Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste

Prologue

Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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What Size Humanity?

March 9, 2016

The other day I spotted a dapper gentleman at the mall; he was impeccably dressed in a black suit, sported a well groomed beard and black derby. His head was of normal size but he had a child’s body and was less than four feet tall. I’ve seen dwarfs in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but I haven’t encountered many in my lifetime—outside of museums.

           

Dwarfs were once considered property, owned by royalty for purposes of entertainment. You might recall the dwarf in a jester’s costume I recently posted in Veronese’s painting The Feast in the House of Levi. For centuries, artists included dwarfs in paintings to highlight the nobility and status of their owners, treating them like studio props—expensively dressed dolls with vapid expressions. They were often outfitted in finery to show off the owner’s wealth, but no effort was made to unravel the personality of the dwarf.

 

 

Portrait of Isabel Clara Eugenia and her dwarf by Coello (1586)

 

 

 

In this painting of a queen, the dwarf and monkey share the same status.

 

 

Queen Henrietta Maria of England with her dwarf by Van Dyck (c.1633)

 

 

One artist did probe beneath the surface of propriety to study the souls of these individuals, the artist I’ve written about more than any other—Spanish painter Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). The Spanish court was unusually fond of fools and dwarfs, often relying on them to lighten the mood, particularly during Velazquez’s lifetime when Spain was suffering the loss of power and prestige. Following tradition, Velazquez began his role as First Painter to the King by placing dwarfs in compositions to enhance regal subjects, like this painting of the young heir to the Spanish throne accompanied by his dwarf. Yet this dwarf has far more personality than previous depictions, more character than that of the blank-faced little prince.

 

 

 

Prince Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf by Velazquez (1632)

 

 

Eventually, Velazquez began painting dwarfs as character studies.  In this work, young Nino de Vallecas, has difficulty holding up his head, probably a side effect of the pituitary irregularity that stunted his growth. He holds playing cards and probably performed magic tricks for the court. Notice that Nino isn’t portrayed in an elaborate costume that would have provided Velazquez an opportunity to show off with his brush. All focus is on the shy inward expression of a very human face.

 

 

Nino de Vallecas by Velazquez (1643-45)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra by Velazquez (1645)

 

 

 

Not much is know about the details of de Morra’s life, but Velazquez depicts him with balled fists, with no effort made to hide the stunted legs. Velazquez is obviously sympathetic to his subject but avoids resorting to pity. De Morra is presented as someone who is intelligent but hasn’t come to terms with his disability, and probably never will.

 

 

 

The Jester Don Diego de Acedo (El Primo) by Velazquez (1645)

 

 

Called The Jester, this painting lays bare the respect Velazquez felt for these diminutive courtiers he encountered at court. Instead of being shown as a jester, Don Diego is depicted with pen, ink and ledgers. He served as a secretary for his royal master. Shown with the same compassion and sympathy he used to depict King Phillip IV, Don Diego is noble and intelligent. His nickname (El Primo) has led some scholars to believe he came from a rich or aristocratic family.

 

   

 

 

Near the end of his life, Velazquez painted his masterpiece Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor). Spain was on the ropes, its treasure fleets from New World colonies plundered by Dutch, French and British ships, leaving Spain without wealth or military power, a hollow giant. I’ve already discussed this painting at length, but I find it interesting that the two dwarfs in the bottom right corner add more to the composition than the King and Queen of Spain. Velazquez repeatedly reminds us that humanity is never compromised by a person’s physical stature.

 

 

 

Detail Las Meninas by Velazquez (1656)

 

 

I’m no Velazquez, and today we live in an age that shuns judging people by their physicality, but I wish I’d given that gentleman in the mall my card and convinced him to sit for a portrait. I wonder what I might have accomplished.   

 

 

 

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Comments

26 Comments
This was a fascinating piece. I never realized that royalty used dwarfs as props. I really should have paid closer attention in art history class.
By: Rick Watson on March 9, 2016
I suspect he might have been suspicious of your intent. And that's a shame. Some in our society still have a way to go.
By: Al Penwasser on March 9, 2016
The dwarfs in the paintings look like children. How do you know they are not? Some it is obvious, but others not. Was dwarfism quite common in those days?
By: Linda on March 9, 2016
To be honest, I had no idea about dwarfs and nobility. Schooled once again. :)
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 9, 2016
Velasquez is one of my all time favorite artists. Perhaps Sebastian's hands were balled into fists because he had to use them to get around- his stunted legs might not have worked well for walking upright. Wonderful art history lesson- thanks!
By: Kathe W. on March 9, 2016
A most informative and fascinating post.
By: John on March 9, 2016
After having met you and seen first-hand how charming you are, I think that you had a missed opportunity (as you no doubt know). If you had approached the gentleman, I'm sure he would have been proud to pose for one of your fine portraits. Ah well. To live is to learn.
By: Michael Offutt on March 9, 2016
Once again I learn from you. I had no idea of this use of dwarfs in the older paintings of royalty. Wish you had approached him to see how you would portray him on canvas.
By: Arkansas Patti on March 9, 2016
a couple of those dwarfs look like children to me, perfectly proportioned. I guess the royal court was the circus of it's day.
By: ellen abbott on March 9, 2016
It is sad what royalty considered fashionable. Perhaps they should have had lessons in humanity from Velazquez.
By: messymimi on March 9, 2016
I had no idea- learn something new everyday.
By: Terri on March 9, 2016
Interesting post. Someone said to me a few years ago (I have no idea whether it was in jest or in earnest)that we were not allowed to say "dwarf" anymore but "person with height challenges" or "height issues". Which to me sounds more insulting than "dwarf". But there you have it. :-) Greetings from London.
By: A Cuban In London on March 9, 2016
Your offer of your card may have resulted in a fine portrait. Or a tongue-lashing. One never knows.
By: Catalyst on March 9, 2016
It's odd, I've heard what you've mentioned (doing Renaissance faires, you learn odd tidbits), but the painting of Sebastian de Morra... I don't know why, but I can't decide if he looks sad, or angry. Very, very intense, at any rate. Most excellent art and history lesson, once again! Cat
By: Cat on March 9, 2016
This is interesting stuff! And I sure hope that Isabel Clara Eugenia in the first painting did not have to dress like this other than to sit for a painting. I get itchy and short of breath just looking at her collar!
By: Pixel Peeper on March 9, 2016
Always something interesting at your blog, Stephen. Thanks for the cool information. I thought the The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra looked a little bit like Peter Dinklage's character Tyrion in Game of Thrones.
By: Mr. Shife on March 9, 2016
Would YOU sit for a portrait if some guy gave you his card at the mall? Well...you probably would, because that's your avocation/vocation. I would think it suspicious. Unless I could do my sitting in a public place.
By: Val on March 9, 2016
Velazquez is such a great artist and I am so glad to have seen some of his work. Dwarves were often in paintings for exactly the reasons you mentioned and never given anything more and yet, I am so drawn to them. The one you saw in the mall sounds so dapper and well dressed. It was have been neat to have been able to draw him.
By: Birgit on March 9, 2016
You really sucked us into this post. I liked the question you asked yourself. I think you just gave yourself a painting topic.
By: red on March 9, 2016
I believe the PC term today is "Little people".
By: fishducky on March 9, 2016
I honestly cannot see a significant difference between the way the dwarfs were depicted by Velazquez and the others.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on March 9, 2016
Interesting art history lesson. Your opening photo begs the question: How did Disney (who after all was an artist of a type) treat dwarfs, and what does that say about us today?
By: Tom Sightings on March 10, 2016
Fascinating! I had no idea. Superb teaching moment.
By: Tom Cochrun on March 10, 2016
Will any of this be on the final? Love your art lessons!
By: cranky on March 10, 2016
Netflix has a documentary about The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz (I think that's the correct title). Mengele, the angel of death, was fascinated by dwarfs. I have not watched the documentary. I learn so much when you write about paintings. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on March 10, 2016
Velazquez ... I have only noticed him quite recently, in the last year or so after visiting Madrid. ( I mean, really noticed him ). Fantastic. I never appreciated that genius Goya enough before Madrid either. Interesting post.
By: Jenny on March 17, 2016

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