Diego Velazquez (15991660)
One of the greatest exponents of Spanish painting, the artist Diego Velazquez was a court painter to King Philip IV during the period of the Spanish Baroque. Although a master of history painting and genre-painting (bodegones), he is renowned for his portrait art - completing over 20 portraits of the King along with others of the Royal Family and their friends. His best known works include his masterpieces Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome) Las Meninas (1656, Prado, Madrid), The Tapestry Weavers (Las Hilanderas) (1659, Prado), the Equestrian Portrait of Duke de Olivares (1634, Prado) and The Rokeby Venus (1647-51, National Gallery, London). Rising above other Spanish Baroque Artists like Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and Zurbaran (1598-1664), he is regarded along with El Greco (1541-1614) and Goya as being among the greatest Old Masters of Spain.
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Born in Seville in 1599 to a Portuguese family, little is known of his early life. It is believed he initially studied fine art painting and drawing under the artist Francisco de Herrera the Elder but unable to bear his temper tantrums, he shortly went to apprentice under the artist Francisco Pacheco instead. Although Pacheco was a less accomplished artist, he was more tolerant and better connected in society.
Velazquez married Pachecos daughter just before he turned 19. His works showed an acute understanding of realism. His early pictures and sketches are mainly studies of still life as he strove to discover his own style. Important works from this time include, The Waterseller of Seville (c.1618, Wellington Museum, London), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (National Gallery, London), Peasants' Dinner (c.1618, Szepmuveseti Muzeum, Budapest), Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (c.1618, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), The Adoration of the Magi (1619, Prado, Madrid), St. Idelfonso Receiving the Chasuble from the Virgin (c.1620, Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville).
In 1622 he moved his family to Madrid, and became court painter to King Philip IV. The regular salary gave him the freedom to pursue his passion for portraiture, as unsalaried artists were reliant on (mainly religious) public commissions for a living. Portraits remained the chief part of his workload for 20 years. One of his enemies was to say 'he only knows how to paint heads'. To which the artist replied, they pay me a great compliment, for I know of no one else who can do as much'.
In 1627 Philip launched a competition for the Best Painter in Spain, which Velazquez won. Unfortunately the picture was destroyed in a fire at the palace in 1734. In 1629 he took his first trip to Italy to study the High Renaissance artists, and although there are no records about whom he met or what he saw, he came back with a new vigour. On his return he painted the first of many portraits of the young prince Don Balthasar Carlos. Unlike other traditional artists, Velazquez painted his subject devoid of pomp and ceremony. He painted several equestrian portraits of the King, and the sculptor Montanes modelled a statue on one of these portraits (the painting no longer exists). The sculpture was cast in bronze by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca and now stands in the Plaza de Oriente at Madrid.
At this point in time, Velazquez met the Flemish artist Rubens, who had come on a mission to the King of Spain. Velazquez was so inspired by this meeting with one of the acknowledged giants of Baroque painting, that he set off again for a study trip to Naples and other cities in Italy. For more, please see: Painting in Naples (1600-1700). On his return he executed two large paintings, Joseph's Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob (1630, Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid), and the Forge of Vulcan (1630, Prado Madrid). Other paintings from this period include Apolo en la Fragua de Vulcano, 1630 (Prado), The Lady with a Fan (c.1638, The Wallace Collection, London) and the Equestrian Portrait of Duke de Olivares, 1634 (Prado).
In his final years - when acclaimed as one of the most famous painters in Spain - he produced two of his best Baroque paintings, demonstrating a bright and fluid use of colour. The first is the group portrait of the Royal Family children including the Infanta Margarita and the sickly Prince Felipe Prospero. Las Meninas (1656, Prado, Museum), shows several figures in a large room in the Spanish court of King Philip. The young Infanta Margarita is surrounded by a group of ladies in waiting, bodyguards, dwarfs and a dog. Just behind them, in a mirror, you can see the King and Queen, and the artist portrays himself painting a canvas. The use of mirror reflection echoes the Arnolfini Portrait, 1483 by Jan van Eyck. There is an elusiveness to the work that suggests art and life are an illusion. Because of its complexities, it is one of the most analyzed works in Western art. The second masterpiece of his last years is The Tapestry Weavers (Las Hilanderas) (1659, Prado).
Stricken with a sudden fever, Velazquez died in 1660 and was buried in the Fuensalida vault of the church of San Juan Bautista. His wife died within a few days of the funeral and was buried alongside him. Unfortunately the church was destroyed by the French in 1811 and the location of his grave is no longer known.
Until the 19th century his works were not very well known outside of Spain where he was an influence on painters like Zurbaran and Bartolome Esteban Murillo, as well as the Neapolitan School of Painting (c.1600-56) and the Neapolitan Baroque (c.1656-1700). He is often quoted as a key influence on the artist Edouard Manet who called him the painters of painters. His vivid brushstrokes were supposed to have inspired the 19th century painter Edouard Manet to bridge the gap between Realism and Impressionism. Future artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon also found inspiration in his works.
In the early years of the 17th century the realism which for two centuries had been latent in Spanish painting found a robust expression in the work of Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and Francisco Herrera the Elder (1590-1654). Both consulted actual appearances most strenuously, but both inclined to reduce the infinite variety of appearances to a kind of monotonous formulization. It remained for Diego Velazquez to fulfill and perfect the syle of Spanish realism by a consummately fine observation and by an amazing ingenuity in organizing his tints and hues so that they became equivalents of what he saw and felt in nature. To reach this perfection required nearly twenty years of constant study and experimentation. It was a course possible only for a painter under favourable circumstances, and it seems that Velazquez's lifelong service as a court painter, which has often been deplored as a servitude, really provided the conditions which were essential to the flowering of his art. He was to suffer distractions and interruptions from his duties as a chamberlain, but his livelihood never was in question. In Philip IV he had a patron who let him paint in his own way. One doubts if Velazquez's art could have developed under any private patronage that Spain then afforded.
Early Life and Artistic Training
Diego Velazquez was born in Seville, in
1599, his father being of Portuguese and gentle extraction, his mother
of patrician stock from Seville. At thirteen he was taken from the Latin
school and placed with Francisco de Herrera. Within a year Herrera's notoriously
brutal manners had become unbearable, and the fourteen-year-old boy was
articled for five years on very onerous terms to the cultured and friendly
painter, Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644). No very definite influence of
Herrera appears in Velazquez's early works. Indeed the fury of Herrera's
workmanship, his combing and streaking heavy loadings of pigment about,
must have been distasteful to a pupil who from the first sought refinement
and reticence. Yet it is likely that on broader lines the 12 months or
so with Herrera was fruitful. He was the only painter then working in
Spain who knew that colour
pigments may and should be convertible into coloured light; that modeling
is merely the registration of the significant degrees of light reflected
to the eye from the form under observation. The task of Velazquez was
merely to pursue this principle to its ultimate and exquisite consequences.
Paintings During His Early Career As a Seville Painter
Of the score or so of pictures that have
come down to us from Velazquez's early years in Seville, none show any
trace of the prevailing Italian Renaissance
art favoured by his father-in-law. All are soundly Spanish. It appears
then that Pacheco had the good sense to let his talented young apprentice
and son-in-law alone. In his later writings he deprecates in principle
the painting of bodegons as an inferior branch of art, but approves them
when they are as well painted as those of his son-in-law. They show the
future great painter more plainly than the few pieces of religious
art and portraiture of this early period, but before considering the
bodegons, a word on the other pictures. In such religious pictures as
the Assumption and St. John on Patmos, Frere Collection,
London; the Epiphany, Madrid; the Investiture of St. Ildefonso,
(St. Idelfonso Receiving the Chasuble from the Virgin, 1620, Museo de
Bellas Artes, Seville), nothing is very remarkable except the tenacity
of the modeling in harsh contrasts of light and dark, and the Spanish
types. We have the work of a very strenuous young painter coping with
the difficulties of construction and character, acquiring his fundamentals.
He hardly knows what to do with these hard-won elements, compiles them
rather casually into pictures which in their metallic protuberances give
an unpleasant sense of effort. But there is progress towards unity. The
Supper at Emmaus, New York, is really a transfigured bodegon, has
dignity, a cool harmony of silvery colour, while the swing of the figures
of the disciples, and the outstretched, foreshortened arm of the nearer
one, give a fine sense of space, which is enhanced by the transparent
greys of the prevailing tone. The modeling of the face and the shoulder
of Jesus is strong and sensitive.
Becomes Court Painter to Philip IV - Moves to Madrid
For some five years, with Pacheco's influence
behind him, Velazquez seems to have practiced independently at Seville,
painting more tavern pieces (bodegons), and religious pictures, than portraits.
In 1621 Philip IV came to the throne, called Count Olivares, a notable
patron of poets and painters from Seville, to be prime minister. Scenting
opportunity, Velazquez and Pacheco hastened to Madrid, without success.
Two years later, in 1623, Velazquez repeated the visit, and through the
kindness of Olivares got a sitting from the king. The resulting equestrian
portrait was early destroyed, but it must have been satisfactory, for
Velazquez was appointed court painter and, at twenty-four, assured of
an adequate and permanent livelihood.
Meets Rubens - Travels to Italy
Velazquez spent most of his time in Italy
in Venice and Rome. Rome had very little to his purpose, for he was far
in advance of the new Caravaggians, while the stately or pompous way of
the Renaissance masters was not his. Venice, on the contrary, offered
much to his purpose. The Venetian compromise between decorative and optical
effect was to dominate his art beneficially for nearly twenty years. Just
from whom he drew the new principle is not easy to say, and does not greatly
matter. From the informal composition and general silvery tone of the
pictures which he painted in Italy, or immediately on his return, I am
inclined to guess that the colourful monumentality of Titian, Tintoretto
and Veronese, attracted him less than the calmer tonality and looser arrangements
of such outlying Venetians as Lorenzo Lotto
(1480-1556), Giovanni Savoldo (active 1506-48) and Moretto da Brescia
(1498-1554). It is these masters that are suggested by the two big pictures
which he painted in Italy, in 1630: Joseph's Bloody Coat Brought to
Jacob (Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial,
Madrid), and the Forge of Vulcan (Prado Madrid). In certain expressions
and attitudes they also recall the dramatic mood of Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644),
who, during Velazquez's stay at Venice, was the leading painter in the
Velazquez's unpretentious perfection in
these years may be more readily grasped in the small compass of the Head
of a Little Girl, in the Hispanic Society, New York. The processes
are entirely effaced. The fine, rounded face seems to bloom out of the
background in all its dignity and graciousness as a mass of coral detaches
itself from the seaweeds as your boat drifts over shallow waters. Of an
art that conceals its art, this is one of the finest examples.
Such details as purple scarves and gold
trimmings are quietly splendid, but without the sumptuousness a Venetian
painter would have given to such features. Here comparison of Titian's
magnificent Equestrian Charles V, in the same museum with Velazquez's
equestrian portraits, is most instructive. Titian insists more on his
few colour features; they have a value of contrast as against the prevailing
neutrals. In Velazquez the positive colour
is merely the high note in a chord, is not different from, but in the
general scale of, the prevailing neutrals. Again, because Titian keeps
the key low and maintains a merely decorative unity of tone, he is able
to detach his horse and rider without resort to such expedients as arbitrary
irradiations around the contours. This dodge, which Velazquez had outgrown
in his indoor portraits, is freely used in all these outdoor pictures.
He has not arrived at the point of making the natural light create the
sense of relief. But these illogical accents are in such decorative accord
with the generally brilliant handling, that only a detective eye ever
All the portraits, indeed, virtually all
of the pictures of the twenty years between the two Italian journeys,
reveal the same compromise. In accepting the Venetian compositional scheme,
while rejecting the decorative splendor of Venice, these pictures are
not quite consistent. They look forward to a kind of picture which should
have the strongest appeal, while dispensing both with the established
compositional formulas and with the consecrated colour conventions.
This great invention really makes the picture.
You could imagine these two central figures cut out and the loss in the
marginal features would be surprisingly small. But a given space had to
be covered, and the extensions of the theme are appropriate. In 1629 Velazquez
had made the considerable voyage from Barcelona to Genoa in Spinola's
train, and doubtless his chivalric courtesy in this picture corresponds
to Velazquez's personal estimate of the man. Such an invention should
dispel the legend that Velazquez was a frigid character, a mere technician.
No frigid person imagined this meeting of the Marquis of Spinola and Justin
From Pope Innocent X came an unexpected and, since Velazquez was very busy, possibly unwelcome command for a portrait. To get his hand in, Velazquez painted the head of his mulatto assistant, Pareja, and then began the astounding Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650, Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome), which Sir Joshua Reynolds was later to call the finest picture in Rome. Perhaps no other portrait in the world grips so promptly and holds so strongly every sort of beholder. Why? Not for the usual reason of charm. The reds and whites in which it is painted are rather strident than harmonious; the man himself, repellent. There he sits eternally, sensual without geniality, choleric yet sly, and he is God's vice-regent on earth. I suppose it may be this disparity between the gross male and his sacred office that constitutes the irony of the presentation and much of its effect, yet I doubt if such considerations were in Velazquez's consciousness in the few breathless hours in which he made mere paint strokes give the look of the man before him. While the figure is admirably set in the frame in the Venetian fashion, no one would think of it as decorative or composed. The greatness of the work grows out of the sinister interest of the subject matter. Everything is rather discovered afresh than made after any pre-existing pattern. So this great portrait is at once Velazquez's highest triumph in what we may call his conservative vein, and also the prelude to the unprecedented masterpieces of his remaining years.
Final Years - Las Meninas and The Tapestry
Weaver (Las Hilanderas)
These little sketches, at Madrid, simply
show that charming concord of formal planting and formal architecture
which still makes the Villa Medici one of the most delightful garden spots
in the world. What composition there is, is simply that of the architectural
features in the foreground; the rest is tall cypresses melting into the
sky, clipped hedges, the tops of which draw down the light. There is no
great variety or force of colour, but the neutral grey, green and brown
fully express the play of the universal light about the forms. In landscape
nothing similar had been done, nor was this achievement to be equalled
until nearly two centuries later.
The Venus and Cupid, London, was painted about 1657. Unusually, it seems to be a badly over-rated picture, and since it is also a very famous picture, this view of it may be unpopular. Intrinsically, it is just an academy, an alert, slender female nude seen from behind. The method of construction is, for the moment, strangely linear. Naturally so, for the supple line that runs the length from the nape of the neck to the relaxed instep has interested Velazquez. One wishes he had left it as an academy with few accessories, for the accessories which make a nude into a Venus are ill-chosen and untelling. The stuffy draperies serve no compositional purpose; the enlarged reflection of the face in the mirror is obtrusive and confusing, the plump, well-conditioned Cupid who holds the mirror is extraneous and silly. In short, the picture should either have been more naturalistic or of a more studied conventionality. Even granting the beautiful painting of the nude, the picture compares badly with the honest naturalism of Courbet and Manet in this vein, as it does with the provocative sensualism of Goya's Maya, or the artificial grandeur of Titian's Venus and Danae.
One should perhaps regard Velazquez's Venus
as a very able but un-successful attempt to dispute Titian's inalienable
laurels. Velazquez, whose intelligence was probably as narrow as it was
acute, had not learned that there is no equivalence between a naked woman
and a nude Venus.
Las Hilanderas offers a composition of quite a different sort. You look through a larger, dusky world, animated by the magnificent gesture and pose of the woman reeling yarn, through an arch into a world higher up and quivering with light, in which courtly women view a tapestry, their figures just distinguishable from its woven figures. It is a kind of picture within a picture - a fairyland created by the skillful work of the toilers seen in the nearer space. Strangely enough, within a dozen years or so the finest eye among Dutch painters, that of Jan Vermeer, was to make compositions of much this sort, and, of course, without knowledge of these masterpieces of Velazquez. But Vermeer was to conduct his experiment on a small scale. It is doubtful if he could have carried it off on the scale of life. It needed the eye and hand of a Velazquez to heroize what are essentially genre subjects.
In viewing Las Meninas one is first
aware of the vast, dimly lighted space, of which the figures seem a sort
of incident. Yet when you consider the group as such, it expresses a singularly
tense solicitude for the lovely child in the centre, a devotion which
has almost a religious character, like that of the saints in some Italian
Adoration of the Virgin.
In June of 1660 they married the Infanta Maria Teresa to the young King of France, Louis XIV. The ceremony, which was held on the Isle of Pheasants, in the river dividing France from Spain, had to be planned by Velazquez in his role as marshal of the castle, and apparently over-taxed his resources, for on his return to Madrid he was stricken with a violent intermittent fever, and a little past midsummer he died. He had won generous acclaim from fellow artists, but apparently the laity regarded him simply as one more portrait painter. His pupil, Esteban Murillo, was far more widely known and admired until about seventy years ago. In the eighteenth century the magnificent Velazquezes owned by the king of France were hung, not in the public halls, but in the bathrooms. Similarly, a great American art patron of recent times relegated the Cezannes to the servants' quarters. The critical rehabilitation of Velazquez came with Impressionism, the ancestor and incomparable model for which he obviously was. Now that Impressionism itself is everywhere in retreat, one would expect a corresponding abatement of Velazquez's fame. But nothing of the sort seems to be happening, which is perhaps a sign that his Impressionism is, after all, merely one of many capacities that constitute his greatness.
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