Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was a Spanish painter who was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV. He was an individualistic artist of the contemporary Baroque period, important as a portrait artist. In addition to numerous renditions of scenes of historical and cultural significance, he painted scores of portraits of the Spanish royal family, other notable European figures, and commoners, culminating in the production of his masterpiece Las Meninas (1656).
From the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Velázquez’s artwork was a model for the realist and impressionist painters, in particular Édouard Manet. Since that time, more modern artists, including Spain’s Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, as well as the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon, have paid tribute to Velázquez by recreating several of his most famous works.
Born in Seville, Andalusia, Spain, Diego, the first child of Juan Rodríguez de Silva and Jerónima Velázquez, was baptized at the church of St Peter in Seville on Sunday, June 6, 1599. This christening must have followed the baby’s birth by no more than a few weeks, or perhaps only a few days. Velázquez’s paternal grandparents, Diego da Silva and Maria Rodrigues, had moved to Seville from their native Porto, Portugal decades earlier. As for Juan Rodríguez de Silva and his wife, both were born in Seville, and were married, also at the church of St Peter, on 28 December 1597. They came from the lesser nobility and were accorded the privileges generally enjoyed by the gentry.
Velázquez was educated by his parents to fear God and, intended for a learned profession, received good training in languages and philosophy. But he showed an early gift for art; consequently, he began to study under Francisco de Herrera, a vigorous painter who disregarded the Italian influence of the early Seville school. Velázquez remained with him for one year. It was probably from Herrera that he learned to use brushes with long bristles.
After leaving Herrera’s studio when he was 12 years old, Velázquez began to serve as an apprentice under Francisco Pacheco, an artist and teacher in Seville. Though considered a generally dull, undistinguished painter, Pacheco sometimes expressed a simple, direct realism in contradiction to the style of Raphael that he was taught. Velázquez remained in Pacheco’s school for five years, studying proportion and perspective and witnessing the trends in the literary and artistic circles of Seville.
By the early 1620s, his position and reputation were assured in Seville. On April 23, 1618, Velázquez married Juana Pacheco, the daughter of his teacher. She bore him two daughters—his only known family. The elder, Francisca de Silva Velázquez y Pacheco, married painter Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo at the Church of Santiago in Madrid on August 21, 1633; the younger, Ignacia de Silva Velázquez y Pacheco, born in 1621, died in infancy.
Velázquez produced notable works during this time. Known for his compositions of amusing genre scenes (also called bodegónes), such as Old Woman Frying Eggs, his sacred subjects include Adoración de los Reyes, and Jesús y los peregrinos de Emaús, both of which begin to express his more pointed and careful realism.
Velázquez went to Madrid in the first half of April 1622, with letters of introduction to Don Juan de Fonseca, himself from Seville, who was chaplain to the King. At the request of Pacheco, Velázquez painted the portrait of the famous poet Luis de Góngora. Velázquez painted Góngora crowned with a laurel wreath, but painted over it at some unknown later date. It is possible that Velázquez stopped in Toledo on his way from Seville, on the advice of Pacheco, or back from Madrid on that of Góngora, a great admirer of El Greco, having composed a poem on the occasion of his death.
In December 1622, Rodrigo de Villandrando, the king’s favorite court painter, died. Don Juan de Fonseca conveyed to Velázquez the command to come to the court from the Count-Duke of Olivares, the powerful minister of Philip IV. He was offered 50 ducats to defray his expenses, and he was accompanied by his father-in-law. Fonseca lodged the young painter in his own home and sat for a portrait himself, which, when completed, was conveyed to the royal palace. A portrait of the king was commissioned. On August 16, 1623, Philip IV sat for Velázquez. Complete in one day, the portrait was likely to have been no more than a head sketch, but both the king and Olivares were pleased. Olivares commanded Velázquez to move to Madrid, promising that no other painter would ever paint Philip’s portrait and all other portraits of the king would be withdrawn from circulation. In the following year, 1624, he received 300 ducats from the king to pay the cost of moving his family to Madrid, which became his home for the remainder of his life.
Through the bust portrait of the king, painted in 1623, Velázquez secured admission to the royal service, with a salary of 20 ducats per month, besides medical attendance, lodgings and payment for the pictures he might paint. The portrait was exhibited on the steps of San Felipe and was received with enthusiasm. It is now lost. The Museo del Prado, however, has two of Velázquez’s portraits of the king (nos. 1070 and 1071) in which the severity of the Seville period has disappeared and the tones are more delicate. The modeling is firm, recalling that of Antonio Mor, the Dutch portrait painter of Philip II, who exercised a considerable influence on the Spanish school. In the same year, the Prince of Wales arrived at the court of Spain. Records indicate that he sat for Velázquez, but the picture is now lost. In September 1628, Peter Paul Rubens came to Madrid as an emissary from the Infanta Isabella, and Velázquez accompanied him to view the Titians at the Escorial. Rubens was then at the height of his powers. The seven months of the diplomatic mission showed Rubens’ brilliance as painter and courtier. Rubens had a high opinion of Velázquez, but he had no significant influence on his painting. He reinforced Velázquez’s desire to see Italy and the works of the great Italian masters.
In 1627, Philip set a competition for the best painters of Spain with the subject to be the expulsion of the Moors. Velázquez won. His picture was destroyed in a fire at the palace in 1734. Recorded descriptions of it say that it depicted Philip III pointing with his baton to a crowd of men and women being led away by soldiers, while the female personification of Spain sits in calm repose. Velázquez was appointed gentleman usher as reward. Later he also received a daily allowance of 12 réis, the same amount allotted to the court barbers, and 90 ducats a year for dress. Five years after he painted it in 1629, as an extra payment, he received 100 ducats for the picture of Bacchus (The Feast of Bacchus). The spirit and aim of this work are better understood from its Spanish name, Los Borrachos (The Drunks) or Los Bebedores (the drinkers), who are paying mock homage to a half-naked ivy-crowned young man seated on a wine barrel. The painting is firm and solid, and the light and shade are more deftly handled than in former works. Altogether, this production may be taken as the most advanced example of the first style of Velázquez.
In 1629, he went to live in Italy for a year and a half. Though his first Italian visit is recognized as a crucial chapter in the development of Velázquez’s style – and in the history of Spanish Royal Patronage, since Philip IV sponsored his trip – we know rather little about the details and specifics: what the painter saw, whom he met, how he was perceived and what innovations he hoped to introduce into his painting. It is canonical to divide the artistic career of Velázquez by his two visits to Italy, with his second grouping of works following the first visit and his third grouping following the second visit. This somewhat arbitrary division may be accepted though it will not always apply, because, as is usual in the case of many painters, his styles at times overlap each other. Velázquez rarely signed his pictures, and the royal archives give the dates of only his most important works. Internal evidence and history pertaining to his portraits supply the rest to a certain extent.
Velázquez then painted the first of many portraits of the young prince and heir to the Spanish throne, Don Baltasar Carlos, looking dignified and lordly even in his childhood, in the dress of a field marshal on his prancing steed. The scene is in the riding school of the palace, the king and queen looking on from a balcony, while Olivares attends as master of the horse to the prince. Don Baltasar died in 1646 at the age of seventeen, so, judging by his age in the portrait, it must have been painted in about 1641.
La rendición de Breda was inspired by Velázquez’s first visit to Italy, in which he accompanied Ambrogio Spinola, who conquered the Dutch city of Breda a few years prior. This masterwork depicts a transfer of the key to the city from the Dutch to the Spanish army during the Siege of Breda. It is considered one of the best of Velázquez’s paintings.
The powerful minister Olivares was the early and constant patron of the painter. His impassive, saturnine face is familiar to us from the many portraits painted by Velázquez. Two are notable; one is a full-length, stately and dignified, in which he wears the green cross of the order of Alcantara and holds a wand, the badge of his office as master of the horse, the other, a great equestrian portrait in which he is flatteringly represented as a field marshal during action. In these portraits, Velázquez has well repaid the debt of gratitude that he owed to his first patron, whom Velázquez stood by during Olivares’s fall from power, thus exposing himself to the great risk of the anger of the jealous Philip. The king, however, showed no sign of malice towards his favorite painter.
The sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés modeled a statue of one of Velázquez’s equestrian portraits of the king, painted in 1636, which was cast in bronze by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca and which now stands in the Plaza de Oriente at Madrid. The original of this portrait no longer exists, but several others do. Velázquez, in this and in all his portraits of the king, depicts Philip wearing the golilla, a stiff linen collar projecting at right angles from the neck. It was invented by the king, who was so proud of it that he celebrated it by a festival followed by a procession to the church to thank God for the blessing. Thus, the golilla was the height of fashion, and appeared in most of the male portraits of the period.
Velázquez was in constant and close attendance on Philip, accompanying him in his journeys to Aragon in 1642 and 1644, and was doubtless present with him when he entered Lerida as a conqueror. It was then that he painted a great equestrian portrait in which the king is represented as a great commander leading his troops—a role which Philip never played except in pageantry. All is full of animation except the stolid face of the king. It hangs as a pendant to the great Olivares portrait—fit rivals of the neighboring Charles V by Titian, which inspired Velázquez to excel himself, and both remarkable for their silvery tone and their feeling of open air.
Besides the forty portraits of Philip by Velázquez, he painted portraits of other members of the royal family: Philip’s first wife, Elisabeth of Bourbon, and her children, especially her eldest son, Don Baltasar Carlos, of whom there is a beautiful full-length in a private room at Buckingham Palace. Cavaliers, soldiers, churchmen, and the prominent poet Francisco de Quevedo (now at Apsley House), sat for Velázquez.
One wonders who the beautiful woman can be who adorns the Wallace collection, a brunette so unlike the usual fair-haired female sitters to Velázquez. This picture is one of the ornaments of the Wallace collection. However, if few ladies of the court of Philip have been depicted, Velázquez painted several of his buffoons and dwarfs. Velázquez appears to represent them with respect and sympathetically, as in El Primo (1644, English: The Favorite), whose intelligent face and huge folio with ink-bottle and pen by his side show him to be a wiser and better-educated man than many of the gallants of the court. Pablo de Valladolid, a buffoon evidently acting a part, and El Bobo de Coria belong to this middle period.
The greatest of the religious paintings by Velázquez also belongs to this middle period, the Cristo Crucificado. It is a work of tremendous originality, depicting Christ immediately after death. The Savior’s head hangs on his breast and a mass of dark tangled hair conceals part of the face. The figure stands alone. The picture was lengthened to suit its place in an oratory, but this addition has since been removed. Some believe that the man in this painting is his uncle.
Velázquez’s son-in-law Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo had succeeded him as usher in 1634, and Mazo himself had received a steady promotion in the royal household. Mazo received a pension of 500 ducats in 1640, increased to 700 in 1648, for portraits painted and to be painted, and was appointed inspector of works in the palace in 1647.
Philip now entrusted Velázquez with carrying out a design on which he had long set his heart: the founding of an academy of art in Spain. Rich in pictures, Spain was weak in statuary, and Velázquez was commissioned once again to proceed to Italy to make purchases.
Accompanied by his manservant Juan de Pareja, whom he traineThe importance of Velázquez’s art even today is evident in considering the respect with which twentieth century painters regard his work. Pablo Picasso presented the most durable homages to Velázquez in 1957 when he recreated Las Meninas in 58 variations, in his characteristically cubist form. Although Picasso was concerned that his reinterpretations of Velázquez’s painting would be seen merely as copies rather than unique representations, the enormous works—including the largest he had produced since Guernica in 1937—earned a position of relevance in the Spanish canon of art. Picasso retained the general form and positioning of the original in the framework of his avant-garde cubist style.
Salvador Dalí, as with Picasso in anticipation of the tercentennial of Velázquez’s death, created in 1958 a work entitled Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita With the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory. The color scheme shows Dalí’s serious tribute to Velázquez; the work also functioned, as in Picasso’s case, as a vehicle for the presentation of newer theories in art and thought—nuclear mysticism, in Dalí’s case.
The Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon found Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X to be one of the greatest portraits ever made. He created several expressionist variations of this piece in the 1950s; however, Bacon’s paintings presented a more gruesome image of the pope, who had now been dead for centuries. One such famous variation, entitled Figure with Meat (1954), shows the pope between two halves of a bisected cow.d in painting, Velázquez sailed from Málaga in 1649, landing at Genoa, and proceeded from Milan to Venice, buying paintings of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese as he went. At Modena he was received with much favor by the duke, and here he painted the portrait of the duke at the Modena gallery and two portraits that now adorn the Dresden gallery, for these paintings came from the Modena sale of 1746.
Those works presage the advent of the painter’s third and latest manner, a noble example of which is the great portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome, where Velázquez now proceeded. There he was received with marked favor by the Pope, who presented him with a medal and golden chain. Velázquez took a copy of the portrait with him to Spain. Several copies of it exist in different galleries, some of them possibly studies for the original or replicas painted for Philip. Velázquez, in this work, had now reached the manera abreviada, a term coined by contemporary Spaniards for this bolder, sharper style. The portrait shows such ruthlessness in Innocent’s expression that some in the Vatican feared that Velázquez would meet with the Pope’s displeasure, but Innocent was well pleased with the work, hanging it in his official visitor’s waiting room.
In 1650 in Rome Velázquez also painted a portrait of his servant, Juan de Pareja, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This portrait procured his election into the Academy of St. Luke. Purportedly Velázquez created this portrait as a warm-up of his skills before his portrait of the Pope. It captures in great detail Pareja’s countenance and his somewhat worn and patched clothing with an impressive economy of brushwork; it is one of his best known pieces of portraiture.
King Philip wished that Velázquez return to Spain; accordingly, after a visit to Naples, where he saw his old friend Jose Ribera, he returned to Spain via Barcelona in 1651, taking with him many pictures and 300 pieces of statuary, which afterwards were arranged and cataloged for the king. Undraped sculpture was, however, abhorrent to the Spanish Church, and after Philip’s death these works gradually disappeared. Elisabeth of France had died in 1644, and the king had married Mariana of Austria, whom Velázquez now painted in many attitudes. He was specially chosen by the king to fill the high office of aposentador mayor, which imposed on him the duty of looking after the quarters occupied by the court—a responsible function which was no sinecure and one which interfered with the exercise of his art. Yet far from indicating any decline, his works of this period are amongst the highest examples of his style.
One of the infantas, Margaret Theresa, the eldest daughter of the new Queen, appears to be subject of Las Meninas, Velázquez’s magnum opus. However, in looking at the various viewpoints of the painting it is unclear as to who or what is the true subject. Is it the royal daughter, or perhaps the painter himself? The answer may lie in the image on the back wall, depicting the King and Queen. Is this image a mirror, in which case the King and Queen are standing where the spectator stands? Are they the subject of Velazquez’s work? Or is the work simply a court painting? Much is still in speculation about the true subject of this masterpiece, and many of the questions that are asked may never be truly answered.
Created four years before his death, it serves as an outstanding example of the European baroque period of art. An apotheosis of the work has been effected since its creation; Luca Giordano, a contemporary Italian painter, referred to it as the “theology of painting”, and in the eighteenth century the Englishman Thomas Lawrence cited it as the “philosophy of art”, so decidedly capable of producing its desired effect. That effect has been variously interpreted; Dale Brown points out an interpretation that, in inserting within the work a faded portrait of the king and queen hanging on the back wall, Velázquez has ingeniously prognosticated the fall of the Spanish empire that was to gain momentum following his death. Another interpretation is that the portrait is in fact a mirror, and that the painting itself is in the perspective of the King and Queen, hence their reflection can be seen in the mirror on the back wall.
It is said the king painted the honorary Cruz Roja (Red Cross) of the Orden de Santiago on the breast of the painter as it appears today on the canvas. However, Velázquez did not receive this honor of knighthood until three years after execution of this painting. Even the King of Spain could not make his favorite a belted knight without the consent of the commission established to inquire into the purity of his lineage. The aim of these inquiries would be to prevent the appointment to positions of anyone found to have even a taint of heresy in their lineage—that is, a trace of Jewish or Moorish blood or contamination by trade or commerce in either side of the family for many generations. The records of this commission have been found among the archives of the Order of Santiago. Velázquez was awarded the honor in 1659. His occupation as plebeian and tradesman was justified because, as painter to the king, he was evidently not involved in the practice of “selling” pictures.
In the 1966 book Les Mots et Les Choses (The Order of Things), philosopher Michel Foucault devotes the opening chapter to a detailed analysis of Las Meninas. He describes the ways in which the painting problematizes issues of representation through its use of mirrors, screens, and the subsequent oscillations that occur between the image’s interior, surface, and exterior. In his book, The Dying Animal, Philip Roth uses Las Meninas as a metaphor for the distracted attraction of courtship.
Had it not been for this royal appointment, which enabled Velázquez to escape the censorship of the Inquisition, he would not have been able to release his La Venus del espejo also known as The Rokeby Venus. It is the only surviving female nude by Velázquez.
There were essentially only two patrons of art in Spain—the church and the art-loving king and court. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was the artist favored by the church, while Velázquez was patronized by the crown. One difference, however, deserves to be noted. Murillo, who toiled for a rich and powerful church, left little means to pay for his burial, while Velázquez lived and died in the enjoyment of good salaries and pensions.
One of his final works was Las hilanderas, painted circa 1657, representing either the interior of the royal tapestry works or a depiction of Ovid’s Fable of Arachne, depending on interpretation. It has recently been suggested that the tapestry in the background is based on Titian’s The Rape of Europa, or, more probably, the copy that Rubens painted in Madrid. It is full of light, air and movement, featuring vibrant colors and careful handling. Anton Raphael Mengs said this work seemed to have been painted not by the hand but by the pure force of will. It displays a concentration of all the art-knowledge Velázquez had gathered during his long artistic career of more than forty years. The scheme is simple—a confluence of varied and blended red, bluish-green, grey and black.
Velazquez’ final portraits of the royal children are among his finest works. These include the Infanta Margarita in blue dress and his only surviving portrait of the sickly Prince Felipe Prospero. The latter is remarkable for its combination of the sweet features of the child prince and his dog with a subtle sense of gloom. As in all of the artist’s late paintings, the handling of the colors is extraordinarily fluid and vibrant.
In 1660 a peace treaty between France and Spain was consummated by the marriage of Maria Theresa with Louis XIV, and the ceremony took place on the Island of Pheasants, a small swampy island in the Bidassoa. Velázquez was charged with the decoration of the Spanish pavilion and with the entire scenic display. He attracted much attention from the nobility of his bearing and the splendor of his costume. On June 26 he returned to Madrid, and on July 31 he was stricken with fever. Feeling his end approaching, he signed his will, appointing as his sole executors his wife and his firm friend named Fuensalida, keeper of the royal records. He died on August 6, 1660. He was buried in the Fuensalida vault of the church of San Juan Bautista, and within eight days his wife Juana was buried beside him. Unfortunately, this church was destroyed by the French in 1811, so his place of interment is now unknown. There was much difficulty in adjusting the tangled accounts outstanding between Velázquez and the treasury, and it was not until 1666, after the death of King Philip, that they were finally settled.
Until the nineteenth century, little was known outside of Spain of Velázquez’s work. His paintings mostly escaped being stolen by the French marshals during the Peninsular War. In 1828 Sir David Wilkie wrote from Madrid that he felt himself in the presence of a new power in art as he looked at the works of Velázquez, and at the same time found a wonderful affinity between this artist and the British school of portrait painters, especially Henry Raeburn. He was struck by the modern impression pervading Velázquez’s work in both landscape and portraiture. Presently, his technique and individuality have earned Velázquez a prominent position in the annals of European art, and he is often considered a father of the Spanish school of art. Although acquainted with all the Italian schools and a friend of the foremost painters of his day, he was strong enough to withstand external influences and work out for himself the development of his own nature and his own principles of art.
Velázquez is often cited as a key influence on the art of Édouard Manet, important when considering that Manet is often cited as the bridge between realism and impressionism. Calling Velázquez the “painter of painters”, Manet admired Velázquez’s use of vivid brushwork in the midst of the baroque academic style of his contemporaries and built upon Velázquez’s motifs in his own art.
In 2009, the Portrait of a Man in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had long been associated with the followers of Velázquez’ style of painting, was cleaned and restored. It was found to be by Velázquez himself, and the features of the man match those of a figure in the painting “the Surrender of Breda”. The newly cleaned canvas may therefore be a study for that painting. Although the attribution to Velazquez is regarded as certain, the identity of the sitter is still open to question. Some art historians regard this new study to be a self-portrait by Velázquez.
In 2010 it was reported that a damaged painting long relegated to a basement of the Yale University Art Gallery might be an early work by Velázquez. Thought to have been given to Yale in 1925, the painting has previously been attributed to the 17th century Spanish school. Some scholars are prepared to attribute the painting to Velázquez, though the Prado Museum in Madrid is reserving judgment. The work, which depicts the Virgin Mary being taught to read, will be restored by conservators at Yale.