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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Diego Velazquez is considered to be the greatest portrait painter of all time. Quevedo, an early admirer, praised his gift for achieving the truth rather than likeness in his portrayals of man.

Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velazquez was born in Seville in 1599. At the time Seville was an immensely wealthy City and considered a chief port of the New World. It was also a major religious centre employing an army of painters to provide decoration and pictures for its monasteries and churches.

At the age of six he was placed into an apprenticeship under Francisco Pacheco. Pacheco was an intellectual and a vocal critic of the Spanish attitude that ranked painting as merely a craft. He took the attitude of the Italian painters that painting was a liberal art. As an apprentice of Pacheco, Velazquez lived and worked with Pacheco.

By the age of 19 his gift for painting clearly shows how he had outstripped his master. In 1617 only a few months after the end of his apprenticeship he became a ‘pintor de imagineia’ a painter of religious images, one of the highest ranks for a painter. The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception – who many believe depicts the face of Velazquez’s sister; and Saint John Evangelist on Patmos, were some of his earliest works as a master.

He was married in 1619, to Francisco Pacheco’s daughter. His wife and first born child are shown in The Adoration of the Magi, as Mary and the baby Jesus, painted in 1619. 1620, The Jeronima de la Fuente, is one of the foreshadowing portraits of his future in the Court of Madrid.

Velazquez was fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the human face, and his extraordinary ability to see and capture any facial peculiarities in paint made him a brilliant portraitist.

Those most significant in influencing his work, both past and present, included Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian and Raphael. His own achievements would then inspire the likes of Manet and Picasso.

On his 1622 preliminary visit to the Court of Madrid he painted Luis de Gongora, a poet. Velazquez’s seems to have given this image the breath of life and it is hard not to be transfixed by Gongora’s withering gaze and the sardonic twist of his thin lips.

A year later in 1623 he painted a portrait of Juan de Fonesca. Impressed by his work, King Philip IV, had Valasquez come paint his portrait as soon as possible, and as a result it shows the sovereign looking out with an impassive gaze. In the painting Velazquez does not shy away from painting the Kings full lips and his prominent chin. Velazquez’s painting of the King shows he has real presence and something quite sensuous about his lips and soft curl of his hair. Velazquez’s talent and individuality was immediately recognised by the King and a month later he became the King’s personal painter. From that point until his death some 30 years’ later, Velazquez became a devoted Royal Servant. He rose through the ranks to become one of the senior courtiers, and earnt the reputation of being the only Spanish artist that the King would sit to.

During 1626-1628, The Drinkers, was his first mythological painting. The Spanish drinking men appear to have been modelled on real people, and are dressed in contemporary clothes, all squashed together in the same foreground space, overlapping and cutting each other off. And the way they look out with drunken grins on their faces, makes them seem all the more immediate and real. Here Velazquez uses his powers of invention to show a mythological god in the modern world, sat with ordinary mortals.

In 1629 not long after painting The Drinkers, Philip IV released Velazquez from his court duties, and gave him a generous grant to travel to Italy. For the next eighteen months Velazquez toured Italian cities, but spent most of his time in Rome and while there he painted his second mythological work Apollo at the Forge. Velazquez places the figures in what appears to be a real forge with his figures bearing tools and armour all of which he must have observed in life.

The faces and expressions of the figures clearly show that he worked from real models. But perhaps what most separates this work from Velazquez’s contemporises, is his lack of reverence for his source material. The facial expressions appear to take on Spanish comic theatre, the radiant Apollo who was considered to be one of the most noble of the Olympian gods is depicted as a weak and thin man. In contrast with the figures depicted in The Drinkers’ each figure in Apollo stands his own ground rather than being squashed together. And the figure in the background is painted in a slightly out of focus way. The painting clearly shows how Velazquez was trying to show how he saw things from out of the corner of his eye.

In 1631 he stayed at the Villa Medici where he painted the Medici Gardens. Upon his return to Court his first task was to paint the new born heir to the throne Baltasar Carlos. In the painting two year old Baltasar Carlos is painted in his military regalia. It is a charming portrait that shows him both as a toddler and as a future King of Spain. The two realities summed up by Velazquez in the way he shows the prince’s little fist tightly gripping his sword.

The 1630s were a time of great opulence for the Spanish court, and one of Velazquez’s greatest portraits of the King shows him in a magnificent brown costume embroiled with silver. A suit so rich and splendid that it must have been created for a special occasion. Velazquez depicts Philip IV with military detachment that reflects the Kings self-control shown in public. From a distance the portrait is striking and depicts the stately demeanour of the King. But the closer you examine the painting the more you become aware of the artist’s extraordinary painting technique, of randomly applied brush strokes to depict the silver regalia rather than detailed like his contemporises would try and emulate.

Between the years 1630 and 1635, King Philip IV commissioned a royal palace on the outskirts of Madrid. 1634-1635, The Surrender of Breda, was one of the five paintings Velazquez contributed to the decoration of the Great Hall or the Hall of Realms. Essentially this multipurpose room served two essential functions – firstly it served as a throne room, and secondly as a place for theatrical celebration and musical performances. The Surrender of Breda commemorates the capture of the city of Breda during the Eighty Years’ War, a conflict between Spain, which controlled the Low Countries, and the Dutch, who were fighting for political independence.

It was customary in the courts of Europe and up to the French Revolution for monarchs to keep dwarfs. Referred to as errors of nature, these dwarfs were kept as a source of amusement. It is not known whether or not Velazquez sympathised with dwarfs but in 1644 Velazquez painted a series of Court Fools which is considered the most splendid set of portraits of the Baroque period.

1648-1651 Velazquez was sent to Italy as Ambassador Extraordinaire. He was to gather paintings and sculptures for the new apartments in the royal palace and to invite Pietro de Cortona, a famous fresco painter, to Spain. He painted a number of portraits while in Italy, sadly most of them are lost. When he returned to Spain his task for the next eight years was to paint portraits of the new Queen and their new princess. (Philip’s first wide had died in 1644, so he married his niece). In those eight years he completed many great pieces. Queen Mariana 1652-1653, The Infanta Margarita 1655-1656, The Infanta Margarita 1659, and Prince Philip Prosper 1659, the new heir to the throne (Philip’s son, Baltasar died in 1646).

His final masterpiece was Las Meninas ‘The Maids of Honour’ painted in 1656, a compilation of court portraits focusing around Infanta Margarita. It was the most ambitious painting of his illustrious career. A vast canvas showing a group of figures in Velazquez's cavernous studio in Madrid. During Valequez's many years as chief painter to the Spanish Court, his prime task was the making of Royal portraits. He had become famous across Europe for his ability to capture a living breathing likeness. Velazquez's Las Meninas is more than just a Royal portrait, Velazquez includes himself among the Royal courtiers showing himself to be painting a monumental canvas. Is it Las Meninas that he’s working on or his he painting the portrait of the Infanta’s parents – King Philip IV and Merinas whose reflection can be seen in the mirror on the back wall. Las Meninas is considered to be one of the most debated and discussed works of art.

In August of 1660 Diego Velazquez died at the age of 61. He passed away in the full possession of his great powers and honour as the chief painter to the King of Spain. Velazquez left no work behind him to show a trace of decay. In the Church in San Juan or namely the vault Fuensalida, Velazquez was laid to rest and strangely after only eight days after his passing his wife Juan joined him. In 1811, it is claimed that unfortunately the French totally destroyed the church, resulting as a consequence that today his final interment is unclear.