Sunday, 2 June 2013


“Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words.” – Plautus

Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez (baptised June 6, 1599, Seville, Spain - died August 6, 1660, Madrid) is acknowledged as the most important Spanish painter of the 17th century, and a giant of Western art. The naturalistic style in which he was trained provided a language for the expression of his remarkable power of observation in portraying both the living model and still life. Stimulated by the study of 16th-century Venetian painting, he developed from a master of faithful likeness and characterisation into the creator of masterpieces of visual impression unique in his time. With brilliant diversity of brushstrokes and subtle harmonies of colour, he achieved effects of form and texture, space, light, and atmosphere, that make him the chief forerunner of 19th-century French Impressionism.

Born in Seville, the son of a lawyer of Portuguese origin, he began a six-year apprenticeship in 1611 with the painter Francisco Pacheco, whose studio resembled an academy in which students learned the techniques of painting in an idealising style grounded in Catholic propriety. Two of his famous fellow students there were Francisco de Zurbarán and Alonso Cano. But even in Velázquez’s early works such as The Supper at Emmaus the young artist abandoned Pacheco’s old-fashioned style and painted directly from life. Influenced by the naturalism of Caravaggio, he portrayed Christ and two of his disciples with dramatic facial expressions, sharply lit against a plain background, the forms solidly modelled in sombre colours. At this stage, Velázquez also specialised in kitchen scenes, or bodegones (“taverns”), with religious scenes relegated to the background.

In the summer of 1623, Velázquez was summoned to Madrid to paint a portrait of the king (now lost). This was very well received and it led to his being named official painter to the king. He remained attached to the court for the rest of his life, ascending in the hierarchy of court appointments, eventually receiving a knighthood. At Madrid, his art was profoundly influenced by Venetian paintings in the royal collection and by Rubens, who spent six months at the court on a diplomatic mission during which he painted royal portraits and copied the king’s masterpieces by Titian.

From June 1629 to January 1631, Velázquez travelled in Italy. The influence of contemporary Italian artists may be seen in his mastery of perspective and his rendering of the male nude in the two large canvases he painted in Rome, The Forge of Vulcan (Museo del Prado, Madrid) and Joseph’s Coat Presented to Jacob (Escorial, Madrid). 

The Portrait of Don Gaspar de Guzmán recalls the splendid equestrian portraits of individual members of the royal family that Velázquez painted in the 1630s. At the same time, he painted for the king unforgettable likenesses of court dwarves and buffoons, capturing their inner suffering with dazzling brushwork and cool detachment.

In 1649–51, Velázquez made a second trip to Italy to collect works of art for the king, and the fresh exposure to classical antiquity resulted in masterworks such as Venus and Cupid (“The Rokeby Venus” now in the National Gallery, London). The portrait of his assistant, Juan de Pareja, caused a sensation when Velázquez exhibited it in Rome. Hanging alongside works by the best artists of the time, the portrait was acclaimed for its extraordinary lifelike quality. Of all the painters then in Rome, he alone was granted permission to paint the pope. Upon seeing Innocent X (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), one observer wrote that Velázquez had come to Italy “not to learn but to teach, for his portrait of Innocent X was the amazement of Rome. Every artist copied it and looked upon it as a miracle.”

In his final decade, Velázquez’s handling of paint became increasingly free and luminous. This late style can be seen in María Teresa (1638–1683), Infanta of Spain, a portrait probably made for her future husband, Louis XIV of France, and the breathtakingly beautiful portrayal of the royal family, Las Meninas, (“The Ladies-in-Waiting” in the Prado). The artist stands to the left before an enormous canvas on which he is painting the king and queen, who are reflected in the mirror in the background, but the real subject of the picture is the little infanta who has come to watch Velázquez at work. She stands between two ladies-in-waiting, who coax her to behave, and two court dwarves and a large dog, all rendered with astonishing freedom and truth to nature.

Because most of Velázquez’s work was carried out for the king, it remained in palaces where few people saw it. Not until the upheavals caused by Napoleon’s Peninsular War (1808–14) was some of his work dispersed throughout Northern Europe. In the nineteenth-century, his paintings made an enormous impact upon artists, and to the present day Velázquez is remembered as the painter’s painter.

The painting above, painted in 1629 is Los Borrachos (“The Drinkers/The Drunks”) but is has also been called The Feast of Bacchus. The spirit and aim of this work are better understood from its Spanish name, that implies that drunks are paying mock homage to a half-naked ivy-crowned young man (= Bacchus, the god of wine) seated on a wine barrel. The painting is firm and solid, and the light and shade are more deftly handled than in former works. Altogether, this production may be taken as the most advanced example of the first style of Velázquez.

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