Philosophy and history
Velázquez’s interest in exploiting the tension between reality and its representation and double meanings is not only expressed in religious and mythological scenes. It is also found in his images of ancient philosophers and modern heroes. He depicted Aesop and Menippus in the rags that were starting to become common in images of philosophers, whereas Barbarroja and Juan de Austria are not the military heroes they appear to be but buffoons disguised as such. The first two were painted for the Torre de la Parada, in relation to Rubens’s Heraclitus and Democritus, and it is very interesting to compare them in order to trace Velázquez’s progression. Rubens’ philosophers are barefooted; one smiles and the other cries. They are absolutely Rubensian in build—sturdy and well muscled—and their gestures are consonant with soundly established codes of expression. Velázquez places his in an indoor setting; their clothing and shoes are those of any beggar of any Spanish city, and his approach to the faces is realistic. They are situated in space like the sitters in many of his portraits, and he plays with the boundaries between portrait and fiction.
Several sibyls, who were held to possess powers of divination, complete the group of paintings linked to philosophy and history. A comparison between the two versions by Velázquez allows us to trace the painter’s development from the early 1630s to the following decade.