Sunday, 7 August 2016


“I would rather be the first painter of common things than second in higher art.” - DiegoVelázquez

Diego Velázquez (ca 1599–1660) was one of the most famous artists of the 17th century. Although his early paintings were religious-themed, he became renowned for his realistic, complex portraits as a member of King Philip IV’s court. In his later years, the Spanish master produced a renowned portrait of Pope Innocent X and the famed group portrait of “Las Meninas”. He died on August 6, 1660, in Madrid.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in Seville, Spain, circa June 6, 1599. At the age of 11, he began a six-year apprenticeship with local painter Francisco Pacheco. Velázquez’s early works were of the traditional religious themes favoured by his master, but he also became influenced by the naturalism of Italian painter Caravaggio. Velázquez set up his own studio after completing his apprenticeship in 1617. A year later, he married Pacheco's daughter, Juana. By 1621, the couple had two daughters.

In 1622, Velázquez moved to Madrid, where, thanks to his father-in-law’s connections, he earned the chance to paint a portrait of the powerful Count-Duke of Olivares. The count-duke then recommended Velázquez’s services to King Philip IV; upon seeing a completed portrait, the young king of Spain decided that no one else would paint him and appointed Velázquez one of his court painters. The move to the royal court gave Velázquez access to a vast collection of works and brought him into contact with important artists such as Flemish baroque master Peter Paul Rubens, who spent six months at the court in 1628. Among Velázquez’s notable works from that period were “The Triumph of Bacchus”, in which a group of revellers falls under the powerful spell of the Greek god of wine.

Velázquez travelled to Italy from June 1629 to January 1631, where he was influenced by the region’s great artists. After returning to Madrid, he began a series of portraits that featured members of the royal family on horseback. Velázquez also devoted time to painting the dwarves who served in King Philip's court, taking care to depict them as complex, intelligent beings. Along with his painting duties, Velázquez undertook increasing responsibilities within the court, ranging from wardrobe assistant to superintendent of palace works.

Velázquez made a second trip to Italy from 1649 to 1651. During this time, he was given the opportunity to paint Pope Innocent X, producing a work that is considered among the finest portraits ever rendered. Velázquez also produced a portrait of his servant, Juan de Pareja, which is admired for its striking realism, and the “Venus Rokeby”, his only surviving female nude.

Velázquez returned to his portraiture after rejoining the Madrid court, his technique more assured than ever. In 1656, he produced perhaps his most acclaimed work, “Las Meninas”. In this snapshot-like painting, two handmaidens dote on future empress Margarita Theresa while Velázquez peers from behind a large easel, ostensibly studying the king and queen, though his gaze meets the viewer’s. In 1658, Velázquez was made a knight of Santiago. After being tasked with decoration responsibilities for the wedding of Maria Theresa and Louis XIV, Velázquez became ill. He died in Madrid on August 6, 1660.

Velázquez is remembered as one of the great masters of Western art. Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali are among the artists who considered him a strong influence, while French Impressionist Édouard Manet described the Spanish great as “the painter of painters”.

Above, is his “Vieja friendo huevos” (1618, ‘Old Woman Frying Eggs’), now in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. This is a homely painting of an everyday scene painted at about the time that Velázquez got married and before he joined the Spanish Royal Court. Such genre paintings were commonly executed at the time and in it one could admire the technique of the artist, not only in the resemblance of the painted images to the real people depicted, but also in the successful rendering of the objects depicted: The transparency of the glass flask, the shine on the brass basin and mortar, the hardness and whiteness of the glaze on the earthenware, the weave of the basketwork and the softness of the fabric of the clothes. The subject matter could be viewed as a simple depiction of a commonly observed scene in any Spanish household, but also an allegory of food as sustenance and the bounty of the Spanish land for provision of nutrition to a growing population.

1 comment:

  1. For us Caravaggio fanatics, Velázquez was a perfect follower. The naturalism of Caravaggio can best be seen in Velázquez's portraits and simple genre scenes, not so much in his big history themes. Surrender of Breda and The Feast of Bacchus, for example, are less powerful, I believe.