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Velázquez’s pentimenti: the mistakes on his paintings that time has unveiled

The reasons why we see horses with extra legs or “ghost” legs in Diego Velázquez’s paintings.

The works of Diego Velázquez are almost infinite subjects for analysis and interpretation, and with time, art experts have found new details and aspects. Pentimenti, or those occasions when the painter changes his mind about his work, appear constantly in paintings such as the Portrait of Philip IV or even in Las Meninas, with elements surfacing in the form of ghostly legs or horses with extra legs.

We know that Diego Velázquez was a perfectionist. So, how is it possible that his works show these ‘mistakes’ in every way? The answer lies in the time that has passed since they were made. Pentimento, a term that derives from the Italian word ‘pentirsi,’ means to repent or change your mind; these can emerge over the years and appear from the first layers of paint applied by the artist, or they can also be observed with current technologies such as X-rays.

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These are not uncommon: just as writers correct their texts or musicians rewrite their scores, painters also change their minds and cover elements of their paintings to achieve something different.

“With the pass of time, the layers underneath come to the surface,” explains restorer María Álvarez Garcillán at the Prado Museum. “In Velázquez they are seen very often, very clearly, because he had a way of painting very fast, very spontaneous, looking for the most natural moment. Many times we see his figures, and it seems that they are made as a snapshot.”

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One of the most famous pentimenti in Velázquez’s oeuvre is in his most analyzed work, Las Meninas. The most noticeable can be seen in the lower right where he placed Nicolasito Pertusato, an Italian dwarf who worked at the Spanish court:

If you look closely, you will be able to notice a kind of shadow parallel to Nicolasito’s leg. That implies that, originally, Velázquez placed the limb in a position that did not suit him: he ended up correcting it and moving it slightly to the right, possibly to make the pose more natural.

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Another pentimento in Las Meninas cannot be observed with the naked eye. However, thanks to X-rays, we know that in the place where Velázquez’s self-portrait now stands, there was originally a female figure. Who was she, and why did the painter regret placing her? In addition to the thousands of interpretations that have been made of this work, new clues are now coming to light.

Another famous pentimento by Velázquez can be seen, as mentioned above, in the Portrait of Philip IV. Time has given this work and its protagonist a third ‘phantom’ leg, which can be seen in this close-up:

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As Álvarez Garcillán mentions, pentimenti are common in Velázquez’s work mainly because of his spontaneous way of painting: “That way of painting required painting very fast and modifying sometimes on the fly until getting that instantaneous moment he wanted.”

Of course, the artist did not imagine that, years later, we viewers would be able to notice the pentimenti or mistakes in his work; however, they give us more clues to his intentions and the historical context in which they were made.

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Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva.

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