Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a famous Spanish painter. He had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670). Call him an indentured servant if you want, but it’s more accurate to say he was Velazquez's slave, as he was not at liberty to leave. For years, Pareja prepared brushes, ground pigments, and stretched canvasses for the artist. While he was at it, Pareja observed his master carefully, and secretly taught himself how to use the materials, and how to paint.
Pareja was referred to as a Morisco in Spanish. One way to translate the word is that he had mixed parentage (the offspring of a European Spaniard and a person of African descent). Another way to translate the word is that he was a Moor—someone descended from Muslims who had remained in Spain after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella.
In 1650, Velazquez was preparing to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. As practice, he painted Pareja, who had accompanied the artist to Italy. Here is the portrait.
It's a pretty amazing picture, isn't it?
Velazquez got all sorts of praise for it from the artists in Rome—he was even elected into the Academy of St. Luke.
According to some sources, Velazquez would not allow Pareja to pick up a paintbrush. But one day, when King Philip IV was due to visit Velazquez, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where the king would see it. When the king admired it, believing it to be by Velazquez, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for the King to intercede for him. Whether or not that story is true, Pareja did become an accomplished painter, and impressed the king so much that he ordered Pareja freed.
Pareja remained with the Velazquez family until his death.
It was hard to find examples of his paintings, but here are two that are attributed to him.
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The Painter Was a Slave." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-painter-was-a-slave.
In 1888, Vincent moved to Arles in the south of France. He planned to establish an artists’ commune where his friends could live together to create a new direction in painting. Vincent persuaded the artist Paul Gauguin, who was desperate for money, to move to Arles to help him. Vincent also was lonely.
For two months Gauguin lived in the Yellow House Vincent had lovingly filled with paintings hoping to impress his friend. Gauguin bossed Vincent around and criticized his artwork. Eventually, when Gauguin sold a few paintings, he threatened to abandon Vincent.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, after a quarrel at dinner, Gauguin stalked off into the streets. Vincent followed him. What happened next is unclear, but Vincent returned to the Yellow House alone and cut off his earlobe (not the whole ear) with a razor. Vincent couldn’t remember the details of this terrible night. But when he was discharged from the hospital a few weeks later, he went right back to work.
There have been many theories about Vincent’s condition. The theory most generally accepted is that he suffered from epilepsy, a disease that could have caused his seizures and hallucinations and for which there was no medication. In Vincent’s case, another reason for his “attacks” might have been his habit of drinking absinthe, an alcoholic drink popular in 19th century France. It contains a strong nerve poison, now illegal in most countries.
Today many popular performers advertise how dangerous and extreme their lives are by writing shocking lyrics and acted outrageously on stage. They are mimicking the lives of artists such as Van Gogh. But he was not advertising or pretending. He just wanted to be useful—to make art that would last. His glorious paintings are the result of his discipline and dedication, despite the turmoil of his life.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. This is the house at 2 Place Lamartine, Arles, France, where, on May 1, 1888, Vincent van Gogh rented four rooms and where Paul Gauguin lived for nine weeks from late October, 1888. The left wing housed a grocery (French: Comestibles, inscribed on the signboard over the marque). Van Gogh indicated that the restaurant, where he used to have his meals, was in the building painted pink close to the left edge of the painting.
If you are interested in finding out more about Vincent Van Gogh, Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have written an award-winning book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Greenberg, Jan. "Vincent Van Gogh and the Case of the Missing Ear." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/vincent-van-gogh-and-the-case-of-the-missing-ear.
Nonfiction is the new black
During much of the sixteenth century, England was wracked by violence between Catholics and Protestants. Hundreds of Protestants were executed during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–1558), earning her the nickname of “Bloody Mary.” Her Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) returned the favor by persecuting and killing Catholics. She was followed by James I, whose Catholic mother had been executed. James’s wife had recently converted to Catholicism.
English Catholics therefore hoped he would be more tolerant than Elizabeth. While the number of executions dropped off, James ordered Catholic priests to leave England and said that Protestantism was the one true faith. Despairing Catholics decided on a desperate measure. They would assassinate James and install his nine-old-daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic monarch.
The plotters secreted three dozen barrels of gunpowder in the basement beneath the House of Lords a few days before the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, planned to ignite a fuse when King James entered the chamber and then scurry to safety. With most members of Parliament and other high officials dead in the explosion, the resulting chaos would make it easier for the schemers to seize control of the government.
However, some of the conspirators realized that this plan would kill a lot of innocent people, including Catholics. So in late October, one of them sent an anonymous warning letter to a Catholic Member of Parliament. He passed along the message to the king’s guardians. Shortly after midnight on November 5, a search party discovered Fawkes and the concealed gunpowder. He was tortured for several days to reveal the names of the other conspirators and then executed. His body was hacked into several pieces. The grisly chunks were displayed in several parts of England as a warning to would-be traitors.
In celebration of the king’s salvation, many people lit bonfires on the night of the discovery. That began a tradition that continues to this day in what is known as Bonfire Night. Tonight in nations of the British Empire, revelers, many wearing Guy Fawkes apparel, are shooting off fireworks and building huge bonfires to burn effigies of the man regarded as England’s most notorious traitor.
Happy Guy Fawkes Day!
Jim Whiting has written more than a hundred books on many subjects. His is a very interesting person. Check out his website on Amazon.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Let's Blow Up the King!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Nov. 2017, http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/lets-blow-up-the-king.