Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) was Spain's greatest painter in the baroque style and one of the most outstanding of the European artists of his century.
The paternal grandparents of Diego Velázquez came from Oporto, Portugal, but both his parents were born in Seville, as was he. The baptismal record, dated June 6, 1599, was signed by his father, Juan Rodríguiez de Silva, and his mother, Jerónima Velázquez. Both parents were said to be of the lesser nobility. Diego was the oldest of seven children.
At 11 years of age Diego was apprenticed to the painter Francisco de Herrera the Elder, whose ungovernable temper caused the boy to be reapprenticed on Sept. 17, 1611, to Francisco Pacheco. Pacheco taught him for 5 years and later became his father-in-law. Most of what we know of Velázquez comes from Pacheco's treatise (1649). Additional information was published by Antonio Palomino (1724), who based his facts on a biographical account (lost) written by Juan de Alfaro, who entered Velázquez's workshop about 1653 as a boy of 10 years.
Some information is necessary to clarify the artist's name. Following Spanish custom today, it would be Diego Rodríguez (y) Velázquez, but his paternal grandmother's surname, de Silva, was apparently the only certain indication of the noble blood which was desirable socially and professionally. The document apprenticing him to Pacheco in 1611 identifies him as Diego Velázquez. Qualifying as a member of the painters' guild of St. Luke in 1617, the artist signed as Diego Velázquez de Silva. He continued to sign paintings and other documents as Diego Velázquez, but in the 1640s, when he strove to establish his gentle birth, he made every effort to be known in court circles as Diego de Silva Velázquez.
In Pacheco's workshop Velázquez received a strong education in the humanities and excelled in languages and philosophy. He was present when Pacheco's friends (artists, poets, and scholars) held lively discussions. Velázquez's intellectual interests are also attested to by the library he left at his death. Pacheco advised him on the importance of making copies from antique sculptures and from Michelangelo and Raphael.
Introduction to the Court
At 18 years of age, as a member of St. Luke's Guild, Velázquez was entitled to have his own workshop. Thus established, he married 16-year-old Juana Pacheco on April 23, 1618. His mentor was to write later that "the teacher's honor is greater than the father-in-law's." Two daughters were born between 1619 and 1621; only the elder, Francisca, lived. In 1622 Velázquez spent 7 months in Madrid studying the royal art collection but with the primary purpose of obtaining a commission to paint the King's portrait. Although he failed in this aspiration, he achieved his first fame at court with the portrait of Don Luís de Góngora (1622).
The following year the Count-Duke of Olivares, a Sevillian and the young king's favored minister, called Velázquez to the Madrid court. On August 30 he completed his first portrait of Philip IV; it was an immediate success, and the King declared that henceforth no one but Velázquez would be permitted to do the royal portraits. It is thought that this first portrait is hidden beneath the version of Philip IV (1626-1628) in the Prado. If so, the x-ray reveals a never to be seen again, animated monarch standing with relaxed dignity, his lips slightly parted as at the start of a smile of camaraderie, while his eyes search, with shy approval, those of the artist beyond. This underpainting has a spontaneity reminiscent of Frans Hals and provides a hint of the celebrated friendship between artist and sovereign. Ever after, the portraits show the formal Philip with eyes guarded and mouth prim.
Over the years Philip IV made numerous lucrative contracts with Velázquez, but the artist was continually forced to petition the bureaucracy for arrears in payments and to agree to relinquish several past claims in order to receive some current ones. He did not hesitate to appraise his works higher in value than those by others despite the Treasury's delinquencies.
Appointed Usher to the Chamber in 1627, Velázquez was raised above all other court painters. Indeed, that year rivalry had provoked a competition among the court painters; Velázquez won, even though his challengers and the judges were all Italian. Peter Paul Rubens visited Madrid the following year and had little to do with any artist except Velázquez, who had the honor of showing the renowned diplomat-artist the royal collection in the Escorial. Perhaps owing to Rubens's influence, Velázquez left Spain in August 1629 and spent 18 months in Italy.
First Italian Journey
The Count-Duke of Olivares had prevailed upon the ambassadors representing Italian states in Madrid to provide Velázquez with numerous letters of recommendation. They did so, nervously speculating among themselves about espionage. Velázquez's independent nature may be judged by the selective use he made of these letters. In Ferrara he accepted a cardinal's hospitality but courteously declined to dine with his host so that he might better arrange to see art works during his brief stay. He passed through Bologna but failed to stop even to present letters he carried for dignitaries there.
In Venice, Velázquez sketched Tintoretto's Last Supper, among other works. In Rome he made sketches from Michelangelo's Last Judgment and frescoes by Raphael. He left an apartment provided for him in the Vatican, saying that it was "too lonely and out of the way." Later he spent 2 summer months in the Villa dé Medici. While he was in Italy, he executed two magnificent paintings: Joseph's Coat and the Forge of Vulcan (both 1630). On his way home he stopped in Naples, where he met the painter Jusepe de Ribera.
Francisca, the artist's daughter, wedded Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo in 1633. As part of her dowry Velázquez presented Mazo with his own Usher to the Chamber appointment, which the King promptly replaced with one as Constable of Justice. Three years later Velázquez was appointed Gentleman of the Wardrobe without duties and, in 1645, Gentleman of the Bedchamber. With all these honors, he nevertheless smarted under a social protocol which, for instance, had him seated in bullfights next to royal barbers and servants of nobility. He did not forget that Philip IV had knighted Rubens in 1628.
Second Trip to Italy
When Philip IV desired to add to his art collection, Velázquez seized the opportunity to suggest that he go to Italy to purchase works by Italian artists to decorate rooms of the Madrid Royal Palace. He set out in 1648 with his assistant, Juan de Pareja. Velázquez stayed away 2½ years despite frequent exhortations by the King that he return "not later than, " with changing dates. The painter was treated with honor in Italy and associated with many great artists. A poet recorded in verse a conversation between Velázquez and another painter. The Spaniard was reported as saying, after a courtly bow, that "Raphael does not please me at all" and that "Titian was the standard-bearer" for "the good and the beautiful one found in Venice."
The climax of Velázquez's Italian trip was a commission to paint the portrait of Innocent X (1650). He prepared for it by painting his assistant, Juan de Pareja (1649-1650). He was said to have painted both "with long-handled brushes and in Titian's vigorous manner." Both portraits were instantly admired. Velázquez was admitted to the Academy of St. Luke and to the Congregation of the Virtuosi of the Pantheon. As a result of the Pope's pleasure with his portrait, Velázquez took a giant step toward his treasured dream: Innocent X instructed the Papal Nuncio in Madrid to support the artist's candidacy to be appointed a knight of one of the military orders.
Making of a Knight
On his return to Spain, Velázquez was showered with more honors by his monarch, but the knighthood was delayed, apparently by the resistance of members of the nobility. In 1652 Philip IV brushed aside the applicants recommended by a six-member board and appointed Velázquez to the office of chamberlain with a lucrative salary and a large apartment in the Treasure House connected to the Royal Palace.
It is well documented that Velázquez used his influence assiduously to advance the careers of his son-in-law and his grandchildren. Mazo, appointed painter of Prince Balthasar Carlos, continued to receive the emoluments of that office after his young patron's death. In 1657 Mazo was appointed assistant to the chamberlain (Velázquez), and Gaspar, his son, was granted the office of Usher of the Chamber.
Three Sevillian artists were in Madrid in 1658: Alonso Cano, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The first two, and probably Murillo as well, testified loyally but untruthfully that Velázquez had neither assisted another painter, nor had a workshop in the professional sense, nor sold any of his paintings but had painted only for his own pleasure and that of the King. This testimony was the first step in proving Velázquez a gentleman. Philip IV took the second step by petitioning Pope Alexander VII to issue a brief exempting Velázquez from the obligation to prove his noble ancestry. In 1659 the King invested Velázquez as a knight of the Order of Santiago. He died on Aug. 6, 1660. Philip IV made a touching last gesture of friendship: he ordered the Cross of Santiago to be painted upon the doublet of Velázquez's self-portrait in The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, 1656).
In his early period (1618-1623) Velázquez painted portraits and genre and religious themes in a realism influenced by the art of Caravaggio with sharp contrasts of light and dark and, frequently, with a heavy impasto. A lack of religious conviction has been wrongfully imputed to Velázquez because of the way he would treat a religious theme in a seemingly casual relation to a commonplace, contemporary scene. On the contrary, this was a carefully planned device conforming to the advice of St. Ignatius of Loyola that, in order to persuade anyone of the faith, you should begin where he is and not from where you wish him to be.
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (ca. 1619-1620) is a case in point. In the foreground a disgruntled young kitchen maid is at work behind a table while a kindly old woman calls her attention to the diminutive scene in the right background showing Christ admonishing Martha while Mary sits contentedly at his feet. After Martha complained to Christ that she was doing all the serving while her sister simply sat, Christ answered that Mary had chosen the better part, which would not be taken from her (Luke 10:38-42). This biblical incident has been cited as a justification of the contemplative life of a nun. It would appear, then, that the old woman is reminding the kitchen maid of the choice open to her if she fails to find contentment in the active role.
Significantly, art historians debate whether the tiny scene of the title is a wall painting, a mirror reflection, or an actual scene viewed through an aperture in the wall. This ambiguity is at the heart of Velázquez's intention to preach the timelessness of Christ's message. The painting also illustrates a constant in his art, whether the scene is a religious, genre, mythological, or historical one, or simply a portrait: his art requires thoughtful contemplation, which is rewarded with an insight into the profound, spiritual empathy the artist had for his theme or individual model.
Velázquez was inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses to paint the Triumph of Bacchus (The Drunkards; 1628-1629), but he held a point of view toward mythology, common in the 17th century, that saw the activities of pagan divinities as less than divine and the behavior of humans under their influence as less than Christian. Thus, his Bacchus is a callow, overweight youth with flaccid muscles; the inebriated rustics are buffoons. Velázquez points his moral at the right, where a beggar is refused with false regret by one of the bacchants. Mars (1639-1642) caused an Englishman to exclaim in the 19th century, "Why, he's nothing but an undressed bobby [London policeman]." He unwittingly understood Velázquez's intention to unmask the glory of war.
Many of Velázquez's works show pentimenti, that is, changes made either at the time of execution or much later. Apparently, he made very few preparatory sketches and preferred to seek on the canvas itself the right form, the sensitive harmony of color, the diffusion of light in an airy space, and the synthesis of the whole. As the years passed, his brushstroke became impressionistic, his pigment more liquid, and his surfaces more lustrous, and he simplified his compositions by muting the chiaroscuro. Finally, his power to reveal the divine—in the frailty of childhood, as in the portrait of Prince Philip Prosper (1659), or in the marred personality, for example, the painting of Philip IV (1652-1653) in the Prado, or in nobility of act, exemplified in the famous Surrender of Breda (1634-1635)—became so eloquent that the viewer instantaneously comprehends and responds as one with Velázquez, the compassionate knight.
Further Reading on Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
The majority of publications on the life and works of Velázquez are in Spanish. An excellent source for references to the documentation is available in English: José López-Rey, Velázquez' Work and World (1968). A sensitive interpretation of the personality and work of the artist is given in George Kubler and Martin Soria, Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions, 1500-1800 (1959). A cursory presentation is provided in the text by Margaretta Salinger in Diego Velázquez (1954). The reader may understand the sudden and enthusiastic "discovery" of Velázquez by the Anglo-Saxon world in the late 19th century from Robert A. M. Stevenson, Velázquez (rev. ed. by Theodore Crombie, 1962). Jacques Lassaigne, Spanish Painting (2 vols., 1952), is recommended for general background.