"I would rather be an ordinary painter working from life than be the greatest copyist on earth."
The painter Diego Velázquez enjoyed a uniquely high profile; as the official court painter for the King of Spain, he combined the careers of artist and diplomat. More than three hundred years after his death, his renderings of the Spanish royal family and the ordinary folk of Seville offer us a uniquely comprehensive view of seventeenth-century Spain. Every subsequent generation of artists has studied and admired the work of Velázquez.
Born in Seville in 1599, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez was the son of Juan Rodriguez de Silva and Geronima Velázquez, respected and affluent citizens of Seville. A quiet and observant child, he demonstrated a talent for drawing at an early age, often sketching scenes from the marketplace in his schoolbooks. When he was eleven years old, Velázquez was apprenticed to a well-known painter in the city, Francisco Pacheco. He lived with Pacheco and served as his assistant while acquiring formal painting techniques. Pacheco was at the center of a large group of artists, writers, and scholars who met often at his home for discussion and entertainment. A significant portion of the young Velázquez's education came from meeting these people and listening to their conversations.
Records common folk in tavern scenes
Pacheco was impressed by Velázquez's growing talent but disappointed by his student's lack of interest in painting the traditional religious scenes that were commissioned, or ordered, by the many churches in Seville. Instead, Velázquez longed to paint the people of Seville, market scenes, and taverns. Most of his early works are bodegones, from the Spanish word for tavern, meaning scenes of people engaged in everyday activities; he depicted Sevillians drinking in bars or cooking in their kitchens. Among Velázquez's most famous works of this time are Old Woman Cooking Eggs and The Water Seller, both of which he completed when he was about 19. They evidence a mastery of composition, rich color, and dramatic light in the style of sixteenth-century Italian painter Caravaggio. Velázquez invested every subject with vigor and drama, refuting the idea that town life was too mundane for preservation on canvas.
Also when he was nineteen, Velázquez married Juana Pacheco, his teacher's daughter, established a workshop, and took on apprentices of his own. Usually only much older artists were outfitted in this way, but Velázquez had already earned recognition as an unusual talent. He earned a living by producing religious pictures for churches but also continued painting bodegones. Around this time Pacheco commissioned Velázquez to paint a portrait of a poet friend from Madrid. The two artists went to the capital city and visited the Escorial, the royal palace and church, which was filled with paintings from Italy and northern countries. The works of Titian and other Venetian painters especially impressed Velázquez. Pacheco also brought his protégé to meet a friend who was part of the royal court. When Velázquez later painted a portrait of Pacheco's friend, the entire court, including King Philip IV, admired it greatly.
Becomes official court painter
So impressed was the king, in fact, that the next year, 1623, he appointed Velázquez official court painter, an honor that included a salary, residence, and studio in the palace. Velázquez was in his early twenties. The king—himself a mere eighteen years old—had a special chair placed in the studio so he could watch Velázquez paint, but he had to sit very still for the painter's first job: a portrait of His Majesty. The king was so pleased with the results that he insisted no one else would ever paint his portrait. Over the years Velázquez painted several portraits of Philip, leaving a visual chronicle of the king's maturation during his reign. Velázquez also depicted the king, queen, and prince on horseback and rendered the likenesses of other members of the court as well. He was a master at presenting these august figures as royal and impressive while detailing subtleties of character by adding unusual elements; his personal impressions of these subjects came through despite their stoically regal faces and costumes. Velázquez had little or no time for his bodegones; court painting absorbed all of his energies, though privately he may have found his privileged subjects less interesting than the street vendors and children of his family neighborhood.
Influenced by Rubens's court visit
When Velázquez had been at court for five years, an important visitor came from Antwerp on a diplomatic mission. Peter Paul Rubens, then the most famous painter in northern Europe, stayed with the royal family for nine months. The two painters spent a substantial amount of time together; Velázquez admired the older painter's skill, especially his brushwork and use of color. Rubens encouraged Velázquez to visit Italy to study the works of painting's great masters. In 1629—having obtained the king's permission—Velázquez traveled to Milan, Venice, and Rome, studying paintings by Titian, the Renaissance master Michelangelo, and sixteenth-century painter Tintoretto. He also sketched ancient Roman statues and paintings in the villas around Rome. These influences affected Velázquez's style, inspiring him to employ more brilliant colors and softer light.
When Velázquez returned to Madrid, the king appointed him to an additional position, aposentador del rey, usher to the king. He was now in charge of heating, lighting, and other environmental matters in the palace rooms, as well as all arrangements for the king when he traveled. This new occupation swallowed a great deal of Velázquez's painting time.
The Spanish court employed numerous dwarfs—people of unusually small stature whose bodily proportions are often abnormal—mostly as entertainers; Velázquez painted portraits of several of these court figures, either by themselves or with the princes and princesses, whom they often accompanied. In these portraits, Velázquez neither highlighted nor concealed the dwarfs' deformities, focusing instead on their faces to show them as intelligent, dignified people. This can be seen in his portraits Don Antonio el Ingles and Don Diego de Acedo.
In 1649 Velázquez was afforded another chance to expand his horizons; the king granted him permission to visit Italy again, and this time he stayed for more than two years, though King Philip continually urged him to return to Madrid. He visited Venice and Naples but devoted the majority of his time to Rome. He was welcomed there as one of Europe's premiere artists and was entertained by princes, cardinals, and the pope, head of the Catholic Church. He painted innumerable portraits during this portion of his travels. He also visited the villa of the Medici family, the great patrons of the Renaissance, where he completed sketches and paintings of garden settings. These scenes, full of dappled sunlight and color, are very similar to some of the open-air paintings done by the impressionists over two hundred years later.
Pope Innocent X asked Velázquez to paint his portrait; the result has been called the Spanish artist's masterpiece. The pope had coarse, ruddy features and a suspicious expression, but Velázquez did not flatter his revered subject. Rather, he painted him truthfully, even emphasizing the pontiff's coloring with the red satin of his clothing and the velvet throne on which he sat. The pope prized the honesty of Velázquez's work and was so pleased that he made the painter a member of the Roman Academy, a great honor.
Portrait reveals disdain for queen
Finally, King Philip insisted that Velázquez return to Madrid. The monarch had recently married a new, young queen, Mariana of Austria, who demanded festivities and entertainments. Responsibility for these arrangements fell to Velázquez; in addition, of course, he bore the burden of painting portraits of the queen, her company, and the children who were born in the next few years. The portrait of Mariana—painted about a year after she became queen, when she was seventeen years old—depicts her in the voluminous, heavily decorated style of dress popular at the time. She also wears a large wig full of ribbons, feathers, and ornaments. The portrait does not convey much affection for Philip's bride on the part of the painter, as her face looks small and indistinct beneath the elaborate headdress.
Paints clever Las Meninas
One member of the royal family Velázquez did particularly enjoy was the little princess Margarita, who was born in 1651. He painted her portrait several times during the 1650s, and she is the central figure in his most famous painting, Las Meninas (Maids of Honor). In this great work, Margarita stands in the center of the room, as though she has just burst into the painter's studio (shown with many of his paintings hanging on the walls), where he is engaged in painting a portrait of her mother and father. She pays no attention to the attendants on either side of her but seems instead to look at an area outside of the picture where the king and queen pose for the portrait; we know they are the object of Margarita's gaze because they appear in the mirror behind her. On the left we see Velázquez himself, standing in front of a huge canvas with his paintbrush in hand. This is the only known self-portrait of the painter. Two aspects of this work have delighted and intrigued generations of admirers: the lively cast of characters from the court—including a dog—and the reflections of the king and queen. Las Meninas challenges viewers to imagine the larger story behind the image. In terms of composition, it is a wonderful study of perspective, with clear and careful illustration of both the dog's paws in the very front of the space, to the man standing in the doorway deep in the back of the room. It is said that the king made Velázquez a knight of the Order of Santiago, an extremely high honor, after seeing this painting.
Throughout the late 1650s, Velázquez became increasingly involved with his courtly duties. In the spring of 1660 he was required to plan the wedding of one of King Philip's daughters to the King of France. It was a huge affair on an island in the River Bidassoa, between Spain and France. Velázquez was charged with getting everything and everyone from Madrid to this island and arranging the food and festivities, all the while keeping the assembled royals and nobles happy and comfortable. The parade of animals, carriages, and wagons carrying people and supplies is said to have stretched for eighteen miles. The burden of this huge project on the sixty-one-year-old Velázquez was considerable; he fell ill and died—in Madrid on August 6, 1660—a few weeks after the wedding.
Small body of work has large impact
Velázquez's influence has been tremendous. He left only about one hundred paintings, mostly portraits, but the quality of this relatively small body of work has been appreciated by many artists—later court painter Francisco Goya, early French impressionist Édouard Manet, Spanish cubist Pablo Picasso, Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, Thomas Eakins, Fernando Botera, and Francis Bacon, to name but a few. He possessed a keen eye, a mastery of color and space, and great respect for his subjects, whether peasants or kings. Most of his paintings, national treasures, hang in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
- 1618: Old Woman Cooking Eggs
- 1619: Water Seller of Seville
- 1624: Philip IV
- 1628: Los Barrachos (The Drinkers)
- 1634: Prince Baltasar Carlos
- 1644: Don Diego de Acedo—El Primo
- 1650: View of Garden of Villa Medici—Noon and Evening
- 1650: Juan de Pareja
- 1650: Pope Innocent X
- 1656: Las Meninas (Maids of Honor)
- 1657: The Tapestry Weavers
- Brown, Dale, The World of Velazquez, 1599-1660, Time-Life Books, 1969.
- McKim-Smith, Gridley, Examining Velazquez, Yale University Press, 1988.
- Raboff, Ernest Lloyd, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, Lippincott, 1988.
- Serullaz, Maurice, Velazquez, Abrams, 1987.