Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in 1599 in Seville to a family of church officials. He was first apprenticed to Francisco de Herrera the Elder (c.1590-1654), but in 1611 to Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), a popular member of the artistic and cultural scene. Six years later Velázquez was accepted into the painters guild of St. Luke in Seville, and married Juana, Pacheco's daughter. They had two daughters: one died in infancy and the second was married to a fellow painter.
Velázquez 's earlier paintings were religious and local scenes in Seville: Old Woman Frying Eggs, Three Men at Table, The Waterseller in Seville, Mother Jeránima de la Fuente, The Adoration of the Magi. In 1622, Velázquez visited Madrid to see its art treasures and make useful contacts.
In the spring of 1623, Velázquez was summoned to court and received his first commission, a portrait of Philip IV, which led to his appointment as court painter and the portrayer of the king's person. Peter Paul Rubens, brought to court on diplomatic business, persuaded Velázquez to visit Italy in 1629-30, and there the painter studied the work of Titian and others, making copies of old masters and gaining ideas for the large works he was commissioned to produce in 1834-6 period for the new palace of Buen Retino. One of his best known was the Surrender at Breda, often considered the greatest historical work in the European canon.
Honours followed quickly thereafter, and Velázquez became chamberlain of the king's private chambers, and then assistant to the superintendent of special building projects, time-consuming duties that didn't prevent him turning out work that made him the greatest painter of his day, and, technically, perhaps of all time. Velázquez visited Rome again during 1649-1651, where he painted the all-too truthful portrait of Pope Innocent X, becoming supreme court marshal on his return. His social duties increased, though he was able to enlarge his workshop, employing assistants and pupils, who seem not have been particularly gifted. Velázquez's last significant work was Las Meninas, again a great masterpiece, where the third dimension is conveyed in subtle shifts of tone. Velázquez died in Madrid on August 6, 1660.
Study for the head of Apollo. 36.3 x 25.2 cm. 1630 Private Collection
Velázquez 's wizardry of brush was legendary, and here we see what vitality is possible with the simplest of means: a brownish wash over the canvas, and then strokes of umber and burnt umber, some white to sharpen the contours of the face, and little red to give the cheeks warmth. Only a sketch but a convincing, indeed living, presence.
The Surrender of Breda. 1634-5. Oil on canvas. 307 cm. x 367 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
The 'Surrender of Breda' was one of twelve battle scenes painted to decorate the Salón de Reinos in Buen Retiro, and commemorates the surrender in 1625 of the town to Spanish forces led by the Genoese aristocrat Ambrogio Spínola. It was painted ten years after the event by someone who had never seen war, for patrons (Philip IV and Count-Duke of Olivares) who had not either, and shows Justinus de Nassau handing over the keys, though the surrender was in fact made by Frederick Henry, who had become commander after Nassau's death. As in all Velázquez 's work, the painting portrays the essential decency of man, and Spínola is greeting his vanquished enemy with respect and kindliness. After a long siege, the terms of surrender were indeed generous: the Dutch were allowed to march away unmolested, and the town was not sacked.
Velázquez knew Spínola well, but took other details of the surrender from an etching by the French artist Jacques Callot who, like a good journalist, had visited the scene and talked to participants. The background shows fired buildings and fields still inundated with the flooding the Spanish used to compel surrender.
The composition is simple but effective. The canvas is divided into five horizontal bands: the immediate foreground, the area inhabited by the figure, a view of the distant town, the countryside beyond and the blue sky. The horizon is exceptionally high, and contributes to the threatening atmosphere that the surrender helps to relieve. All bands but that with the figures are painted in rather muted colours. A palisade of vertical pikes behind the Spanish officers on the right is balanced by the Dutch weapons closer to the viewer on the left. A series of diagonals focus the viewer's eye on the key being handed over. On the right there is the tilted flag, and, below it, the white horse's leg and the document in the lowest right. On the left the diagonals are more subtle: in the right leg of Nassau, and diagonal above made by the horse's flank, the white ruff and sleeves of the surrendering leader. Diagonals also appear in the shadowed ground. The figures around Spínola and Nassau are unposed, inconsequential even, as though caught in a sudden snapshot, but a Dutch officer is gazing outward at the viewer on the left, and a Spanish officer on the right keeps half an eye on us. Depth is accomplished by those two gazes, by overlapping figures, aerial perspective, and the heavy bulk of the horse (which Spínola has just dismounted from) that is turned away from us.
Las Meninas. 1656 Oil on canvas. 318 cm. x 276 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid
In 'Las Meninas' (Maids of Honour) we come to the last of Velázquez's important work, often called the greatest painting of all time. Why?
Because in it Velázquez has solved all the outstanding problems of the day, and helped oil painting to finally come of age.
The view is of one of Europe's most powerful court, but the work is restrained and most unshowy, painted in the restricted palette Velázquez preferred: lead white, yellows of iron oxide and lead-tin, Naples yellow, oranges of iron oxide and vermilion of mercury, reds of iron oxide, vermilion of mercury, and organic red lake, purples of red laze and azurite, blues of azurite, lapiz lazuli, and smalt, browns of iron and manganese oxides, greens of azurite, iron oxide, and lead-tin yellow, and blacks of organic or animal origin.
Depth is created by scale, overlapping of figures and by shadow, but most of all by control of tones, that powerful but most difficult of devices for oil painters working in the western tradition. Here Velázquez seems to have painted the airy space itself, which becomes a tangible presence in the work.
Then there is the workmanship, which seems simply given to the painter: no extended drawings and sketches, no botches or improvisations. Economically but very freely, using long-handled brushes, Velázquez creates the effects he wants, with only minor reworkings.
The composition is only apparently straightforward: strong verticals and horizontals, and then a series of overlapping pyramids — 1. the dog, Infanta, figures in the glass, attendant on the left, 2. the dwarfs, figure behind, the queen's chamberlain in the doorway, Infanta again and 3. waiting woman on the left and Velázquez himself, brush in hand. The pyramid is a conventional Renaissance device but there is nothing static or posed in this composition. Over two hundred years before Degas created his snapshot views of Paris, Velázquez has painted something as lifelike but more intriguing. Where are the king and queen standing, at the viewer's point of vision or behind the left hand screen? Why are they so brightly lit but blurred? What is the light source for the Infanta and attendants? Many commentators have come to their own but differing conclusions.
Finally there is that element of the man himself, the humanity that accepts the world as it is, but gives it dignity, purpose and quiet strength. Besides Velázquez , Rubens looks extravagant and Rembrandt too often brash and self-seeking. In his other canvases, Velázquez paints a king who was not a successful ruler (he lost Portugal and overseas territories) as someone we can feel a good deal of sympathy for, though never patronize. He paints dwarfs and other physically unfavoured attendants at the court without sanitizing their features or sentimentalizing them. In Seville his waterseller is given the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet who is also, we realize, an old man battered by the vicissitudes of his trade. Here at court, in this enigmatic portrayal of space, life is equally uncertain and passing. The chamberlain waiting in the doorway will draw the curtain close. The king and queen will stop gazing at their daughter. The Infanta Margaret Theresa will grow up to marry Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, but die, worn out by childbearing, at the young age of twenty-one. Velázquez himself leave his beloved painting and die in 1660, his work being largely forgotten till the nineteenth century.
1. 'Diego Velazquez: The Complete Works'. DiegoVelazquez.Org. Thorough coverage with biography, paintings and references.
2. 'The Surrender of Breda'. Wikipedia. Detailed entry with background and listings. January 2013.
3. 'Great Paintings'. Edwin Mullins. BBC 1981. pp 25-29.
4. 'Las Meninas'. Wikipedia. Excellent analysis of the painting, with refences and bibliography.
5. 'Velazquez: The Technique of Genius' by Jonathan Brown. Yale Univ. Press. 2004.