Velázquez, Diego (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez; 1599–1660)
VELÁZQUEZ, DIEGO (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez; 1599–1660)
VELÁZQUEZ, DIEGO (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez; 1599–1660), the most important artist of the Spanish Golden Age. The son of parents of the lower nobility, Velázquez was born in Seville, where he lived until he was twenty-four. Between 1610 and 1616, he studied with Francisco Pacheco (1564–1654), the leading painter of the city. In 1618, he married Pacheco's daughter, Juana. Although profoundly influenced by Pacheco's commitment to the ideal of the learned painter, he did not imitate his master's dry, Italianate style.
His early genre scenes, including An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) and Waterseller (1619, Wellington Museum, London), constitute the first coherent group of secular figural paintings by a Spanish artist. These works probably were influenced by pictures of religious subjects with elaborate still life details by Flemish and north Italian artists such as Pieter Aertsen (c. 1508/09–1575) and Vincezo Campi (1536–1591). However, in contrast to these prototypes, Velázquez reduced the scenes to their essentials and focused upon a few naturalistically rendered figures and objects, strongly illuminated against a neutral background. The quiet dignity of the figures, and the monumental nature of the compositions, endow these images with a sense of transcendent importance.
In 1623, aided by courtiers from Seville, he obtained the opportunity to execute a portrait of Philip IV (ruled 1621–1665), which he revised a few years later (1623–1626, Museo del Prado, Madrid). Velázquez avoided the appearance of pomp so typical of baroque court portraiture of the time. The elegant pose, aloof gaze, and smooth, even illumination suffice to indicate the dignity of a king. Philip immediately appointed Velázquez royal painter; during subsequent decades, the two developed a close friendship, unprecedented between an artist and a Spanish monarch.
Interaction with Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) during Rubens's visit to Madrid in 1628–1629 decisively influenced the young artist, who sought to emulate the example of the painter-courtier. Rubens stimulated Velázquez's interest in the royal collection of Venetian paintings and encouraged him to expand his range of themes. Velázquez's first history painting, The Feast of Bacchus (1629, Museo del Prado, Madrid), introduced an unexpected melancholy note into the popular mythological subject. The beggar, seeking alms from the peasants gathered around Bacchus, evokes the transience of the pleasure of wine. Despite its originality, the uncertain definition of space and the overcrowded composition reveal artistic deficiencies.
To give him the opportunity to improve his skills, Philip sent Velázquez to Italy for over a year (1629–1630). In Rome, he met leading artists and studied ancient and Renaissance works. The Forge of Vulcan (1630, Museo del Prado, Madrid) demonstrated mastery of fundamental qualities of the Italian classical tradition, including accurate anatomy, dramatic expressions and gestures, and spatial perspective. Also in Rome, he produced two views of the gardens of the Villa Medici (both 1630, Museo del Prado, Madrid), among the first European paintings to have been created directly from nature. Superimposing "broken" brushstrokes over a reflective lead-white ground, he infused these seemingly casual images with a sense of atmosphere.
Returning to Madrid in 1631, Velázquez began the most productive decade of his career. By middecade, he had devised a highly original method of creating optical effects through the application of short, thick strokes of endlessly varied shapes and sizes. Thus, for example, when viewed from a distance, the jumbled brushwork covering the king's garments in Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver (1635, National Gallery, London) becomes resolved into a convincing record of the appearance of embroidered fabric. Although enlivened by free handling of paint and a brighter range of colors, the later royal portraits retain the directness and naturalness of his first works at court.
Throughout the 1630s, he supervised important decorative projects at royal palaces. For the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro, Madrid, he devised a coherent program of battle paintings, mythological images, and portraits. For this series, he produced the Surrender of Breda (1635, Museo del Prado, Madrid), the masterpiece of the period. By depicting the Spanish general with his arm upon the shoulder of the defeated Dutch leader, he visualized the ideal of mercy in victory, treated in several contemporary works by the court playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681). Velázquez carefully studied portraits, battle plans, and other documentation in order to endow this imaginary conception of the event with an aura of authenticity. His paintings for the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge near Madrid, included two sympathetic and psychologically insightful portraits of dwarfs, Francisco Lezcano and Diego de Aceda (both 1636–1640, Museo del Prado, Madrid). Also created for the Torre, Mars (1640, Museo del Prado, Madrid) wittily depicted the ancient god of war contemplating his frustrations in love.
In the last two decades of his career, Velázquez reduced the scope (though not the quality) of his artistic production as he devoted himself to personal service to the king. His Venus and Cupid (c. 1648, National Gallery, London) is one of the few female nudes by a Spanish artist of the early modern era. The sensual pose, provocative use of the mirror image, and rich, luminous colors contribute to the erotic allure of this image. Between 1649 and 1651, Velázquez traveled in Italy to purchase art for the royal collection. His Innocent X (1649–1650, Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome) expressed the intense psychological energy of the aging pontiff. At the 1650 exhibition of Congregazione dei Virtuosi in Rome, he exhibited the recently completed Juan de Pareja (1650, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Utilizing compositional formulae associated with aristocratic portraiture, he emphasized the dignity of his Moorish servant.
The exceptionally large Las meninas (1656; Maids of honor, Museo del Prado, Madrid) is regarded as the quintessential expression of his artistic aspirations. Velázquez depicted himself standing confidently at his easel, in the company of Princess Margarita and her attendants. Reflected in the mirror on the back wall are the king and queen, whose visit to his studio signifies royal approval of his art.
Intrigued by Las meninas, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) created forty-four variations upon it in 1957 (all in Museo Picasso, Barcelona). Édouard Manet (1832–1883) is among the many other modernist artists who found inspiration in Velázquez's works.
See also Calderón de la Barca, Pedro ; Philip IV (Spain) ; Rubens, Peter Paul ; Spain, Art in ; Titian .
Brown, Jonathan. Velázquez: Painter and Courtier. New Haven and London, 1986. A vividly written and extensively illustrated study of all phases of the artist's career.
Brown, Jonathan, and John H. Elliott. A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV. New Haven and London, 1980. This comprehensive study of a major decorative project examines Velázquez's position at court.
Domínguez Ortiz, Antonio, ed. Velázquez. Exh. cat. New York, 1989. This catalogue of the exhibition held 1989–1990 in New York and Madrid includes documentation on important works from all phases of the artist's career.
López-Rey, José. Velázquez: A Catalogue Raisonné of His Oeuvre. London, 1963. A useful catalogue of the artist's entire production.
Richard G. Mann
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