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Velázquez, Diego

Diego Velázquez

Personal

Born June 6, 1599, in Seville, Spain; died of a fever, August 6, 1660, in Madrid, Spain; son of Juan Rodriguez de Silva and Gerónima Velázquez; married Juana de Miranda, 1618; children: Francisca. Education: Attended Pacheco's Academy (Seville, Spain), 1613.

Career

Painter in Seville, Spain, 1617; court painter to Philip IV, 1622-60. Major works include, Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618, Water Seller of Seville, 1619, Philip IV, 1624, Expulsion of the Mariscoes, 1627, Los Borrachos ("The Drinkers"), 1628, Prince Baltasar Carlos, 1634, The Surrender of Breda (also known as The Lances), 1634, Don Diego de Acedo—el Primo, 1644, View of Garden of Villa Medici—Noon and Evening, 1650, Juan de Pareja, 1650, Pope Innocent X, 1650, Las Meninas (Maids of Honor), 1656, The Tapestry Weavers, 1657, as well as numerous other portraits of the Spanish royal family. Exhibitions: Works housed in permanent collections at Museo Prado, Madrid, Spain; Escorial, Madrid; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; National Gallery, London, England; Louvre, Paris, France; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, CA; and Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, among others. Modern exhibitions of Velázquez's work include a 1989 retrospective, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, and exhibitions marking the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1999 at the Frick Collection, New York, NY.

Awards, Honors

Knighted by Order of Santiago, 1659.

Sidelights

Spanish painter Diego Velázquez "was one of the most important European artists of the 17th century," according to Alfonzo E. Pérez Sánchez, writing in Grove Art Online. Velázquez spent almost his entire working life, from 1623 until his death in 1660, in the service of Philip IV of Spain, turning out canvases—mostly portraits—that still amaze today. A contributor for the International Dictionary of Art and Artists commented that despite Velázquez's death over three centuries ago, "his paintings are today as vital as ever." For this same critic, Velázquez's paintings have provided "delight and inspiration to art lovers over the centuries [and] they have proved to be an unending source of artistic stimulus to later painters." Only about one hundred existing paintings can be firmly attributed to the Spanish master, and of these, a full two-thirds are portraits. Most of Velázquez's best work is still in Spain, at Madrid's Prado; thus real art lovers must be prepared to make a pilgrimage to enjoy his art firsthand and not in reproduction.

Velázquez made his mark as a painter of portraits, especially portraits of the younger members of the Spanish royal family. These paintings were intended to be shown to potential royal suitors scattered around Europe. Velázquez carries the art of portraiture to new heights with Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), painted four years before his death. One of the great paintings of the world, this work of portraiture is actually a miniature narrative, a captured moment in royal time, with Velázquez himself depicted in the painting, at his easel composing the image of the king and queen, who are sitting for him, when he is interrupted in his work by the arrival of the Infanta Margarita and her maids of honor. The richness of detail and the expressiveness of the subjects are what make this and other portraits by Velázquez lasting works of art. They are also testaments to the creativity and self-promotion of the painter.

Critic Arthur C. Danto retold an anecdote about Velázquez in a Nation article. When visiting Rome in search of commissions, Velasquez was said to have sent his slave and assistant, Juan de Pareja, to visit several homes of influential Romans, carrying a portrait of himself, Pareja, done by Velázquez. The astonished viewers were supposedly incapable of telling whom or what to address: the slave or the life-like portrait he carried. "Velázquez meant to dazzle," Danto commented, "not just show what he was capable of, but to do so in a way calculated to amaze. He was a master of conceptual drama." He was also a painter's painter, demonstrating consummate skill in blending color, light, space, line, and rhythm in such a way as to make his subjects seem to come to life: his men and women appear to breathe, his numerous dogs are full of vitality. His free brushstroke work proved an inspiration to the Impressionist painters of the late-nineteenth century, among others.

Seville Origins

Born in 1599, Velázquez was the oldest of seven children of Juan Rodriguez de Silva and Gerónima Velázquez. The painter would later hold tightly to his father's patrician Portuguese roots, incorporating the upper class "de Silva" into his name once he was an established painter. Throughout his life Velázquez sought to join the aristocracy; ironically he attained noble status only at the end of his days, and his career was spent serving rather than fraternizing with nobility as an equal. Growing up in Seville, he demonstrated skill in drawing. As an eleven year old, he was apprenticed to painter Francisco de Herrera the Elder, but nothing came of this, for the man proved to be an intemperate mentor. In 1611 Velázquez was apprenticed again, this time to Francisco Pacheco, who taught the young boy for five years. Here Velázquez learned not only the techniques of oil painting, but also gained an education in languages and philosophy. At the end of that time, Velázquez became a master painter in his own right, and as a member of a painter's guild he opened his own workshop. The eighteen year old worked on religious commissions at first, turning out such works as 1618's Immaculate Conception and St. John the Evangelist on Patmos.

Velázquez's early work also included numerous paintings in the genre known as bodegones, meaning literally "taverns." These works depict the everyday life of ordinary people, and one of Velázquez's ear-liest examples in this style of spontaneous portraiture is the 1618 painting The Old Woman Cooking Eggs, which displays, according to the contributor for the International Dictionary of Art and Artists, "the strongly modeled forms, based on intense contrasts between the illuminated and the shadowed areas, painted in warm earth tones, that were typical of the Caravaggist style." Soon Velázquez was moving beyond the influence of the Italian painter Caravaggio to develop his own style, as seen the following year in Water Seller of Seville, a "superb" painting, according to Sánchez.

These everyday figures began appearing in his religious paintings, as in his most complex work of the early years, Adoration of the Magi. By 1618, the young Velázquez was well enough established to marry, taking as his bride the daughter of his former teacher, Pacheco. The following year his daughter Francisca was born; the couple would have one more child, who died in childhood.

Makes Reputation at Court

Velázquez, ambitious to enlarge his commercial horizons, spent much of 1622 in Madrid studying the royal collection but also attempting to win a commission to do the king's portrait. Although he was unsuccessful in this latter attempt, he did paint a powerful member of the court, and this portrait finally caught the eye of the king. In 1623 Velázquez was summoned to Madrid, this time to paint King Philip IV himself. So pleased was the monarch with the result, that Velázquez was made portrait artist to the royal family. His portrait from 1624 is among the artist's best works. In 1627, Velázquez was made usher to the Chamber, a position that raised him above all other court painters. When the famous German-Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens visited

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Madrid in 1628, he conversed only with Velázquez. That same year Velázquez painted one of his best-loved bodegones, Los Borrachos ("The Drinkers"), also known as Feast of Bacchus, depicting revelers who have over-enjoyed themselves. In contrast to classical depictions of such wine-soaked scenes, there is nothing divine or wondrous in the drunken provincial buffoons Velázquez pictures. As he matured in his art, Velázquez became more sure and steady; he dispensed almost entirely with preparatory sketches and composed instead on canvas with a brisk, almost impressionistic brush stroke.

Velázquez's style was further influenced by an Italian trip he made in 1629, there seeing firsthand the work of Tintoretto and Michelangelo. While still in Italy in 1630, he completed two major paintings, Joseph's Coat and Forge of Vulcan. Returning to Madrid, he resumed his court duties and also continued to chronicle the life of Philip IV, his wife, his children, and members of the court in oil. When Velázquez's daughter married in 1633, he presented his son-in-law with the dowry of his own usher to the Chamber appointment; the king made up for his lost appointment by making Velázquez constable of justice. Other honors followed; in 1636, Velázquez was appointed gentleman of the Wardrobe and in 1645 he became gentleman of the Bedchamber to the king. However, though each post carried heavy duties, none of these honors raised him above skilled artisan in the court pecking order. He longed for a knighthood such as the one the king had bestowed on Rubens during his 1628 visit to Madrid. Velázquez made a second Italian trip in 1648, ostensibly to buy artwork with which to decorate the king's chambers. However, he was also hoping to gain new commissions. This journey lasted over two years, in the company of his slave/assistant Juan de Pareja. During his time in Italy he visited the villa of the powerful Medici clan, which led to his famous painting View of Garden of Villa Medici—Noon and Evening.

The high point of the painter's journey to Italy, however, was a commission to paint Pope Innocent X. The portrait, completed in 1650, ranks among Velázquez's masterpieces. He depicts the pope not in an idealized manner, but as a man with rather flushed, coarse features and eyes that squinted suspiciously. Despite, or perhaps because of such realism, the pope valued this portrait, and interceded on the painter's behalf, instructing his council in Madrid to support Velázquez's attempts at knighthood.

The Final Years

Though Velázquez's knighthood was delayed because of a disagreement among the nobility about letting a craftsman into their ranks, the painter was awarded the office of chamberlain and given apartments connected to the Royal Palace. His son-in-law became his assistant, and his grandson took over his old position as usher to the Chamber. Among his most well-known and justly famous pictures of the final years is Las Meninas from 1656. The painting's careful use of perspective and the intense attention to detail in all aspects down to the paws of the tiny dog have won praise since its first unveiling. In fact, so realistic is the composition that the twentieth-century painter David Hockney assumed that Velázquez (and others) used lenses and optics to reflect the images of models and objects directly onto their panels and canvases. As Jennifer Lee Carrell explained the theory in Smithsonian, "These projections compress a scene's complex, three-dimensional masses, gradually shifting light and color into clear, two-dimensional shapes whose outlines can be quickly and confidently traced." Whatever the reality of such a hypothesis, the fact is that Las Meninas, in its content, is also a statement on the nobility of the art of portrait painting, for present in his lowly workshop are the royalty of Spain.

If you enjoy the works of Diego Velásquez

If you enjoy the works of Diego Velásquez, you may also want to check out the following:

The art of other Baroque Era painters, including Caravaggio, Peter Paul Reubens, Rembrandt, and Jan Vermeer.

In 1659 Velázquez finally won his long-sought knighthood, joining the Order of Santiago. His delight was short-lived, however. Taking his courtly duties seriously, he was responsible for the planning of the marriage of one of the king's daughters to the king of France. Held on an island between Spain and France in 1660, the marriage was a festive affair involving hundreds of nobles form both countries. It fell to Velázquez to arrange the housing, entertainment, and feeding of all these guests. Worn out by his duties, he fell ill from a fever and died in Madrid on August 6, 1660. Mourned at court, the artist's passing was marked by a special and final honor from the king. Philip IV ordered that the Cross of Santiago be painted on the doublet of Velázquez's self-portrait in Las Meninas.

Though his output was small in his lifetime, Velázquez's influence has been major, inspiring and teaching painters from Francisco Goya to Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and even Francis Bacon. His loose brushstroke, in particular, became a trademark of the Impressionists. "If you want to know what painting is, look at Velázquez," declared art critic Robert Hughes in a Time magazine review of a 1989 retrospective exhibition of the Spanish painter's work. "Not only did he paint the best official portrait of the 17th century—the head of the wary, coarse, cunning old Pope Innocent X …, but he also made what is perhaps the greatest nonmythical, secular painting in all art history: Las Meninas." Zahira Veliz, writing in Art Bulletin, similarly noted, "Renowned as a great portraitist of the seventeenth century, the Spaniard Diego Velázquez stands with Rembrandt as an artist whose works can be viewed as wordless essays on the human condition."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Brown, Jonathan, Velázquez: Painter and Courtier, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1986.

Brown, Jonathan, and Carmen Garrido, Velázquez: The Technique of Genius, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2003.

Harris, Henriqueta, Velázquez, Phaidon (Oxford, England), 1982.

International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Kahr, Madlyn Millner, Velázquez: The Art of Painting, Harper and Row (New York, NY), 1976.

Lopez-Rey, José, Velázquez' Work and World, Graphic Society, (Greenwich, NY), 1968.

McKim-Smith, Gridley, and others, Examining Velázquez. Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1988.

Muller, Joseph-Émile, Velázquez, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1976.

Stratton-Pruitt, Suzanne, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Velázquez, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Sutton, Denys, Velázquez, Barnes and Noble (New York, NY), 1967.

White, Jon Manchip, Diego Velázquez: Painter and Courtier, Rand McNally (New York, NY), 1969.

Wolf, Norbert, Diego Velázquez: 1599-1660, The Face of Spain, Taschen (London, England), 2000.

PERIODICALS

Art Bulletin, March, 2004, Zahira Veliz, "Sings of Identity in Lady with a Fan by Diego Velázquez," p. 75.

Chicago Tribune, August 6, 2003, Alan G. Artner, "Institute Exhibit Hints at Debt Modern Art Owes to an Old Master."

Economist, February 10, 1990, "Move over, Army," p. 94.

Nation, December 11, 1989, Arthur C. Danto, "Velázquez," p. 729.

Newsweek, December 6, 1999, Peter Plagens, "A Reunion for Velázquez," p. 81.

Smithsonian, February, 2002, Jennifer le Carrell, "Mirror Images," p. 76.

Spectator, June 23, 2001, Andrew Wordsworth, "Marriage of Intelligence and Intuition," p. 45.

Time, October 9, 1989, Robert Hughes, "Velázquez's Binding Ethic," p. 104; December 27, 1999, Robert Hughes, "Spain's Conquistador," p. 151.

United Press International, November 27, 2003, "Feature: Did Prado Pick Velázquez over Goya?"

ONLINE

Artchive, http://www.artchive.com/ (April, 23, 2005), "Diego Velázquez."

ArtCyclopedia, http://www.artcyclopedia.com/ (April 23, 2005), "Diego Velázquez."

Grove Art Online, http://www.groveart.com/ Alfonzo E. Pérez Sánchez, "Velázquez, Diego (Rodriquez de Silva y)."

Web Gallery of Art, http://www.wga.hu/ (April 23, 2005), "Velázquez, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y."

WebMusuem, http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/ (April 23, 2005), "Velázquez, Diego."

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