A Masterpiece of Very Refined Art

Considered as one of the peak pictorial works in the history of universal art, ´The Spinners´ also known as ´Aracne´s Fable´), an 222,5 x 293 cm oil painting (Prado Museum, Madrid) is one of the most interesting and enigmatical products by the extraordinary and brilliant Sevillian painter.

It was painted between 1644 and 1648 to an order by Mr. Pedro de Arce, the Royal Huntsman, albeit it is included in the royal collections since XVIII century.

It sets up the quintessence of the great mythological works by Velázquez, who took the motif from a tapestry of the picture ´The Abduction of Europe´ by Tiziano, in which it´s shown the punishment of the spinner Aracne,whom the goddess Pallas Athena transformed into a spider in order that she wove during all of her life, for having dared to challenge the goddesses to a weaving contest.

Notwithstanding, Velázquez doesn´t display that scene but he shows both contenders almost equalled.

In the foreground,we observe monumentalised the easy work of the women, while in the background, very meaningful and important, is at a greater distance (it´s a typical resource of the Baroque to spot far the subject or main message, in favour of the foreground).

So, in the first place, we see five women preparing the wools for the manufacture of tapestries.In the background, behind them, other five appear richly dressed and surrounded by some tapestries. This last scene may be the one which gave title to the picture, because it picks up the fable in which the young woman Aracne, on boasting of weaving as good as the goddess, is challenged by Pallas Athena (depicted with a helmet on her head and the right arm raised) to the making of a tapestry.

This way, there is a perfect balance between the quoted foreground (weakly lit, in which the spinners make the thread rotate the thread and card it) and the background scene (whose entrance is preceded by two steps) in which the contenders Pallas Athena and Aracne, together with some court ladies are entertained by a musician inside Aracne´s workshop, brightly lit by a light beam emanating from the left (and achieving a perfect and masterly symbiosis with the dim lateral lighting of the foreground of the
picture, coming from the right, bringing about a luminous halo on the left shoulder of the woman in red skirt, placed in the center of the picture).

The sublime details are actually abundant. So, for instance, Velázquez has achieved to create a matchless movement sensation, as it is seen in the wondrous dynamism (with some centuries of anticipation akin to that obtained with a modern photographic camera shot at a low shutter speed or by means of flash slow synchronization) applied to the distaff that can be watched on the right (whose spokes we don´t see) and to the young girl on the right, reeling the wood at full speed.

It´s also impressive the texture and realism of the red curtain (´which can almost be touched´), held by a woman on the left of the picture who is opening us the scene, the stately, tasteful and vital volumetric perception through the superb use of lights and shadows on the women´s clothes, the wool balls, the folded cloth on the stool, etc.

The old woman spinner handling the distaff is the disguised goddess Pallas Athena (only revealed to us by her young and well-balanced leg, with which Velázquez makes reference to her everlasting beauty), while the young woman sitting on the right, reeling the wool and coiling up a ball is Aracne.

We must also emphasize the atmospheric effect, that´s to say, the sensation that between the figures there´s some air distortioning the contours, making them delicately blurred.

Velázquez reveals himself as a consummate expert and master of the colours palette, with a rather loose brush stroke, using spots as with the cat or the woman´s emended backlighted face.

It´s admirable that with such a limited colouring, Velázquez attains that excellent luminosity, bringing forward the Impresionism more than 200 years.

It´s important to underscore that ´The Spinners´ is a work belonging to the last years of artistic activity by Velázquez, within his full-fledged maturity.

And furthermore, with this work, Velázquez synthesizes his dazzling synergy between the knowledge of the pictorial potentialities and a fabulous know-how of area and perspective.


Diego de Silva Velázquez (1599-1660) is considered one of the most prominent painters of all times and a complete expert and genius in reality shaping.

Born in Seville, in the beginning, Velázquez received artistic tuition at the workshop of Francisco Herrera El Viejo and Francisco Pacheco, where he began to get acquaintanced with the chiaroscuro and the naturalist painting by Caravaggio.

In 1622, he travelled to Madrid, El Escorial and Toledo, places where he made a great effect. A year later he was named Court Painter and exclusive portrayer for the King and the Royal Family.

He was a friend of Rubans, who taught him new pictorial resources. He lived in Genoa, Venice and Naples. In 1649 he travelled to Rome and in 1650 he was appointed a member of the Roman Academy.

In 1659, after the success of his masterpiece ´The Meninas´, he was made a Knight of the St James Order.
His first works were scenes of his period daily life (XVII century), probably inspired by Caravaggio. 

His religious and mythological oil paintings are saturated with a moderate naturalism: ´The Three Wise Men Adoration´, ´Bacchus or The Drunkards´, ´Mercury and Argos´, ´The Forge of Vulcanus´, ´Joseph´s Tunic´, ´The Virgin´s Coronation´, among others.

He excelled in portraits, above all of powerful characters of that period as ´The Count Duke of Olivares´, ´Philip IV´, ´The Pope Inocencius X´, ´Mariana of Austria´ or ´Elizabeth Bourbon´.

He also painted midgets and Court buffoons (´The buffoon Mr Diego of Acedo´, ´Mr. Sebastián de Morra´, ´The Boy of Vallecas´) and the sons and daughters of the Spanish Royalty: ´The Prince Baltasar Carlos on horseback´, ´The Infanta Margarita´, ´The Prince Philip Prosperous´ and the most famous of them all: ´The Meninas´.

Copyright José Manuel Serrano Esparza