Apollo in the forge of Vulcan

Diego Velazquez • Painting, 1630, 223×290 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Mythological scene
Style of art: Baroque
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1630
Size: 223×290 cm
Artwork in selections: 29 selections

Description of the artwork «Apollo in the forge of Vulcan»

Velázquez borrowed the subject for his Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan painting from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Apollo unexpectedly appeared in the door of the darkish workshop of the god Vulcan, the badger-legged patron of fire and blacksmithing. Vulcan’s strong assistants, which helped him to forge armour and weapons for gods and heroes, opened their mouths in surprise. Vulcan himself, dumpy, with grey in his beard, (he is depicted on the far right) looks at the radiant Apollo from under his eyebrows. And he had his reason: the radiant (albeit somewhat rustic in appearance) god of light brought a bad news. Vulcan’s wife Venus forgot about her marriage vows in the arms of the Mars, god of war.

According to the contemporary Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, Velázquez, “had little patience with mythology” and included it into the circumstances of malign earthly affairs. The mythological scene took on a purely mundane colouring.

The Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan is interesting from the point of view of the evolution of Velázquez’s style. It was painted during the artist’s first trip to Italy. There he distanced himself from the caravaggism inherent in his earlier works, with its sharp black-and-white transitions and greyish palette. In the Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, the outlines of objects become softer, light is more diffused. Golden-orange and azure colours appear for the first time in Velázquez’s palette. Art critics speak of the tangible influence of Tintoretto and Titian.

There is a certain irony in the very arrangement of the figures. Velázquez used the mythological plot as a reason for thinking about contemporary art, about its various possibilities, and choosing the most preferable one. Just as the famous Las Meninas" would become a reflection on the nature of painting and the artist’s place in the universe and society much later, the Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan can be understood as a metatext, “painting about painting”, “art about art”.

Velázquez shows two worlds colliding: the world of academic painting (which, is personified by Apollo, of course) and the unadorned, rough world of reality, “discovered” Caravaggio. The first “world” is refined, it is presented in bright and sonorous shades, it is festively illuminated, it wears a mantle, a laurel wreath and elegant sandals. The second “world” is harsh, strong and almost monochrome. It is not so easy for them to meet and understand each other. Apollo would like to enter the forge, but the entrance is choked with blacksmith tools, through which he cannot step over without harming himself. And in his attempts to establish communication with the world alien to him, Apollo brings a catastrophe there. “Vulcan who processed a piece of metal with one of his assistants, lowers the hammer; he recoils and seems to droop — his body relaxes, so that the limp becomes especially noticeable,” Marina Toropygina remarks.

It is interesting that this confrontation along the line of light and dark, high and low is comically duplicated in the picture, as indicated by the same researcher: “In a small still life at the top right, a pantomime is played out that mirrors the situation in the picture: the rough details composed with a little offset are the roughness, like in the figure of Vulcan, and the graceful white jug reminds of the Apollo’s figure setting.”

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya