Las Meninas

(1599-1660), Spanish baroque artist, who, with Francisco de Goya and El Greco, forms the great triumvirate of Spanish painting. Velázquez was born in Seville, the oldest of six children. Both his parents were from the lesser nobility. Between 1611 and 1617 Velázquez worked as an apprentice to Francisco Pacheco, a Sevillian mannerist painter who was also the author of an important treatise, El arte de la pintura (The Art of Painting, 1649), and who became Velázquez's father-in-law. During his student years Velázquez absorbed the most popular contemporary styles of painting, derived, in part, from both Flemish and Italian realism.

Youthful Works

Many of the earliest paintings by Velázquez show a strong naturalist bias, as does The Meal (1617?, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), which may have been his first work as an independent master after passing the examination for the Guild of Saint Luke. This painting belongs to the first of three categories-the bodegón (kitchen piece), along with portraits and religious scenes-into which his youthful works, executed between about 1617 and 1623, may be placed. In his kitchen pieces, a few figures are combined with studied still-life objects, as in Water Seller of Seville (1619?-1620?, Wellington Museum, London). In these works, Velázquez's direct representation of nature and masterly effects of light and shadow make inevitable a comparison with the work of Italian painter Caravaggio. Velázquez's religious paintings, images of simple piety, portray models drawn from the streets of Seville, as Pacheco states in his biography of the artist. In Adoration of the Magi (1619, Prado, Madrid), for example, Velázquez painted his own family in the guise of biblical figures, including a self-portrait as well. Velázquez was well acquainted with members of the intellectual circles of Seville. Pacheco was the director of an informal humanist academy, at the meetings of which the young artist was introduced to such luminaries as poet Luis de Góngora y Argote, whose portrait he executed in 1622 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Such contact was important for Velázquez's later work on mythological and classical subjects.

Appointment as Court Painter

In 1622 Velázquez made his first trip to Madrid, ostensibly, according to Pacheco's biography, to see the royal painting collections, but more likely in an unsuccessful search for a position as court painter. In 1623, however, he returned to the capital and, after executing a portrait (1623, Prado) of the king, was named official painter to Philip IV. The portrait was the first among many such sober, direct renditions of the king, the royal family, and members of the court. Indeed, throughout the later 1620s, most of Velázquez's efforts were dedicated to portraiture. Mythological subjects would at times occupy his attention, as in Bacchus, also called The Drinkers (1628-1629, Prado). This scene of revelry in an open field, picturing the god of wine drinking with a group of tough-looking men, testifies to the artist's continued interest in realism.

Trip to Italy

In 1628 Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens came to the court at Madrid on a diplomatic mission, and Velázquez was one of the few painters with whom he associated. Although Rubens did not have a direct impact on the style of the younger painter, their conversations almost certainly inspired Velázquez to visit the art collections in Italy that were so much admired by his fellow artist. In August 1629 Velázquez departed from Barcelona for Genoa and spent most of the next two years traveling in Italy. From Genoa he proceeded to Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, returning to Spain from Naples in January 1631. In the course of his journey he closely studied both the art of the Renaissance and contemporary painting. Several of the works he executed during his travels attest to his assimilation of these styles. A notable example is Joseph and His Brothers (1630, El Escorial, near Madrid), which combines a Michelangelesque sculptural quality with the chiaroscuro (light-and-shadow techniques) of such Italian masters as Guercino and Giovanni Lanfranco.

Return to Spain

On his return to Madrid, Velázquez resumed his duties as court portraitist with the rendition Prince Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf (1631, Museum of Fine Arts), an image made poignant by the young prince's death before reaching adulthood. In 1634 Velázquez oversaw the decoration of the throne room in the new royal palace of Buen Retiro. His scheme was based on 12 scenes of battles in which Spanish troops had been victorious-painted by the most prestigious artists of the day, including Velázquez himself-and royal equestrian portraits. Velázquez's contribution to the cycle of battle pictures included the Surrender of Breda (1634, Prado), which portrays a magnanimous Spanish general receiving the leader of defeated Flemish troops after the siege of the town of Breda in 1624. The delicacy of its style and the astonishing range of emotions it captures make this the most celebrated historical composition of the Spanish baroque. Velázquez's second major series of paintings from the 1630s is a group of hunting portraits of the royal family for the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge near Madrid. His famous depictions of court dwarfs, in which, unlike court-jester portraits by earlier artists, the subjects are treated with respect and sympathy, date from the late 1630s and early 1640s. Velázquez painted few religious pictures after entering the king's employ; Saints Anthony and Paul (late 1630s, Prado) and Immaculate Conception (1644?, Prado) are notable exceptions.

Late Works

During the last 20 years of Velázquez's life, as his rise to prominence in court circles continued, his work as court official and architect assumed prime importance, limiting his artistic output. In 1649 he made a second trip to Italy, this time to buy works of art for the king's collection. During his year's stay in Rome from 1649 to 1650 he painted the magnificent portraits Juan de Pareja (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) and Pope Innocent X (Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, Rome). At this time he was also admitted into Rome's Academy of Saint Luke. The so-called Rokeby Venus (National Gallery, London) probably dates from this period as well. The key works of the painter's last two decades are Las Hilanderas (The Spinners, 1657?-1658?, Prado), also known as The Fable of Arachne, an image of sophisticated mythological symbolism, and his masterwork, Las meninas (The Maids of Honor, 1656, Prado), a stunning group portrait of the royal family and Velázquez himself in the act of painting.

[Versión en Español]

"Velázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.