Spanish Painting in the Seventeenth Century

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Spanish Painting in the Seventeenth Century

A Century of Achievement.

For most of the sixteenth century Spain was the dominant power in Europe, and its colonial empire insured that in the seventeenth the country retained an enormous importance on the European scene. At the same time Spain's wealth always rested on uncertain grounds. Despite huge influxes of capital from the New World colonies, Philip II (r. 1555–1598) was forced to declare bankruptcy twice during the second half of the sixteenth century, when the costs of his involvements in international wars perilously drained the state's treasury. Although engaged in costly wars in the Netherlands and faced with economic problems that were to increase over time, the first half of the seventeenth century was a period of cultural brilliance throughout Spain. The years after 1600 witnessed an enormous flowering of Spanish theater, literature, and the visual arts. While all forms of the visual arts—painting, sculpture, and engraving—flourished at the time, it was in painting that the Spanish made their most definitive contributions to European art. Here Spanish painters were at first indebted to the examples of Italy. Throughout the sixteenth century, the country's colonial and commercial outposts in the peninsula had kept Spanish painters abreast of the latest trends in painting. During the later sixteenth century the example of Venetian art, particularly of Titian, had captivated artists like Francisco Ribalta (1565–1628). Philip II had been an admirer of the great Venetian artist, and had had his portrait painted by him, and by the early seventeenth century Spain's royal collections contained a number of Venetian masterpieces. Most Spanish artists like Ribalta, though, had not come to learn of Venetian art by traveling to Venice or through studying the royal collections. They learned of these works through the many copies of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto's works that circulated in the country. The great painter El Greco (c. 1541–1614), a Greek who had trained in Venice, also exposed Spanish painters to the Venetian tradition. In 1577, the artist settled permanently in Toledo and produced a number of deeply religious works that inspired later Spanish artists. During the late sixteenth century Italian Mannerism had also played a role in shaping the art of Spain, but in the early seventeenth century it was primarily the example of Caravaggio that most influenced the rising generation of native artists who were to define tastes in the country for most of the rest of the seventeenth century. Three figures—Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), and Diego Velázquez (1599–1660)—were to found a highly original Spanish school of painting, notable at first for its indebtedness to Caravaggian models, but increasingly independent from this Italian tutelage over time. Although Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) was initially trained in the studio of the Spanish painter Francisco Ribalta, he soon made his way to Italy and never returned to Spain. In Rome he soon was affected by the popularity of Caravaggism, before moving on to Naples, a Spanish outpost. He spent most of his life working there, exploring the possibilities that lay within Caravaggio's and the Caravaggisti's techniques of realism, psychological immediacy, and chiaroscuro. Although his example was to shape the early art of Diego Velázquez, he was like Poussin and Lorrain as one of the émigré artists whose contributions belong more appropriately to the history of Italian, rather than Spanish, art. By contrast, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) and Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) trained exclusively in Spain, and developed successful careers there painting for the royal court, religious institutions, and the country's nobility.

Francisco de ZurbarÁn.

Born in a provincial, mountainous region in southern Spain, Zurbarán came to settle in Seville at the age of fifteen, where he apprenticed himself to a local master. At the time, Diego Velázquez and a number of other artists who were to develop successful careers were also students in the city, and Zurbarán likely made their acquaintances at this time. He also seems to have become familiar with techniques for creating polychromed sculpture, an art form very much in fashion in Seville at the time. These works, carved from wood or stone, were painted with bright colors, and in Zurbarán's later paintings the treatment of many of his figures appears to be drawn from the genre of Spanish polychromed statues. With his apprenticeship completed, he returned to his native region, settling in Lierena, marrying, and setting up a studio in that town. About a decade later, he received a number of commissions from monasteries in Seville, and in 1629 the town council asked him to settle there. He did, and from this point his commissions in the city steadily rose. The impact of Caravaggio on his style is evident from the first paintings that can be attributed to him. Like Velázquez, he had likely studied copies of the master's work while a student in Seville. Yet he went beyond this example to create highly spiritual and meditative paintings. Like other seventeenth-century masters working in Catholic societies, Zurbarán satisfied an almost insatiable appetite for devotional images, an appetite that had been bred by the Catholic Reformation and devotional classics like St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. He was also prized as a painter of still-lifes and portraits. The images he created for Seville's monasteries, as well as the commissions he undertook in the 1630s for the royal court at Madrid, show a developing artistic sophistication. In the earliest works, for instance, rather naive treatments of the human form occur, while over time the artist acquired a surer skill in organizing his compositions. The intense piety of his works can best be seen in his paintings of the saints in meditation, works that he frequently provided to his monastic and aristocratic patrons. Although his career flourished throughout the 1630s, the years after 1640 were troubled ones for the Spanish economy. To support his studio in Seville, the artist sold paintings to monasteries in the Americas. This traffic was particularly great in the years between 1648 and 1650, when the recession was worsened in Seville by an outbreak of plague. During these years Zurbarán's studio made large shipments to Mexico and the Andes where these works established a native Catholic Baroque style in Spain's colonies. During the 1650s Spain's economic fortunes rebounded somewhat, and by 1658 the artist had left Seville to work in the Spanish capital, Madrid. There he made contact with his old friend, Diego Velázquez, who may have helped him to compete successfully for commissions. In these later years of his life he seems primarily to have concentrated on producing devotional images for family and monastic chapels.


introduction: The painter Francisco Pacheco (1564–1654) was a learned man as well as the teacher and father-inlaw of Spain's greatest seventeenth-century artist, Diego Velázquez. Although he was fully aware of all the trends popular in the art world of his day, Pacheco spent most of his life completing commissions for Spain's powerful religious institutions. His statements in his theoretical work, The Art of Painting, show the effects of the deep Catholic piety for which Spain was famous in the seventeenth century.

The Aim of Painting is the Service of God. When dealing with the purpose of painting (as we have set out to do), it is necessary to make use of a distinction by the Church fathers which will clarify the matter: they say, one purpose is that of the work and another that of the worker. Following this teaching, I say that one aim is that of the painter and another that of painting. The object of the painter, merely as a craftsman, probably is by means of his art to gain wealth, fame or credit, to give enjoyment or to do a service to somebody else, or to work for his own pastime or for similar reasons. The purpose of painting (ordinarily) is probably to depict, through imitation, a certain object with all possible valor and propriety. This is called by some the soul of painting because it makes the painting seem alive, so that the beauty and variety of the colors and the other embellishments are merely accessories. … Considering, however, the object of the painter as a Christian craftsman (and it is he with whom we are here concerned), he might have two purposes, one main aim and the other one a secondary or consequent one. The latter, less important, purpose might be to ply his craft for gain or fame or for other reasons (as I have stated above), but which ought to be controlled by the proper circumstances, place, time and form, in such a way that nobody should be able to accuse him of exercising his talent reprehensibly or of working against the highest purpose. The main purpose will be—through the study and toil of this profession and being in the state of grace—to reach bliss and beatitude, because a Christian, born for holy things, is not satisfied in his actions to have his eyes set so low that he strives only for human reward and secular comfort. On the contrary, raising his eyes heavenward he is after a different aim, much greater and more exquisite, committed to eternal things. St. Paul often warned the serfs and all other men that when ministering to others they should remember that they did it chiefly for the sake of God. He said: "You who are slaves obey your masters on earth not out of duty or reflection but as servants of Christ who know that everyone will receive his reward from the Lord in accordance with his actions."

source: Francisco Pacheco, El arte de la pintura, in A Documentary History of Art. Vol. II. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Books, 1958): 214–216.

Diego VelÁzquez.

The undeniable giant of seventeenth-century Spanish painting, and one of the greatest European painters, was Diego Velázquez. Raised in Seville, he also trained there as an artist. Precocious at a young age, he entered into service at the royal court in 1523, becoming the principal painter to Philip IV (r. 1621–1665). He was to remain a member of the royal household until his death and was to be responsible for painting an astonishing number of portraits, notable for their great compositional originality and for their quick and expressive brushwork. Although he initially worked for members of the Spanish nobility in Madrid, the conditions of his court appointment soon made such private commissions impossible to execute. Velázquez was always very concerned with social rank and prestige, and tried throughout his life to establish that his family was of noble origins. Working solely at the command and whims of the king bolstered these claims in seventeenth-century Spain, where private commissions undertaken for solely monetary purposes were perceived to be crassly commercial. Velázquez soon put aside all thoughts of enrichment from his art and conformed to the necessity of producing works for the king's pleasure. Besides his training in Seville, his painting came to be affected by the visit of Peter Paul Rubens to Madrid in 1628, who came there on one of his diplomatic journeys undertaken for the provinces of the southern Low Countries. In addition, Velázquez acquired new influences in his art from two trips he took to Italy, the first from 1629–1631 and the second from 1649–1651. On the first of these journeys, he traveled initially to Parma, Florence, and Venice, before heading on to Rome. He was particularly impressed with the art of the Venetians, having found already in the colorism and swift brushwork of Rubens a reason for admiring this tradition. At the same time, his Italian journeys brought him into contact with the Baroque style that was developing in Rome, even as he ended his journey in Naples, where the experiments of the Caravaggisti were to leave their impression on his later work. With these experiences in mind, he returned to Spain, and during the 1630s he was to integrate the many influences that he had come in contact with over the years. Although he continued to paint a large number of portraits for the royal family, he also undertook more historical and mythological themes at this time. Among these images, the Surrender of Breda is today one of the most famous. The painting memorializes a recent victory in Spain's ongoing wars against the Dutch. Velázquez had never traveled in northern Europe, and thus had no idea what the area around the Breda battlefield had looked like. To complete his vision of the concluding surrender ceremony, he relied on engravings and written accounts of the event. Yet despite his relative ignorance, the picture manages to rise to the level of realism that one might expect in journalism, rather than painting. Throughout the canvas the artist relies on a rapid, yet sure brushwork. At the right side of the painting, he shows the Spanish army standing elegant and self-assured, while to the left, the battle-worn and defeated Dutch forces appear considerably less confident. In the center, the commander of the Spanish forces leans downward to grasp and comfort his Dutch opponent, a gesture that suggests nobility of spirit, a quality with which Velázquez endowed the entire composition.

The Maids of Honor.

Of the many masterpieces the artist painted for the Spanish court, his mature Las Meninas, or the Maids of Honor, ranks as one of the most accomplished works of all time. The painting is, in fact, not an image of the court's ladies-in-waiting, but a portrait of the royal family. During the nineteenth century it acquired its present title, and at this time artists interpreted the puzzling picture much as if it had been a candid snapshot of the court captured within Velázquez's studio. The painting shows the young princess Margarita Maria surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, while in the background to the left, the artist inserts himself at his easel painting a huge canvas. A mirror in the back of the room reflects back the image of the Spanish king and queen, showing that in reality, the portrait that Velázquez is engaged in painting is not of the young Spanish princess, but is, in fact, one of the king and queen themselves. The royal couple thus takes on a quixotic presence in the canvas, since they are at one and the same time viewing the actions in the room that Velázquez is painting and also serving as the artist's models. The precise meaning that the artist intended to portray through this brilliant compositional strategy has long been debated. Most likely, he was making a claim for the high intellectual nobility of the painter's art, and at the same time he was likely musing about the pervasive nature of royal power within the milieu in which he worked. Generations of connoisseurs and art historians have tried to unlock all the meanings that repose in the amazing canvas, but the work still continues to provide an almost inexhaustible number of interpretations. It has often been pronounced the "greatest painting of all time" by virtue of its nearly perfect compositional makeup, its mixture of light, color, and texture, as well as its numerous intellectual insights. Such assessments are always a matter of taste, but Las Meninas certainly does point to the high degree of finesse with which Velázquez had mastered his art. His successes were well recognized at the time, and in 1658 King Philip IV finally rewarded him with the knighthood that he had so long desired. Thus in the final years of his life, the artist took on a number of important ceremonial functions within the Spanish Habsburg's court, including the staging of the betrothal ceremonies between the Princess Maria Theresa and the young King Louis XIV of France. Velázquez's lifelong craving for the stamp of aristocratic approval is a potent reminder of the social confines in which seventeenth-century artists lived and worked.


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

——, Zurbarán (New York: H. N. Abrams, rev. ed., 1991).

J. Gállego and J. Guidiol, Zurbarán, 1598–1664 (New York: Rizzoli, 1977).

J. S. Held and Donald Posner, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).