Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
(Seville, Spain, 1599–1660, Madrid, Spain)
Oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 23 in. (64.8 x 58.4 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.74.01
Listen to Meadows Museum docent Terry Cagley discuss this work (3:09 minutes)
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660)
Female Figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa), c. 1648
by Terry Cagley, Meadows Museum docent
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is a giant in the world of art. Born in Seville, Spain, this extraordinary artist is one of the great masters of all time. Leaving his hometown in 1623 at the age of twenty-four, Velázquez traveled to Madrid where he was famously selected by the young king, Philip IV, to be court painter, or pintor de cámara. They were contemporaries and remained close throughout their lives, each affecting the other.
The work before us is a rare and unique work by the master.
Painted at age forty-nine, at the height of Velázquez’s artistic ability, it is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful paintings in our collection.
What we have here is a single, young, female figure seen from the chest up. Her face is in profile and her right shoulder and arm are to the viewer. She holds a solid flat object with her left hand and the finger of her right hand is nearing the object, seemingly about to touch it.
Velázquez has incorporated much movement in this painting: the diaphanous fabric ruffling in a breeze, the girl’s disheveled hair, her parted lips as if about to speak, and the critical finger about to mark on the solid object.
What is this object? Who is this young woman and what is she doing? Is she speaking? What is she about to say?
One of Velázquez’s most elusive paintings, it most likely was painted during his first trip to Italy, made at the behest of the king. This information is significant because the painting shows obvious Italian influences—most notably, the subject matter. There are actually two titles for this painting: Female Figure—and—Sibyl with Tabula Rasa or, “Sibyl with Blank Slate.”
So, during this visit to Italy, Velázquez surely would have visited Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. On that ceiling are paintings of female sibyls (often called prophetesses), juxtaposed with the major, Old Testament male prophets. Back in the mists of time, sibyls were consulted regarding future events. Bringing them forward to the Christian era, sibyls were believed to have foretold the coming of Christ. Often writing their prophecies on a blank slate, the figures came to be regarded as even more compelling evidence of the legitimacy and inevitability of the birth of Jesus and his ministry.
Velázquez has chosen the very moment of her prophesying, both verbally and in writing, on her tablet—her tabula rasa. The artist’s delicate and painterly treatment of her garment with visible brush strokes, the mystifying glow of the skin of her forearm, her lovely disheveled hair and half-shadowed profile and the single brush-stroke shadow to reinforce the strength of that solitary pointer finger. All of this goes to make an exquisite painting that never ceases to engage and beguile.
Listen to artist Francisco Moreno discuss this work (2:24 minutes)
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)
Female Figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa), c. 1648
by Francisco Moreno, artist
I suggest we begin by looking at this painting formally. I am drawn to it because it feels very contemporary for a painting that is almost 400 years old. I say this because of how our buddy Diego has chosen to compose the image. The way in which the female figure takes up the majority of the canvas creates a very dynamic, yet compact image. You can see how the figure comes up nearly to the edge of the canvas on the top and left side, and how her elbow and hand are in near proximity to the right and the bottom of the canvas—no space is wasted. This kind of formal thinking drove contemporary artist Frank Stella to create his black paintings in 1958, thus beginning the Minimalism art movement in Western art. Stella once claimed, “what you see is what you see.” So, let's keep looking.
The background—two tones of gray and black with a smooth yet small gradient transition in the middle—is simple, elegant, and ambiguous, painted this way to set the mood for a female figure. The two values on the background, then invert on the face and the hair, and they invert again on the neck, in which Velázquez creates a beautiful rhythm to captivate our eyes. This leads us down to her right arm, which leads us to her hand, then to her finger pointing to the tablet, the finger pushed back slightly, allowing us to sense the weight of her arm as her finger presses down. Then right above the pointing hand, Velázquez subtly paints the corner of the tablet, which functions as a formal arrow that shoots us up to the black background and then to the face of the figure, one of the most developed and beautiful parts of the painting.
I think what is also interesting and fresh about this painting is how unspecific it is. The simple cloth seems like, yes, it could be from hundreds of years ago, but it could also be something you could see today. There's also no text on the tablet from which the figure points. I love this painting because it is simple, elegant, and timeless.
 From a 1964 interview with Stella as quoted by Harold Rosenberg,The De-Definition of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 125.