Velázquez and his Influence on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Painters

Velázquez and his Influence on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Painters

[READ TIME: 1 hour 30 mins]


It is twenty-five years since I wrote this thesis for my BA (Hons) Fine Art at Middlesex University, London, where I studied from 1991 to 1994. In my second year I took off before the end of year assessments to do a two-week Flamenco guitar course with Paco Peña in Cordoba but it was another 10 years before I came to live in Madrid, in September 2003, and was able to see the paintings of Velázquez and Goya in the Prado. The following month a special exhibition of Manet in the Prado opened which was an amazing opportunity to see Manet's work alongside that of Velázquez.

Olsen, 'La Lucha', 2011, Oil on 6 Wooden Window Shutters,
300 x 250 cm, Private Collection, Spain.

Although much of my earlier work is abstract, looking at Velázquez's paintings has been an important influence. Returning to the Velázquez's in the National Gallery, London, as I began working on portraiture I found a lot of answers to my questions.

Re-reading my thesis I see I was very fortunate to attend a lecture series in 1993 on Velázquez at The National Gallery, London, to listen to the latest views at the time of experts on the artist. I am also grateful to Art Historian Peter Webb, whose encouragement and advice guided my investigations and the structure of the thesis. I have only made small corrections to the original thesis (which was typed on an early electronic typewriter) and I have taken advantage of being online to include links to the paintings mentioned (some of which can now be viewed in great detail on the gallery websites) and footnotes.

I have decided to share it now as a way for me to reflect on my own artistic journey to date, and in the hope that it might inspire others on their own creative paths.

Charles Olsen. Madrid, March 2019.


‘In Velázquez it’s a very, very extraordinary thing that he has been able to keep it so near to what we call illustration and the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel.’
Francis Bacon, 1962

Francis Bacon in his statement on Velázquez suggests the immediate attraction of Velázquez’s art to the painter: his ability to reveal with a remarkably natural use of paint not just a likeness but a deeper understanding of the emotions, the humanity, the life of his sitters. Through looking at Velázquez’s paintings in both an art historical context and their influence on modern painters I shall explore why his achievements continue to attract attention. What do they offer the artist today? Edouard Manet was thoroughly impressed by Velázquez’s paintings during a journey to Spain in 1865 when he visited the Prado in Madrid and influences can be seen in his way of painting. This century Pablo Picasso has also looked to Velázquez’s work, in particular ‘Las Meninas’, for inspiration. He brings a different way of looking to the work which initially seems far removed from the original painting. And Francis Bacon, quoted above, became obsessed with Velázquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, producing a series of studies and paintings after this portrait.


“Mangos! Papayas! Melons!”

Charles Olsen takes us with words and photos into the heart of the Caribbean city of Barranquilla at the mouth of the River Magdalena during the vibrant and chaotic carnival celebrations, which bring the whole city alive. 

Article first published in
Wild Tomato Magazine, Nelson, New Zealand, October 2013

1 Queen of the Battle of the Flowers 2 Everyone takes part in carnival 3 Even the elderly have fun at carnival

“Mangos! Papayas! Melons!”

I wake around 6.30am to the chatter of birds, the cackle of the neighbour’s parrot and a street salesman calling, “Papayas! Limes! Mangos!” followed shortly by another calling “Avocados! Avocados!” People in Barranquilla may not have much money but as they say, there is no lack of food. On the street corner, for a few pesos you can buy a bag of fresh sliced mango with lime juice, salt and pepper, or coconut juice from a large green coconut cut open with a machete so you can drink it with a straw. Then you ask the seller to split it open and scoop out the white flesh.

The city has been buzzing since January with the pre-carnival activities and this year is the bicentennial as well as the 10th anniversary of its declaration by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. I’m fortunate to have a press pass as the only other ways to see the Battle of the Flowers parade (Batalla de Flores) are to pay for a seat in a stand, or to take part in the parade itself. Walking to the press stand we are bombarded by music blasting out from stands on both sides of the streets that are filling with people.

Apart from the dawn chorus things generally aren’t very punctual here and the parade, due to kick off at 11am, doesn’t set off until around 2pm and reaches us an hour later. Poor folk sitting in the stands opposite us who have no respite from the sun; during the afternoon orange-jacketed medics stretcher away a number of people who’ve collapsed in the heat. At last the main parade reaches us, lead by the city’s uniformed cleaners dancing in unison with their brooms to traditional Colombian folk music. I’m already caught up in the atmosphere and the crazy nature of it all under the scorching sun.

The parade is a mixture of highly elaborate floats carrying the beautiful queens and kings of carnival and large groups of dancers in traditional costumes, many based on African or Spanish traditions as well as indigenous costumes of Colombia and the funny Marimonda costume. This originates in Barranquilla and comprises big flappy ears, a long nose and large defined eyes and lips. Most are accompanied by bands playing traditional Colombian and Afro-Colombian folk music such as cumbias and mapalé. There are also characters from films, giant heads, fire-breathing aliens, multicoloured costumes (I imagine the World of Wearable Arts taking to the streets of Wellington). There is even a contingent of orange-suited Dutch men so perhaps a Kiwi group would be very welcome here.

The people of Barranquilla have an unstoppable energy. Here, everything goes; people laugh at themselves and with each other. Figures dressed as corrupt politicians salute the crowds who wave back and take photos. An old man dressed as a baby with stained overflowing nappies raises chuckles, the carnival drunk behaves outrageously… Carnival ends with the funeral of Joselito Carnaval (Joseph Carnival). This is the final craziness of carnival where groups re-enact the death of Joselito Carnaval who, having drunk and partied so hard throughout carnival leaving all the women pregnant, collapses dead in the middle of the street. Suddenly a great wailing, shouting and crying rises up from those accompanying him. “Oh Joselito! Why did you have to die? We were all having such fun and now you’ve gone!”

Article first published in
Wild Tomato Magazine, Nelson, New Zealand, October 2013