de Silva y Velázquez was a Spanish painter who is considered to
have been the country's greatest baroque artist. He, with
Goya and El Greco, forms the great triumvirate of Spanish painting.
was born in Seville on June 6, 1599, the oldest of six children; both
his parents were from the minor nobility. Between 1611 and 1617 the young
Velázquez worked as an apprentice to Francisco Pacheco, a Sevillian
Mannerist painter who was also the author of an important treatise, El
arte de la pintura (The Art of Painting, 1649), and who became Velázquez's
father-in-law. During his student years Velázquez absorbed the
most popular contemporaneous styles of painting, derived, in part, from
both Flemish and Italian realism.
his earliest paintings show a strong naturalist bias, as does The Breakfast
(1617-20, Budapest and Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), which may have been
his first work as an independent master after passing the examination
of the Guild of Saint Luke. This painting belongs to the first of three
categories—the bodegón, or kitchen piece, along with portraits
and religious scenes—into which his youthful works, executed between about
1617 and 1623, may be placed. In his kitchen pieces, a few figures are
combined with studied still-life objects, as in Water Seller of Seville
(circa 1619-20, Wellington Museum, London). The masterly effects of light
and shadow, as well as the direct observation of nature, make inevitable
a comparison with the work of the Italian painter Caravaggio. Velázquez's
religious paintings, images of simple piety, portray models drawn from
the streets of Seville, as Pacheco states in his biography of Velázquez.
In Adoration of the Magi (1619, Prado, Madrid), for example, the artist
painted his own family in the guise of biblical figures, including a self-portrait
as well. Velázquez
was also well acquainted with members of the intellectual circles of Seville.
Pacheco was the director of an informal humanist academy; at its meetings
the young artist was introduced to such people as the great poet Luis
de Góngora y Argote, whose portrait he executed in 1622 (Museum
of Fine Arts, Boston). Such contact was important for Velázquez's
later work on mythological and classical subjects.
as Court Painter
Velázquez made his first trip to Madrid, ostensibly to see (as
Pacheco tells it) the royal painting collections, but more likely in an
unsuccessful search for a position as court painter. In 1623, however,
he returned to the capital and, after executing a portrait (1623, Prado)
of the king, was named official painter to Philip IV. The portrait was
the first among many such sober, direct renditions of the king, the royal
family, and members of the court. Indeed, throughout the later 1620s,
most of his efforts were dedicated to portraiture. Mythological subjects
would at times occupy his attention, as in Bacchus (or The Topers, 1628-29,
Prado). This scene of revelry in an open field, picturing the god of wine
drinking with ruffian types, testifies to the artist's continued interest
Peter Paul Rubens came to the court at Madrid on a diplomatic mission.
Among the few painters with whom he associated was Velázquez. Although
the great Flemish master did not have a direct impact on the style of
the younger painter, their conversations almost certainly inspired Velázquez
to visit the art collections in Italy that were so much admired by Rubens.
In August 1629 Velázquez departed from Barcelona for Genoa and
spent most of the next two years traveling in Italy. From Genoa he proceeded
to Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, returning to Spain from Naples in
January 1631. In the course of his journey he closely studied both the
art of the Renaissance and contemporaneous painting. Several of the works
executed during his travels attest to his absorption of these styles;
a notable example is Joseph and His Brothers (1630, El Escorial, near
Madrid), which combines a Michelangelesque sculptural quality with the
chiaroscuro (light-and-shadow techniques) of such Italian masters as Guercino
and Giovanni Lanfranco.
On his return
to Madrid, Velázquez resumed his duties as court portraitist with
the sensitive rendition Prince Balthasar Carlos (1635, Prado, Madrid),
an image made poignant by the young prince's death before reaching adulthood.
From the 1630s on, relatively few facts are known about the artist's personal
life, although his rise to prominence in court circles is well documented.
In 1634 Velázquez organized the decoration of the throne room in
the new royal palace of Buen Retiro; this scheme consisted of 12 scenes
of battles in which Spanish troops had been victorious—painted by the
most prestigious artists of the day, including Velázquez himself—and
royal equestrian portraits. Velázquez's contribution to the cycle
of battle pictures included the Surrender of Breda (1634, Prado), portraying
a magnanimous Spanish general receiving the leader of defeated Flemish
troops after the siege of that northern town in 1624. The delicacy of
handling and astonishing range of emotions captured in a single painting
make this the most celebrated historical composition of the Spanish baroque.
The second major
series of paintings of the 1630s by Velázquez was a group of hunting
portraits of the royal family for the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge
near Madrid. Dating from the late 1630s and early '40s are the famous
depictions of court dwarfs in which, unlike court-jester portraits by
earlier artists, the sitters are treated with respect and sympathy. Velázquez
painted few religious pictures after entering the king's employ; Saints
Anthony and Paul (late 1630s, Prado) and Immaculate Conception (circa
1644, Prado) are notable exceptions.
last 20 years of his life Velázquez's work as court official and
architect assumed prime importance. He was responsible for the decoration
of many new rooms in the royal palaces. In 1649 he again went to Italy,
this time to buy works of art for the king's collection. During his year's
stay in Rome (1649-50) he painted the magnificent portraits Juan de Pareja
(Metropolitan Museum, New York City) and Pope Innocent X (Palazzo Doria-Pamphili,
Rome). At this time he was also admitted into Rome's Academy of Saint
Luke. The elegant Venus at Her Mirror (National Gallery, London) probably
dates from this time also.
The key works
of the painter's last two decades are Fable of Arachne (1644-48, Prado),
an image of sophisticated mythological symbolism, and his masterwork,
Las meninas (The Maids of Honor, 1656, Prado), a stunning group portrait
of the royal family and Velázquez himself in the act of painting.
Velázquez continued to serve Philip IV as painter, courtier, and
faithful friend until the artist's death in Madrid on August 6, 1660.
His work had a subtle impact a century later on his greatest successor,
Francisco de Goya.