VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)

The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra

c. 1645
Oil on canvas, 106,5 x 81,5 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Velázquez painted the likenesses of some of the dwarfs of the Spanish court who were, in the words of Carl Justi, 'loved and treated as dogs'. These unfortunate cripples, sometimes weak-minded but sometimes wise, often attached themselves to the courts in the Middle Ages and later; there they found shelter in return for their services as court jesters, and they had to endure the rude remarks and practical jokes of the courtiers. Their feelings as human beings were generally ignored, but the portrait of the dwarf Sebastián de Morra (it was a form of mockery to give the dwarfs such grandiose names) is one of the most penetrating character studies ever made by the master.

Although the dwarf Don Sebastián de Morra is portrayed in full figure, he is not standing in a self-confident pose or elegantly seated on a chair, but is sitting on the bare earth with his feet stretched out in front of him. This low position not only shows up the sumptuous clothing for the clownish apparel it is, but also heightens the intended effect: the court fool is at the mercy of the spectator. Such pictorial devices reveal the voyeurism with which the royal rulers made these people the objects of their shameless whimsy, caprice and power. At the same time, however, the artist is also making another statement: this court fool is giving nothing away, neither a smile, nor any buffoonery. Immobile, scrutinizing and impenetrable, his dark eyes are fixed on the spectator, who somehow feels caught out by such a gaze and turns away.

Velázquez's greatest achievement as a portrait painter was certainly his highly pictorial portrait of Pope Innocent X, executed during his second visit to Rome; but already in this picture of the dwarf, especially in the expression of the eyes, there is evidence of the great gifts with which this artist was endowed.

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