Diego Velázquez ranks among the greatest masters of seventeenth-century Europe. By 1623, the twenty-four-year-old artist was established as court painter to Philip IV in Madrid. For nearly forty years, he was primarily occupied with painting remarkably innovative portraits of the monarch and the royal family. But in his spare hours, Velázquez turned to subjects that interested him personally; The Needlewoman is among those works.
His observation of the optical effects of light on the forms he painted caused Velázquez to abandon the tenebrism -- or extreme contrast of lights and darks -- that characterized his earlier works in favor of a softer style. Here, no area is obscured by darkness. The artist used a gentle light and deep, but translucent, shadow to reveal each plane of the face, to sculpt the swelling bosom, and to suggest the repetitive motion of the hand.
Because the painting remains unfinished, the steps in the artist's process are visible. He began by priming the canvas with a gray-green base. Next, he indicated the main forms of the composition, sketching them in with darker paint, then brushing them in with broad areas of opaque color, and finally, building up the face -- the only area that appears to be finished -- with transparent layers of glaze, giving it the effect of flesh seen through softly diffused light.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/spanish-painting-15th-19th-centuries.pdf
In the artist's possession at his death, 1660. Probably Pierre-Armand-Jean-Vincent-Hippolyte, Marquis de Gouvello de Keriaval [1782-1870], Château de Kerlévénant, Sarzeau, Morbihan, Brittany. Madame Christiane de Polès [d. 1936], Paris; sold 5 July 1926 to (Wildenstein and Co., Paris); consigned to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); by whom purchased 9 March 1927; purchased on same day by Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 12 December 1934 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
- Velázquez. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1989-1990, no. 81, 216, pl. 29 (in Spanish version: no. 61, repro. 357).
- Velázquez: Il suo terzo viaggio in Italia [Velázquez: His Third Trip to Italy], Palazzo Ruspoli, Rome, 2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2006-2007, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
The painting is on a relatively coarsely woven fabric and adhered to a very coarsely woven, heavyweight canvas. It has been reduced in size along all four edges and later expanded again. A 3/4-inch band of the original surface was once made to serve as a tacking margin, but later returned to the picture surface. Heavy retouching covering this portion of the picture was removed during treatment in 1988. Mild cusping at the edges suggests that the present format is roughly the same as the original. The ground layer is a warm red brown, applied very thinly, leaving the tops of the threads exposed. A sketch of the composition with black paint was laid in over the ground color, and is still slightly visible at the left. In the pillow at the lower left, the ground is exposed. Some pentimenti are evident, particularly around the unfinished hands. Other pentimenti are located in the neckline of the dress and at the lower left of the sitter's hair. The painting is in good condition, although there are small, inpainted losses scattered over the painting and light abrasions, particularly in the background and pillow.
- Mayer, August L. A Portrait by Velázquez. Francisca Velázquez, Daughter of the Master (The Woman Sewing). New York, .
- Mayer, August L. Velázquez: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Pictures and Drawings. London, 1936: 132, no. 558, pl. 189.
- Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 207, no. 81.
- Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 240, repro. 216.
- Sánchez Cantón, Francisco J. "Como vivía Velázquez: inventario descubierto por D. F. Rodríquez Marín." Archivo Español de Arte y Arqueologia 15 (1942): 79.
- Lafuente Ferrari, Enrique. Paintings and Drawings of Velázquez. Complete Edition. London and New York, 1943: 25, no. 77, pl. 93.
- Sánchez Cantón, Francisco J. Review of Veázquez by E. Lafuente Ferrari. In Archivo Español de Arte y Arqueologia 17 (1944): 136.
- Cook 1945, 80-82.
- Sánchez Cantón, Francisco J. "New Facts About Velázquez." The Burlington Magazaine 87 (1945): 293.
- Soria, Martin S. Review of The Paintings and Drawings of Velázquez by Enrique Lafuente Ferrari. In The Art Bulletin 27 (September, 1945): 214.
- López-Rey, José. Review of Archivo Español de Arte (1940-1946). In Gazette des Beaux-Arts 33 (January-June 1948): 60-61.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 46, repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 82, color repro.
- Pantorba, Bernardino de [José López Jimemez]. La vida y la obra de Velázquez: estudio biografico y crítico. Madrid, 1955: 232, no. 164.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 32, repro.
- Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 114
- Kubler, George, and Martin S. Soria. Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions 1500-1800. Baltimore, 1959: 264, 386, nt. 48.
- Evans, Grose. Spanish Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1960 (Booklet Number Ten in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 26, color repro.
- López-Rey, José. Velázquez: A Catalogue Raisonné of His Oeuvre. London, 1963: 331-332, pl. 114.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 168, repro.
- Camón Aznar, José. Velázquez. 2 vols. Madrid, 1964: 435-437, repro. 436.
- Harris, Enriqueta. Review of Velázquez by José López-Rey, The Burlington Magazine 106 (1965): 426.
- Sánchez-Cantón, Francisco J. Review of Velázquez by José López-Rey. In Gazette des Beaux-Arts 65 (1965): 127.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 134.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1:204, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 121, repro.
- López-Rey, José. Velázquez' Work and World. London, 1958: 94-95, pl. 133.
- Gudiol y Ricart, José. Velázquez: 1599-1660. Translated by Kenneth Lyons. London, 1974: 318, 339, no. 160, fig. 236.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 360, repro.
- Harris, Enriqueta. "The Cleaning of Velázquez's Lady with a Fan." The Burlington Magazine 117 (1975): 319.
- López-Rey, José. Velázquez; the Artist as Maker. Lausanne and Paris, 1979: 92, 96, 99, 390, no. 81, pl. 166.
- Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 63, pl. 45.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 242, no. 308, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 419, repro.
- Brown, Jonathan. Velázquez, Painter and Courtier. New Haven and London, 1986: color fig. 178.
- Brown, Jonathan, and Richard G. Mann. Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1990: 116-119, color repro. 117.
- Velázquez. Exh. cat. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain, 1990: no. 61, repro. 357.
- National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 85, repro.
- Mittler, Gene A., and Rosalind Ragans. Understanding Art, New York, 1997: 179, fig. 12-3.
- Zuffi, Stefano and Francesca Castria, La peinture baroque. Translated from Italian by Silvia Bonucci and Claude Sophie Mazéas. Paris, 1999: 34, color repro.
- Southgate, M. Therese. The Art of JAMA II: Covers and Essays from The Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago, 2001: 74-75, 210, color repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 171, no. 130, color repro.