The Surrender of Breda (1635) by Velazquez
The Surrender of Breda (1635)
The chief representative of Spanish Baroque art, Diego Velazquez was court painter to King Philip IV, and is widely regarded as the dominant figure during the golden age of Spanish painting in the 17th century. Although the majority of his work was portraiture - see for example, The Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) and the more complex Las Meninas (1656) - he produced numerous masterpieces in other genres, including one of the great female nudes known as The Rokeby Venus (1647-51); his bodegon The Waterseller of Seville (1618-22); and his religious painting depicting Christ Crucified (1632). The Surrender of Breda is his sole surviving historical canvas, but is nonetheless one of the best Baroque paintings of its type.
In 1625, after a ten-month siege, the city of Breda in southern Holland surrendered to the Spaniards under the famed Spanish General Don Ambrogio Spinola. However, Spinola's triumph was shortlived. Jealous of his success, his rivals in Madrid (like the powerful Count Olivares) conspired to engineer his disgrace during his 1629 military campaign in Italy. Velazquez - having recently accompanied his friend Spinola on the voyage from Barcelona to Genoa - was outraged by undeserved and shameful treatment meted out to Spinola, who died shortly after. It was against this background that Velazquez approached this composition.
Commissioned on the orders of King Philip IV in 1635, five years after the death of Spinola, the painting was designed to decorate the throne room (Salon de Reinos) of the Buen Retiro royal palace, where it formed part of a series of twelve life-size battle scenes celebrating Spanish military triumphs.
The painting illustrates the ceremonial exchange of keys that took place three days after the official capitulation of the Dutch forces at Breda. Thus the focus of the painting is not on the battle, but rather the reconciliation. The central point of the painting is the key being handed over to Spinola (who has dismounted from his horse to meet his opponent as an equal) by the Dutch leader Justin of Nassau, together with Spinola's simultaneous gesture of placing a friendly hand on the shoulder of his opponent. (Note also: The terms of defeat laid down by Spinola at Breda were among the most honorable and lenient of the time.)
The Surrender of Breda therefore has two meanings: first, it represents a great nationalist victory for Spain; second, it represents a noble and magnanimous triumph for Spinola himself. Above all, one suspects that Velazquez painted it as a tribute to his friend Ambrogio Spinola. At the same time, by highlighting Spinola's consideration for Nassau and the Dutch army, the artist reveals Spain's peaceful intentions as well as its military power. Ironically, two years after the completion of the picture, Breda was recaptured by Frederick Henry of Orange, and in 1648 it was officially ceded to the Dutch Republic by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Eighty Years' War (15681648) between Spain and Holland.
In order to simplify the task of depicting large numbers of soldiers, generals, horses and weapons of the battle, as well as the exchange of keys, Velazquez resorts to a favourite device of dividing the action into two planes. Thus while the action of the siege takes place in the background of the picture, the foreground is used for the ceremony of reconciliation.
The work is known in Spanish as Las Lanzas (the lances), and one of its most obvious features is the comparison between the upright position of the thick cluster of lances held by the Spanish soldiers on the right, and the tiny number of upright Dutch lances. It seems that most of the Dutch weapons that have either been destroyed, thrown away, or dipped in defeat.
Also noticeable is how Velazquez handles colour in the painting, almost certainly the result of studing Renaissance art during his visit to Italy. Unusually bright when compared to works like Las Meninas or the Waterseller, The Surrender of Breda even features pastel blues and pinks - in the soldiers (background) and flags (right). Art critics attribute the colour palette to the influence of Venetian painting, notably that of Paolo Veronese - see in particular his dazzling Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-3, Louvre).
Velazquez also varies his brushwork. In the foreground, for instance, it is quite controlled, while in the background it is much freer and looser allowing him to create depth and perspective. Impressionist painters including Manet and Cezanne were greatly influenced by this technique.
Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601) by Caravaggio.
and Delilah (1609-10) by Rubens.
of Paris (1632-5) by Rubens.
of the Sabine Women (1634-5) by Nicolas Poussin.
in Arcadia Ego (1637) by Nicolas Poussin.
of St Ignatius (1688-94) by Andrea Pozzo.
For more historical Baroque paintings by artists like Velazquez, see: Homepage.
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