Velázquez: Mercury and Argus

September 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mercury and Argus by Velázquez

There is a tension in Velázquez painting Mercury and Argus, that stems from the sense of reality that the painting emits, a sense of being-there, being-in-the-moment. “Waiting for Death” we are in the moment just before the fatal blow is dealt. Is Mercury hesitant, contemplating the action he is about to make, or is he just lowering his head to check if Argus is asleep so that he can go ahead and make his kill? Their bodies are mirroring each others positions; it is as if they were locked together in a perpetual danse macabre. Svetlana Alpers writes, in The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others, that the two figures in the painting, the killer and the victim, are modelled after the same sculpture, the Dying Gaul. The body expression of the statue is a Pathosformel for suffering and death. Being conceived from the same single model, one could say that killer and victim, Hunter and Hunted, are one and the same; here, the source of death wears the same guise as the one who is about to die. Alpers also points out that the two figures becomes equals, being on the same level, and being modelled from the same source. Showing Mercury and Argus as equals is something makes this painting different from other renditions of the same myth, where Mercury often is showed as more of an executioner than an assassin, and placed in a position that makes him overshadow Argus.

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