Looking at Art ~ by Deborah Moss Marris

A WFS Faculty Blog post by our art teacher, Deborah Moss Marris
Published Friday, January 22nd, 2021


When I create a presentation for Looking at Art, I intentionally choose artists and artworks that operate on various levels. 

I choose subjects that capture interest, add information that expands the experience, and touch on themes of humanity. All of these elements are present in great art.

This is a wonderful painting from the Spanish master Diego Velazquez. In my opinion, Velazquez is one of the greatest artists of all time. The Surrender at Breda is my favorite of all of his works.  It has everything. Figures, animals, landscape, suggested atmosphere (smoke), weapons. All of the figures are larger than life. This is an enormous painting. Ten by eleven feet. It also has within it love, empathy, defeat, victory, kindness, unknowing.  

 Adults and children can begin a dialog about a great painting. It begins with looking closely at just one great work.

The Surrender at Breda was created in 1632 for Philip IV of Spain. It depicts the famous victory of Spain over the fortified Dutch city of Breda. In this picture, we see the famous Spanish General Ambrogio Spinola and the Dutch General Justin of Nassau. On both sides of the picture, their armies. Velazquez loved to divide his canvases in two. Here it is used to supreme effect. This battle, over the Dutch city, lasted twelve months. We have experienced the siege of Covid for less time. Mentioning this fact is helpful for our students and adults alike. It makes this event real and illustrates that human beings have always experienced difficult trials.  Imagine how moving it would be to have this conversation with a child in front of the actual painting!

I do not mention any of this before having the following interchange.

Start by describing what is happening and asking some questions. No answer is definite or wrong. Only the artist (Velazquez) knew exactly what he was saying. We can interpret the picture in our own way.

Surrender at BredaVelazquez, Diego. Surrender at Breda. 1632, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

  • There are figures and animals in this picture, with two men in the middle, what are they doing? 
  • Something has happened here, what might be going on? 
  • The picture is divided into two, there are two sides. They look different. How?
  • One side of the picture has spears in a line. How do those vertical lines feel?
  • The other side has smoke and orange flags. How are they different from the side with the spears?
  • A man on the left looks out at us. What might he be feeling?
  • Let’s look at the figures in the center. One man has a large key. The other man puts his hand on the man’s shoulder. They look at each other closely. How do they seem? What are they saying to each other?
  • What are the colors like?
  • Is there a city in the background?

After the initial conversation, I let them in on the history of the painting. We observe a detail that distills the interaction between the generals. These are further conversations to explore with our children:

Detail of Surrender at BredaDetail of: Velazquez, Diego. Surrender at Breda. 1632, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

  • One man is offering a large key. This is the key to the city where he lives.  Justin of Nassau loves this city. It is his home. It is the home of all of his men.  He is responsible for his men. Justin is giving the key to Spinoza in defeat. Yet he has accepted the situation. 
  • Spinoza is looking at him with love and understanding. He puts his hand on Justin of Nassau’s shoulder. He seems to know that this act is very difficult.
  • When we are feeling victorious, when we have won, are we able to understand how someone who has not won may feel?
  • It is always a good thing to be generous with friends and foes alike.  To act in love and have compassion for other people is what we are capable of.