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.
Lesser known is that Diego Velazquez was also one of the most influential and talented curators who ever lived.
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,
Velazquez 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.
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. The 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.
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.
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.
Note 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 commands 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.
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.
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.
The truth is that Velazquez himself added the red cross, a prideful acknowledgement that he was in the same class as Spanish nobility.
There 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?