Diego Velázquez, the name of Spanish Baroque

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Diego Velázquez, the name of Spanish Baroque

Velazquez Selfportrait

Autoretrato (1640)

 

His full name is Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, but this Sevillian does not need so much introduction. "The greatest painter who ever lived,"  said Dali of him.  "He is decidedly the painter of painters," Manet once described him. For many he is, without any doubt, the greatest Spanish painter in history. Now, backing ourselves up with such resounding statements, we have no choice but to answer the question: who was Diego Velázquez?

 

Origins in a humble family

Diego Velázquez was born in Seville on June 6, 1599. His parents, Juan Rodrigues de Silva, of Portuguese descent, and Jerónima Velázquez (whose surname he adopted first due to its popularity in Andalusia), belonging to a noble family, led a modest life. History tells that his father was an ecclesiastical notary, a profession that corresponded to the lower classes of the nobility. It is curious, then, that it was said that this family was part of the nobility of the city. Velázquez tried to claim this right some time later, but it was not until he had the backing of the great authorities thanks to his recognition as a painter that he succeeded. 

Perhaps his father's profession had something to do with Diego Velázquez's attraction to reading and culture from an early age. And that, therefore, he discovered the world of art, in which he entered and where he showed an undeniable ability. 

At the age of ten he entered as an apprentice in the studio of the painter and engraver Francisco de Herrera, nicknamed El Viejo (The Old Man). His stay there was short, because it was said that his mentor, in addition to the bad humor that always accompanied him, slapped his apprentices if they made any mistakes. His next stop was the studio of the portrait painter from Cadiz, Francisco Pacheco. Far from the difficult character of his previous master, Pacheco soon realized Velázquez's tremendous talent. 

Beyond the pictorial, Pacheco was known among Sevillian society for his talent as a writer and for being a man of literary understanding. He also inspired in Velázquez that intellectual desire, since he always aspired to that social promotion that only culture was capable of providing. 

Be that as it may, Velázquez remained six years in the workshop of the Cadiz artist until 1617, seeing himself prepared thanks to his training and talent, he took and passed the exam that allowed him to establish himself as an independent painter. This allowed him, in addition to take apprentices under his tutelage, to open a store for the public when he was 18 years old. 

First steps as a painter

Until then, practically the young Sevillian, all that he knew in his life was the ateliers, in which he had been trained. It could be said that his adult stage began in 1618, when he married Juana Pacheco (in fact, she was the daughter of his mentor, and with whom he had two daughters: Francisca and Ignacia). It was then that he began his career as a painter. During the next four years, Velázquez explored different themes through his work. He touched the genre of traditional scenes such as his well-known Aguador de Sevilla or Vieja friendo huevos (Old Woman frying eggs).

 

The waterseller of Seville

El aguador de Sevilla (1620)

Adoration of the magi

Vieja friendo huevos (1618)

 

He also experimented with works of a religious nature, of which we can highlight the Adoration of the Magi.

 

the adoration of the Magi

Adoración de los reyes (1619)



Velázquez, court portraitist

As historical context, we should remember that in 1621 King Philip III died, leaving the throne to Philip IV. The latter was assisted by his valide Gaspar de Guzmán (later recognized as Count Duke of Olivares). The fact is that, with this monarchical change, many artists and intellectuals saw a possibility of finding their place in Madrid. Velázquez, it is said that advised by his father-in-law, was no less and came as close as he could to the circle of the Count Duke. He traveled to Madrid in 1622 and, although he did not achieve his primary objective (to paint a portrait of the King), he did make contacts with important figures of the time. Without going any further, with the poet Luis de Góngora.

 

Luis de Góngora and Argote

Luis de Góngora y Argote (1622)

 

He returned temporarily to Seville and remained there until, in the summer of 1623, he was called back to Madrid. Thanks to the contacts of his master Pacheco and the favor of the Count Duke, on this occasion he had his great opportunity at court. The latter was the one who requested and obtained the permission of the monarch himself so that Velázquez could portray him. The success was such that that same year he was named painter of the King. 

From then on, his task was based on portraying the closest circle to Philip IV, such as the queen or Olivares himself. If there is something that characterized Velázquez in his facet as a royal portraitist, it is that in his paintings, he relegated to the background all those attributes that were traditionally related to power to emphasize and detail the hands and face. 

A curious and characteristic feature of Diego Velázquez's work is his tendency to paint over what has already been painted. This means that, over the years, what he repainted and covered up, came to the surface. One can easily see this in the Portrait of Philip IV in Black, in which both the legs and the cloak covering the monarch were previously placed elsewhere. The first version of this work dates from 1623, but the final version is from 1628. Velázquez also made mistakes and was also unhappy with some of his works, and this can be seen in many other later portraits, mainly of kings.

Portrait of Felipe IV in black

Retrato de Felipe IV de negro (1628)

 

However, he still dealt with the Sevillian culture he grew up with in some works, as can be seen in his Santa Rufina. He also had time for his own works. Without going any further, El triunfo de Baco (The Triumph of Bacchus), better known as Los Borrachos (The Drunks), dates from this period. This painting is considered by many to be one of his masterpieces at the time. 

 

the triumph of bacchus

El triunfo de Baco (Los borrachos) (1629)

 

The arrival of Rubens and the evolution of Velázquez

Peter Paul Rubens, the famous Flemish master, entered Velázquez's life in 1628. On a diplomatic mission, Rubens stayed at the Court for nearly a year. During that time the two painters forged a strong friendship that was strengthened by their shared visit to El Escorial, but above all, it is said, by the admiration they both professed for Tiziano.

 

After Rubens' departure, Velázquez, probably encouraged by the Flemish artist, requested a leave of absence to travel to Italy and improve his technique. In June 1629 he left from Barcelona and visited several Italian cities until he arrived in Rome, where he settled for a year. During that time he soaked up everything he saw, acquiring an interest in the beauty of nudity, which was then successful in the country. Examples of this learning are La túnica de José (Joseph's Tunic, assimilation of biblical texts) and La fragua de Vulcano (Vulcan's Forge, interest in classical fables). The latter, above all, represented, if not a break, then a distancing from his Sevillian painting time. Velázquez's evolution can be seen above all in the fluid brushstrokes, or in the smoothness of the transitions.

 

joseph's tunic

 La túnica de José (1630)

 

the vulcan forge

 La fragua de Vulcano (1630)

 

Back to Madrid one year later

After his expedition to Italy, Velázquez returned to Madrid in 1631. His first experience in the Spanish court opened many doors upon his return to Spain. Everything he experienced during that time abroad undoubtedly helped him to take a step forward in his work. He painted what are considered some of his most important religious works: Christ Crucified or Christ after the flagellation, without going any further. 

 

And not only that. He maintained his close relationship with royalty and reassumed the title of chamber painter. In fact, during that same decade he worked for the Buen Retiro Palace (built at the request of the Count Duke of Olivares himself). So much so, that during 1634 and 1635, he was commissioned to decorate the Salón de Reinos of this building: five royal equestrian portraits as well as the commemoration of a military triumph. Among the most outstanding works are Príncipe Baltasar Carlos (Prince Balthasar Charles, 1634-1635) and La Rendición de Breda (The Surrender of Breda, more commonly known as The Spears).



the rendition of breda

La Rendición de Breda (1634)

 

Prince Balthazar Charles

Príncipe Baltasar Carlos (1635)

 

As a royal portraitist, he also made a series of the King and his family for the Palacete de la Torre de la Parada. However, he went further and also painted some of his famous "dwarfs". Some have tried to identify these characters, and some even claim that some of them may even hide allegories. Be that as it may, Velázquez made of these scenes something that has remained with us century after century. 

 

In January 1643 he got a considerable promotion in his royal relations, because, with the fall of the Count Duke, he received the title of Chamber Assistant. This brought with it his respective responsibilities: among other things, the superintendence of the works to be carried out in the Palace. 

 

With the renovation of the old Alcázar, Diego Velázquez offered to travel to Italy and buy as many paintings and sculptures as necessary to give the building a more modern character. This is how the second incursion of the Sevillian painter to Italian lands began.

 

Second trip to Rome

This second trip to Italy had nothing to do with the first one years before. Now he was known as a consolidated artist and not only that, but also backed by Spanish royalty. Beyond the negative rumors that could accompany Velázquez, this time he has access to the most exclusive artistic and nobiliary environments of the Roman city. 

The first stop on the trip was Milan, but the painter continued on to Venice. There, making use of his contacts, he was able to meet sellers who procured works by Veronese and Tintoretto. Reliable sources assured Velázquez's preference for Venetian painting in general, and for Tiziano in particular. 

After visiting many other Italian cities, he finally settled in Rome. There, his position as painter to the King of Spain, among other appointments, as well as the sympathy of Inocencio X for the Hispanic country, made it possible for him to portray the Pope himself. 

The success of the work was overwhelming. As was the portrait he painted during his stay there of his slave Juan de Pareja (to whom, in fact, he gave the letter of freedom in Rome) and those of some Roman personalities. His mastery with the brush during that time in the capital continued to open doors for him. In this case, from the Academy of St. Luke in Rome and from the Congregation of Virtuosi to the Pantheon. Undoubtedly, proof of the admiration professed for him. 

Between one thing and another, Velázquez returned to Spain definitively in June 1651. But before continuing with his next stage in his native country, a small clarification. It is believed, because of the date it was painted, that the very famous Venus in the Mirror (1649) was also the result of his stay in Rome.

Portrait Juan Pareja

Retrato de Juan Pareja (1650)

 

Return to Madrid and culmination of his career in the royal palace

Diego Velázquez's career at the Spanish court only grew. On his return from Italy, in June 1651, Philip IV appointed him major aposentador of the Palace, a position that was his crowning achievement. With great responsibility, the painter's task for the court consisted of anticipating the monarchs on their travels to assure them comfortable and safe lodging. This was undoubtedly a great honor. However, the truth is that his new administrative duties took too much time away from his painting. 

It was during this last decade of his life that Velázquez reached his peak as an artist. We are not only talking about his virtuosity with brushes and technique, but also about his unparalleled ability to endow his paintings with an almost magical sensitivity and realism. Clear examples of this are two of his best known works: Las hilanderas and Las meninas. The first of these, as will be seen below, is, contrary to what was thought for centuries, a mythological work. The second, possibly the Sevillian's most famous painting, is a canvas in which he fuses politics, art and his nobility, and that enigmatic atmosphere that was innate to him. 

Velázquez, knight of the Order of Santiago

At the beginning of this article we mentioned that the Velázquez family could have belonged to the nobility of Sevillian society. It was during the last years of his life that the painter wanted to claim this title. It is true that during his stay in Italy and thanks to his important role in the Spanish court, he managed to be noticed. It is said that it was the King himself who offered him the habit of knight of Santiago. However, the Council of the Military Orders, following its own ordinances, considered that the aristocratic status of his family was not valid. The only option left to him was to obtain a papal dispensation. It was then that his contacts in Rome worked and, in October 1659, he obtained what he most desired: the title of nobleman. This recognition that used to be obtained by right of blood, the painter obtained it thanks to an art that captivated everyone who came across him.

His last assignment at palace 

One of his major commissions as royal aposentador took place in 1660. As context for such an important task, it is necessary to go back to the end of 1559. The Marshal Duke of Agramont, ambassador extraordinary of Louis XIV, traveled to Madrid to ask for the hand of the Infanta Maria Teresa, daughter of the monarchs. 

Diego Velázquez's responsibility was to prepare the trip and the monarchs' stay at the French border, where the wedding would take place. After a resounding success and having taken care of each and every detail of the event, the painter returned to Madrid in the summer of 1660.

The return to the capital was most turbulent; dizziness, palpitations and stomach burns were the symptoms experienced by Velázquez during the trip. This only predicted what would happen just two months later. The king sent his private physician to treat the painter, but there was nothing he could do. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez died on August 6, 1660 from his illness. It is said that he was buried in the parish of San Juan Bautista, a church that was demolished by Napoleonic troops in 1811.

Velázquez's standard of living corresponded more to a nobleman than to a painter; this was reflected in the inventory of his possessions. Noteworthy was the large collection of books in his library. Mathematics, astrology, astronomy, philosophy, ancient history or architecture were some of the many subjects that occupied his bookshelves full of books. 

What is clear is that Diego Velázquez was a genius ahead of his time. This is reflected in his work, as we will see in the following section. He amazed wherever he went and was a point of reference for his contemporaries and, of course, for centuries to come. Today he is an artist (or THE artist, we should say) who has been studied to exhaustion and who, even in the 21st century, is still surrounded by a halo of enigma that has always accompanied him.

Detail of Diego Velázquez's artwork 

Adoration of the Magi (Adoración de los Reyes Magos)

Adoration of the magi

(1619)

Throughout history, hundreds of versions of this scene have been painted: the three Wise Men come to Bethlehem after seeing the star from the East, to give the three gifts we all know: gold, incense and myrrh. 

It is true that, although a small landscape can be seen in the corner, those who really fill the canvas are the already named characters together with the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and what has been recognized as a servant. 

It was 1619 when the Sevillian painted this work. That means that, at that time, he was only 20 years old. And, even so, the mastery he showed at such a young age is astonishing. Proof of this is this composition (which is reminiscent of his Sevillian period) which, far from giving the impression of being overloaded, what it shows is a closeness that even connotes intimacy. 

It is said that, in addition to the religious character of the work, Velázquez also introduced certain biographical elements. It was not too long ago, when a self-portrait of Pacheco was discovered, that the older magician king was identified with the painter's master. Similarly, it is said that Velázquez himself, his wife and daughter are also represented in the painting. It thus unites the celebration of the Christian religion with that of his own family. 

Perhaps the genius of this work lies in its simplicity. That is to say, the scene is easily recognizable, which makes it easy for the viewer to identify it quickly. This, together with the intelligence with which he used a chromatic range in which ochers and darks predominate, but which also leaves room for blues, whites or even reds, make this work one of the most outstanding of his early years. 

The triumph of Bacchus (El triunfo de Baco)

The triumph of Bacchus

(1629)

 

Commonly known as The Drunks, it tells the story of how Bacchus, the god of wine, came down to Earth and shared some free time with mere mortals. It is, in the end, a straightforward naturalistic work. 

He had previously tackled religious and genre scenes, but it is with this work that he makes his debut with mythological fables. This work is important because it initiates a path, that of mythological representation, which will remain in Velázquez's work until the end of his career. At the same time, however, it draws on the teachings of his Sevillian years. 

Let us begin with the protagonist of the painting (both thematically and compositionally): Bacchus. Representing the god of wine gave him the opportunity to begin to explore the theme of male nudes as well. The painting contains contrasts with which the painter plays to convey this approach of the divine and the human. On the one hand, we have the satyr on the left, which gives rise to that fantastic world. On the other hand, on the left there are several characters (men, after all) that identify that more mundane and everyday aspect of the scene.

There has been much speculation about this work and its symbolism. Some say that it is a demystification of the fable of Bacchus (going so far as to claim that it is a mockery of Ancient times), others that it was a meeting point between reality and fantasy... What is clear is that this painting, which today resides in the Prado Museum, represents a before and after in the representation of mythology in painting. This contrast of elements that are a priori distant from each other and the tendency to move away from the idealization with which the subject was treated until then are a clear example of this. 

The spinners (Las hilanderas)

The spinners

(1657)

Although its most common name is The Spinners, it is also known as The Fable of Arachne because, yes, although at first glance, it seems simply a baroque everyday scene, the truth is that Velázquez wanted to tell this mythological story but from a much more ingenious perspective (worthy of a painter like him from the Spanish Golden Age). 

According to the poet Ovid, Arachne was a young woman with a great facility for knitting. She knew it, so she boasted about it and even dared to say that she was better at the task than the goddess Athena herself. The latter, goddess of wisdom, war and crafts, tired of the arrogance of the mortal, disguised herself as an old woman and challenged her to a contest to see who could create the best tapestry. Arachne agreed, and the theme of her tapestry was the infidelity of the gods. Offended, Athena exposed herself and turned the young woman into a spider. From this mythological story comes the idea that spiders weave well. 

The truth is that there are several scenarios in the painting. In the foreground, Arachne and Athena in disguise. The mastery with which Velázquez captures the movement of the spinning wheel is astonishing; in fact, the painting itself seems to be alive. 

In the second scene, the one behind, again the characters in the task of weaving the tapestry. Worthy of a Baroque painter, the Sevillian plays with several actions in a single work. Also here he plays with the light, focusing it on the background of the painting so that the viewer is able to understand the story that he has told with such ingenuity. 




Las meninas

Las Meninas

(1656)

We could not finish telling the story of Diego Velázquez without talking about his most famous painting, studied for centuries and visited daily in the Prado Museum: Las Meninas, a representation of the royal family and their court. 

The truth is that it was not always named that way. Since it was painted it has gone through different names until 1843, when Pedro de Madrazo wrote the catalog of the Prado Museum, it was given the title it is known by today. 

The work is made up of eleven figures (twelve, if we count the mastiff lying in the foreground), all of them distributed frontally and transversally, forming a masterful composition ahead of its time: it is as if the viewer were glimpsing the scene from the point of view of the kings, present in the mirror in the background. So, the first person to be seen is Velázquez himself, painting. Then, next to him, the Infanta Margarita, flanked by two meninas. Continuing to the right, we find a dwarf and a buffoon, two frequent characters in Velázquez's work. Towards the back, the minor guard of ladies, a male guardadamas and, further on, the queen's chief of tapestry. 

The distribution of the characters is not only a disruption in terms of composition, but also gives the scene depth. The apparent sensation of emptiness due to the height of the ceilings is fixed by the ray of light that enters from the right and from the background. These chiaroscuro effects and perspectives give a sense of magic to the painting. 

Although millions of interpretations have been made about the meaning of Las Meninas, the truth is that two are the most sustained: on the one hand, the political one, which expresses the hope of survival of a dynasty that lives under threat; on the other hand, an allegory of the success of painting (two copies of Rubens and Jordaens are identified in the background, which is believed to be an exaltation of this art; in addition, Velázquez himself appears pensive, showing that the profession of painting is more a product of the intellect than of what the hand performs on the canvas). 

Technically, the painting corresponds to the one the artist used during the last decade of his life: a greater fluidity is appreciated, a casual and free touch (the typical "less is more"). In other words, a pictorial mastery that Velázquez mastered to perfection and that has been unequaled over the years. 

Although today it is considered one of the best paintings in history, it did not always have that recognition. Especially internationally, since, having remained far from the public, it could not be properly appreciated. 

 

What is clear is that Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is, as was said at the beginning and in the words of Manet, the "painter of painters". A genius recognized at the time and revered in the following centuries. The simplicity and, at the same time, the complexity of his works make him a versatile and brilliant painter. A royal painter, creator of mythological scenes and even landscapes; historical, religious or even buffoonish works. Diego Velázquez was, without a doubt, a painter ahead of his time and the symbol of the Spanish Baroque.