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Famous Painters: Diego Velazquez

Posted by Susan Benford

Inarguably, Diego Velazquez is one of the most famous painters in the entirety of Western art history. He lived and worked during the Golden Age of Spanish painting, and he ruled it. The history of Spanish painting is the simple lineage from El Greco to Velazquez to Francisco Goya to Pablo Picasso.  

Diego Velazquez Waterseller of Seville resized 600Lesser known is that Diego Velazquez was also one of the most influential and talented curators who ever lived.

Diego Velazquez. Water Seller of Seville, 1618-1622.  Oil on canvas, 41" by 31".  Aspley House, London.

Results are in the Prado.  The Spanish king Philip IV sent Velazquez to Italy in 1649 - 1650 to purchase paintings for new apartments in the royal palace.  Velazquez returned with works by many of the famous painters he most admired, including Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. These, along with the Prado's Velazquez paintings, are among its grandest masterpieces.

But first some background on Diego Velazquez (1599-1660).  Born in Seville, Spain, as Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, he was apprenticed -- at age 12 - to Francisco Pacheco, a mediocre Mannerist painter who was Censor of Paintings for the Spanish Inquisition.  From Pacheco, Velazquez learned the naturalistic style and muted earth-toned palette which typified his earliest works like Water Seller of Seville (1618-1622).   One of three versions (the others are in the Uffizi and the Walters Art Museum), this Water Seller reveals his ability to capture minute detail and naturalness in figures.

After marrying Pacheco's daughter in 1618, Velazquez traveled to Madrid in 1622 to seek royal patronage from Philip IV.  The following year, Velazquez painted the portrait that would launch his career.

Portrait of Philip IV, 1623-1627

This is the first full-length portrait of the king painted by Velazquez during nearly four decades of affiliation.  Despite the limited palette of mostly browns, greys, and black, 
diego velazquez portrait philip iv prado resized 600Velazquez imbues Philip IV with remarkable humanity and elegance.  Here, Philip is surrounded by, or adorned with, references to his legacy and responsibilities:

  • his sword, for defense of Spain
  • the paper Philip grasps, representing administration;
  • the Golden Fleece, a recognized emblem of the Spanish monarchy; and
  • his desk, alluding to administration of justice.

Philip IV named Velazquez court painter that year, and as an indication of his esteem for the painter, provided Velazquez a workshop within the Royal Gallery.  In later years, Velazquez amended this Portrait of Philip IV by shortening his cloak and repainting his legs closer together.

Diego Velazquez.  Portrait of Philip IV, 1623-1627.  Oil on canvas, 76' 6" by 3' 4".  Prado Museum.

Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, 1630.

Painted during his first trip to Italy in 1629, Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan reflects influences from Michelangelo and Greco-Roman statuary.  It portrays the moment from Ovid's Metamorphoses when Apollo informs Vulcan that his wife, Venus, is romantically involved with Mars.

Velazquez brilliantly captures dramatic expressions on all the workers, who are situated around the anvil in different poses designed to showcase his talent in portraying the male nude.  Thevelazquez apollo at forge of vulcan resized 600 tenebrism, or pronouced contrast between the lights and darks, is skillfully used to mold the workers' bodies and accentuate objects in the forge, as in a still life. 

Below left: Diego Velazquez.  Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, 1630.  Oil on canvas, 7' 5" by 9' 6".  Prado.

Surrender at Breda (The Lances), 1634-1635

Here Velazquez captures the 1625 surrender of the city of Breda, the port of entry to Holland, after it was conquered by Spanish troops commanded by Ambrosio Spinola.  To emphasize the generosity and clemency of Spain, Spinola has dismounted; by disallowing Justin of Nassau, who governed Breda, to fall to his knee, Spinola demonstrates their equality.

Below right: Diego Velazquez.  Surrender at Breda (the Lances), 1634 - 1635.  Oil on canvs, 10' by 12'.  Prado.

Behind Spinola are a row of lances held by the conquering troops.  Designed to reinforce Spain's  power and order, their prominence has given Surrender at Breda its popular Spanish nickname, Las Lanzas.  

diego velazquez surrender at breda resized 600Note the paper in the lower right corner. 

Often used as a vehicle for a painter to sign his work, Velazquez has left the signature paper blank -- confident that all would know who created this masterpiece.

Juan de Pareja, 1648

Philip IV sent Velazquez back to Italy not only to purchase artwork but also to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X.  For reasons that remain unclear, the Pope did not grant an immediate audience to Velazquez who, during his wait, painted a portrait of his loyal manservant, Juan de Pareja (ca. 1610-1670).  

Juan de Pareja is shown half-length, turned at a three-quarter view but gazing intently at the viewer. His lace collar is so thin and feathery it looks as if it just freshly landed; the folds and creases in his jacket are dense and well-worn.  But it's the hole in the sleeve that velazquez-juan-de-parejacommands attention - despite the elegance of the pose and painting, that simple tear belies his grandeur, telling us unequivocally that this is a lower class man, Velazquez portrait and all.

Diego Velazquez.  Juan de Pareja, 1648.  Oil on canvas, 32" by 27 1/2".  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Purchase, Fletcher Fund, Rogers Fund, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton deGroot.

Learn more about this Valezquez masterpiece, and compare it to the Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Velazquez painted the following year (and discover why the name "Innocent" was an astounding misnomer).

Las Meninas or The Family of Philip IV, 1656. 

Las Meninas is both the most well-known painting by Diego Velazquez and in all of the Prado

During Velazquez's second Italy trip, Philip IV had remarried; the new queen, Mariana of Austria, and her children were new subjects the king wished Velaquez to paint.

Las Meninas appears to capture a moment in time akin to a snapshot, yet that overlooks the complexity of the space Velazquez concocted.  In the center foreground is the Infanta Margarita flanked by two meninas, or maids of honor.  One curtsies to the Infanta while the other offers water from a ceramic jug.  To the right and farther forward are two court jesters, a dwarf and a midget with his foot on the reclining mastiff.

Behind the curtsying menina are two other attendants, while Velazquez himself appears pensively painting at the left.  In the open, lit doorway is the royal chamberlain.


What is going on here?

Behind the Infanta's head is a mirror in which the king and queen are reflected, projecting them into the same physical space as the viewer.  

Diego Velazquez.  Las Meninas, or The Family of Philip IV.  Oil on canvas, 10' 5" by 9'.  Prado Museum.

One interpretation is that the Infanta unexpectedly entered the studio in which Velazquez is painting the royal couple.  Conversely, Velazquez may be working on this enormous canvas in which he is creating this very picture.  Or have the kind and queen just entered the room to find the Infanta and her entourage alread there?

It was not uncommon for painters of the 17th century to portray themselves in the company of nobility and patrons, but Velazquez's pride is unmistakeable -- he wears the red cross of the Order of Santiago, an ancient group of nobility to which he long sought membership.  It was awarded him two years after Las Meninas was finished (and only then by papal dispensation), fueling rumor that Philip IV had painted it there.

Below.  Detail of Las Meninas.

The truth is that Velazquez himself added the red cross, a prideful acknowledgement that he was in the same class as Spanish nobility.

velazquez las meninas detail resized 600There are only 120 known Velazquez paintings (and the Prado has fifty), and most are neither signed nor dated.  How astounding that the legacy of Diego Velzaquez remains so profound nearly four centuries later!

What qualities of Velazquez's work do you feel contribute to his fame, despite such limited output?

Topics: Velazquez paintings, Diego Velazquez

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Famous Painters Blogroll

Anguissola, Three Sisters Playing Chess and Phillip II of Spain

Beckmann, Blind Man's Buff

Beckmann, Departure; Self-Portrait in Tuxedo; Sinking of Titanic

Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

BonheurPlowing in the Nivernais

Bonheur, The Horse Fair

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

Botticelli, Primavera

Caillebotte, Gustave, The Floor Scrapers; The House Painters; Pont de l'Europe; Paris Street, Rainy Day; Fruit Displayed on a Stand

Caravaggio, Fashion and Art History

CaravaggioConversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio, Young, Sick Bacchus and Basket of Fruit

Caravaggio, Cardsharps and Fortune Teller

Caravaggio, St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Caravaggio, Taking of Christ (Kiss of Judas)

Caravaggio Paintings at the Villa Borghese

Cave Paintings

Cezanne, Bathers 

Cezanne, Card Players

Cezanne, Madame Cezanne Paintings

Cezanne, Most Famous Paintings

Cezanne, Red Dress series

Copley, Paul Revere

David, Death of Marat 

David, Death of Socrates

David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

de Kooning, Retrospective at MoMA (Part I)

de Kooning,Excavation and Painting, 1948 

de KooningWoman I

Degas, The Bellilli Family, The Dance Class, In a Cafe (Absinthe Drinker)

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People  

Diebenkorn, The Ocean Park Series

Duncanson, Robert Seldon.  Art History Welcomes Duncanson 

Durer, The Four Apostles

El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz

El Greco, View of Toledo

FontanaPortrait of a Noblewoman

Frankenthaler, Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea

Gainsborough, The Blue Boy

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Judith Beheading Holofernes

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting 

Ghent Altarpiece.  

GiorgioneThree Philosophers 

Goya, Duchess of Alba

Goya, Family of Charles IV

Goya, Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta

Goya, The Third of May 1808 

Goya, Duchess of Alba; Saturn Devouring his Son; Two Old Men; Half-Submerged Dog; Black Paintings

Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece

Hals, Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard

Hals, The Laughing Cavalier

Hals, Regents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital

Hopper, Nighthawks

Ingres, Grande Odalisque and Portrait of Madame Moissetier

Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx

Isenheim Altarpiece

Kahlo, Renowned Frida Kahlo Paintings.  

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting and David Garrick.  

Klimt, The Kiss and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Lawrence, Great Migration Series

Leonardo, Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London 

Leonardo, La Bella Principessa 

Leonardo, New Mona Lisa

Leonardo, Benois Madonna and Madonna Litta 

Leonardo, Savior of the World(Salvator Mundi) 

Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne

Leyster, Famous Female Painters

20 Louvre Paintings not to Miss 

ManetA Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Manet, Luncheon in the Studio

Manet, The Old Musician

Manet, Street Singer

MantegnaDead Christ

Matisse Paintings, In Search of True Painting

Matisse, The DanceThe Music

Matisse, The Cone Collection

Matisse, The Red Studio

Matisse, The Yellow Dress

Michelangelo, Crucifixion with the Madonna

Michelangelo, Famous Paintings

Michelangelo, La Pieta with Two Angels (latest attribution?)

Michelangelo, St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness

Modersohn-Becker, Famous Female Painters

Monet, Impression, Sunrise

Monet, Nymphaes, Le Pont de l'Europe

Monet Paintings at the Marmottan Monet Museum

Monet, Waterlilies

Morisot, Famous Paintings

MorisotMore Famous Paintings

Munch, The Scream

O'Keeffe, Jack in the Pulpit

Peeters, Clara

Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust

Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Picasso, Las Meninas

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ

Pippin, Domino Players and Cabin in the Cotton

Poussin, Assumption of the Virgin

Raphael, Sistine Madonna

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer 

Rembrandt, Night Watch

Rembrandt paintings at Frick Show

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at an Early AgeJeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild

Rubens, Venus and Adonis

Sanchez Cotan, Spanish Still-life

Sargent, El Jaleo

Sargent, Madame X

Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris

Steen, The Christening Feast 

Steen paintings at Frick Show

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Titian, Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian, Man with a Glove

Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, Allegory of Prudence, Jacopa Strada, St. Jerome, Slaying of Marysas

Titian, Rape of Europa

Turner, J. M. W, The Fighting Temeraire

Uccello, Battle of San Romano

van der Weyden, St. Luke Drawing the Virgin

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van Gogh, The Potato Eaters

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van Gogh, Starry Night

van Gogh, Three Pairs of Shoes

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Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children, Self Portrait, Self-Portrait with Julie

Velazquez, Juan de Pareja

Velazquez, Pope Innocent X

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Vermeer, Saint Praxedis

Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid

Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting

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Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her ChildrenSelf PortraitSelf-Portrait with Julie

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Warhol, Mao 

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Famous Paintings by Art Museums

Learn about famous paintings to see in these art museums:

Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY). One of those intimate, small art museums with a stellar collectionExplore famous paintings at the Albright-Knox. 

Art Institute of Chicago: Plan to see these famous paintings at the Art Institute -- and download an ebook about them.

Louvre Museum, (Paris): one of the largest art museums in the world! Know which Louvre paintings not to miss in this sortable ebook. 

Mauritshuis Museum: explore works by renowned Dutch painters

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City): download the ebook, Famous-Paintings-Metropolitan-Museum, to learn its must-see masterpieces. Or read the blog post, "Famous Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum". 

National Gallery (London): with 2300 famous paintings alone in its European painting section, discover highlights to see!  Art Paintings to See at the National Gallery.

Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam): 10 famous paintings not to miss

Washington, D.C. Art Museums: Explore forty famous paintings in Washington, DC in this article.

Whitney Museum of American Art.  Don't miss these 10 famous paintings at the Whitney.

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Female Artists

While we long for the time when artists are artists and genderless, that time isn't yet here.

These are a few of the female artists who've left lasting legacies in the history of painting:

Sofonisba AnguissolaThree Sisters Playing ChessPhillip II of Spain

Rosa Bonheur.  Plowing in the Nivernais.  Horse Fair.

Lavinia Fontana. Portrait of a Noblewoman.

Helen Frankenthaler. Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea. 

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting.

Frida Kahlo.  Frida and Diego Rivera.  The Two Fridas.  The Love Embrace of the Universe. 

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting.  David Garrick.

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun.  Self-Portrait; Marie Antoinette and Her Children; Self-Portrait with Julie

Judith Leyster.  Self-Portrait.  The Proposition. 

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Self-Portrait with an Amber Necklace. Still Life with Goldfish. 

Berthe Morisot.  Refuge in Normandy.  The Cradle. 

Georgia O'Keeffe. Jack in the Pulpit Series. 

Survey of Female Artists

Art History Beyond Europe

A few forays into art outside Europe:

African Art and Bocio

African Mask of Idia


Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Great Wave

The Terracotta Warriors