingly real. Behind the central figure, who is in the process of cheating, another drama is happening. A man on the right looks down and covers his dice, perhaps hiding something while his adversary with the red hat seems about to erupt in anger. Although not a traditionally religious painting, Boulogne suggests two of the deadly sins, deception and anger. He warns of the hazards of gambling, exactly what these two vignettes represent.
The dice player with downcast eyes can be variously interpreted.
The sinister scene is set in a dark room. The well-dressed young man in front left is being duped by two soldiers, while two men cross behind them playing dice. The compact composition and the forceful use of diagonals heighten the tension, connecting the men who otherwise would be seen as individual character types. Colors are primarily earthy for these ruffians. But other colors fight for attention: white, scattered touches of blue clothes and the brilliant red hat in center (symbol of anger?), which is replicated in less vibrant red stockings on bottom facing the other direction.
A dark, sinister man in the upper left corner startles with his realistic presence. The details of faces come from a blog, Head for Art, May 24, 2010.
Eye movements and gestures pull us around the painting. At first glance, I am attracted to the white face and dark staring eye of the man in center (see below). His gaze goes past his competitor, to the man in shadow behind. Though the face of this man on the far left is darker than the others, his expression is so real as his fingers signal the number two (above). The shadowy compositions suggest that more than cheating is going on, something very dark, sinister and deceptive. Boulogne warns against taking chances in life. Intense light- dark contrast is a legacy of Caravaggio.
Viewers note the intensity of this soldier’s stare and his slow, careful choice of cards pulls the viewer into the story.
Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, of 1594, comes from the Capitoline Museum of Rome. The aristocratic young man falls in love as he is being duped.
Another allegory of deception Caravaggio painted is The Fortune Teller, 1594, a startlingly realistic depiction in the Kimbell’s exhibition. An alluring young gypsy and fashionable aristocrat look at each other with an intense hold. Her face suggests she is attracted to him, or at least feigning an attraction. His puffed sleeve, puffed cheek, elbow, sway of hips and sword express confidence, but caution is thrown to the wind. As the girl reads his palm, she slyly slips off his golden ring. The viewer, captivated by the couple’s loving gaze and beautiful clothing, is also tricked. We only see this detail by close inspection. The colors are primarily earth tones, black and white.
The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, by Georges de la Tour, 1630-34. The cheat, who slyly looks at us and shows his deck, is a “shady” figure, both literally and figuratively. The shadiness of the story is in contrast to the highly polished figures and their clothes.
Georges de la Tour’s scene of card players, in the Kimbell’s own collection, rounds out these tales of deception. Some elements of The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs are familiar– its close-up view and dark background. But the colors are brilliant oranges, pinks and reds. The youngest boy will get duped, and everyone else knows they are taking advantage of him. Cheating begins with the large woman who glances sideways at the woman bringing wine, who in turn casts one eye towards the “shady” cardplayer. In shadow on the left, he holds out the cards for us to see and looks at us outside the painting, bringing the viewers into the drama. The boy on right is innocent, but flirting with a world beyond his experience. The background is completely black behind the evil threesome, while the young boy is still halfway “in the light” of the painting, midway between good and bad. He can choose to stay on the right side, both literally and figuratively.
Certain Baroque painters could visually portray situations comparable to the dramatizations of Shakespeare from the 1590s and early 1600s. Carefully calculated figure placements and compositional angles let the human drama unfold before our eyes. They moralize and forewarn viewers of evil. Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller and de la Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs also are also comedies, because the well-dressed young men, possibly aristocrats, do not realize their susceptibility to trickery.