We amuse our children and ourselves by posing before them ageless, unanswerable questions such as, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Or if we're in a little more "fowl" mood, but not quite so erudite, perhaps, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" A similar question that has been posed to artists for at least 500 years is, "Which is more important the artisan or the artist--skill or creativity?" As a female character on Saturday Night Live used to say, "Talk amongst yourselves--discuss." In 1657, in his last great painting effort, Diego Velázquez posed that very point. The painting is entitled The Spinners or sometimes it's known as The Fable of Arachne. In looking at it, even the inexperienced eye can tell it's really two paintings in one, hence the fact that it often goes by either of the two titles. The foreground depicts the routine activities of the Madrid tapestry factory of Santa Isabella. But in the centre of the painting, depicted through a brightly lit arch, is the show room where two stylishly dressed ladies admire a finished tapestry entitled The Myth of Arachne.
The contrast between the bright, sunlit "front room" and the drab, dark "back room" is dramatic. The carefully balanced composition making up the foreground depicts Velázquez's virtuoso handling of colour, values, masses, and movement amongst the five, working female figures and a sleeping cat on the floor. His attention to detail extends even to the effect of objects seen through the rapid rotation of the spinning wheel from which the work gets its title. But as interesting as the foreground undeniably is, our attention is quickly drawn to the intriguing juxtaposition of mythology and the mundane as we peer through the enormous arch, first at the factory "product," and then at the lovely ladies and their dresses as they consider purchasing the creative results of the skilled artisans.
The tapestry on the wall is based upon the myth of Arachne from Ovid's Metamorphoses. It depicts the climactic moment when Athena, resplendent in all her armour, assumes her divine presence, raising her hand to smite the beautiful, Arachne for challenging her weaving skills by turning her into a spider Velázquez's implication is that the artistry of the weavers can be the envy of even the gods while in the foreground the spinners benignly continue their drudgery, seemingly unaware that without their skills, the creative efforts of the painter in rendering the cartoons from which they work would be for naught. As with the chicken and the egg, it's a circular question, which comes first, the skill or the creative inspiration. Without the artist's skill, his ideas would be just fleeting, ephemeral thoughts. But without those flashes of creative genius, his skills would be as mundane as the spinner's thread or Arachne's spider web.