Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (June 6, 1599 – August 6, 1660) was a Spanish painter who was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV. He was an individualistic artist of the contemporary Baroque period, important as a portrait artist. In addition to numerous renditions of scenes of historical and cultural significance, he painted scores of portraits of the Spanish royal family, other notable European figures, and commoners, culminating in the production of his masterpiece Las Meninas (1656).
Movements: Baroque, Realism, Absolutism, Pietism, Gesturalism, Emotionalism, Sectarianism
From the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Velázquez’s artwork was a model for the realist and impressionist painters, in particular Édouard Manet. Since that time, more modern artists, including Spain’s Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, as well as the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon, have paid tribute to Velázquez by recreating several of his most famous works.
Born in Seville, Andalusia, Spain, Diego, the first child of Juan Rodríguez de Silva and Jerónima Velázquez, was baptized at the church of St Peter in Seville on Sunday, June 6, 1599. This christening must have followed the baby’s birth by no more than a few weeks, or perhaps only a few days. Velázquez’s paternal grandparents, Diego da Silva and Maria Rodrigues, had moved to Seville from their native Porto, Portugal decades earlier. As for Juan Rodríguez de Silva and his wife, both were born in Seville, and were married, also at the church of St Peter, on December 28, 1597. They came from the lesser nobility and were accorded the privileges generally enjoyed by the gentry.
Velázquez was educated by his parents to fear God and, intended for a learned profession, received good training in languages and philosophy. Influenced by many artists he showed an early gift for art; consequently, he began to study under Francisco de Herrera, a vigorous painter who disregarded the Italian influence of the early Seville school. Velázquez remained with him for one year. It was probably from Herrera that he learned to use brushes with long bristles.
After leaving Herrera’s studio when he was 12 years old, Velázquez began to serve as an apprentice under Francisco Pacheco, an artist and teacher in Seville. Though considered a generally dull, undistinguished painter, Pacheco sometimes expressed a simple, direct realism in contradiction to the style of Raphael that he was taught. Velázquez remained in Pacheco’s school for five years, studying proportion and perspective and witnessing the trends in the literary and artistic circles of Seville.
Besides the forty portraits of Philip by Velázquez, he painted portraits of other members of the royal family: Philip’s first wife, Elisabeth of Bourbon, and her children, especially her eldest son, Don Baltasar Carlos, of whom there is a beautiful full-length in a private room at Buckingham Palace. Cavaliers, soldiers, churchmen, and the poet Francisco de Quevedo (now at Apsley House), sat for Velázquez.
Velázquez also painted several buffoons and dwarfs in Philip’s court, often with respect and sympathetically, as in The Favorite (1644), whose intelligent face and huge folio with ink-bottle and pen by his side show him to be a wiser and better-educated man than many of the gallants of the court. Pablo de Valladolid (1635), a buffoon evidently acting a part, and The Buffoon of Coria (1639) belong to this middle period.
The greatest of the religious paintings by Velázquez also belongs to this middle period, the Christ Crucified (1632). It is a work of tremendous originality, depicting Christ immediately after death. The Savior’s head hangs on his breast and a mass of dark tangled hair conceals part of the face. The figure stands alone. The picture was lengthened to suit its place in an oratory, but this addition has since been removed. Some believe that the man in this painting is his uncle.
Velázquez’s son-in-law Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo had succeeded him as usher in 1634, and Mazo himself had received a steady promotion in the royal household. Mazo received a pension of 500 ducats in 1640, increased to 700 in 1648, for portraits painted and to be painted, and was appointed inspector of works in the palace in 1647.
Philip now entrusted Velázquez with carrying out a design on which he had long set his heart: the founding of an academy of art in Spain. Rich in pictures, Spain was weak in statuary, and Velázquez was commissioned once again to proceed to Italy to make purchases.
In 1660 a peace treaty between France and Spain was consummated by the marriage of Maria Theresa with Louis XIV, and the ceremony took place on the Island of Pheasants, a small swampy island in the Bidassoa. Velázquez was charged with the decoration of the Spanish pavilion and with the entire scenic display. He attracted much attention from the nobility of his bearing and the splendor of his costume. On June 26 he returned to Madrid, and on July 31 he was stricken with fever. Feeling his end approaching, he signed his will, appointing as his sole executors his wife and his firm friend named Fuensalida, keeper of the royal records. He died on August 6, 1660. He was buried in the Fuensalida vault of the church of San Juan Bautista, and within eight days his wife Juana was buried beside him. Unfortunately, this church was destroyed by the French in 1811, so his place of interment is now unknown.
The importance of Velázquez’s art even today is evident in considering the respect with which twentieth century painters regard his work.
Until the nineteenth century, little was known outside of Spain of Velázquez’s work. His paintings mostly escaped being stolen by the French marshals during the Peninsular War. In 1828 Sir David Wilkie wrote from Madrid that he felt himself in the presence of a new power in art as he looked at the works of Velázquez, and at the same time found a wonderful affinity between this artist and the British school of portrait painters, especially Henry Raeburn. He was struck by the modern impression pervading Velázquez’s work in both landscape and portraiture. Presently, his technique and individuality have earned Velázquez a prominent position in the annals of European art, and he is often considered a father of the Spanish school of art. Although acquainted with all the Italian schools and a friend of the foremost painters of his day, he was strong enough to withstand external influences and work out for himself the development of his own nature and his own principles of art.
Velázquez is often cited as a key influence on the art of Édouard Manet, important when considering that Manet is often cited as the bridge between realism and impressionism. Calling Velázquez the “painter of painters”, Manet admired Velázquez’s use of vivid brushwork in the midst of the baroque academic style of his contemporaries and built upon Velázquez’s motifs in his own art.
Pablo Picasso presented the most durable homages to Velázquez in 1957 when he recreated Las Meninas in 58 variations, in his characteristically cubist form. Although Picasso was concerned that his reinterpretations of Velázquez’s painting would be seen merely as copies rather than unique representations, the enormous works—including the largest he had produced since Guernica in 1937—earned a position of relevance in the Spanish canon of art. Picasso retained the general form and positioning of the original in the framework of his avant-garde cubist style.
Salvador Dalí, as with Picasso in anticipation of the tercentennial of Velázquez’s death, created in 1958 a work entitled Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita With the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory. The color scheme shows Dalí’s serious tribute to Velázquez; the work also functioned, as in Picasso’s case, as a vehicle for the presentation of newer theories in art and thought—nuclear mysticism, in Dalí’s case.
The Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon found Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X to be one of the greatest portraits ever made. He created several expressionist variations of this piece in the 1950s; however, Bacon’s paintings presented a more gruesome image of the pope, who had now been dead for centuries. One such famous variation, entitled Figure with Meat (1954), shows the pope between two halves of a bisected cow.