Velázquez – The Iconic Painter of the Spanish Baroque
Considered the painter’s painter, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599, growing up in the old Jewish quarter of that booming city.
Velázquez was an apprentice to Sevillian artist Francisco Pacheco for 5 years. However, it did not take long for the pupil to surpass the master in technique, which did not bother Pacheco at all. He was very proud of the young artist, who would later become his son-in-law. At the age of 19, Velázquez married Pacheco’s daughter, Juana, and had two daughters by her.
In 1623, he was invited to go to Madrid to paint the portrait of King Philip IV. The king liked the painting so much he commanded Velázquez to became his personal painter. From then on, only Velázquez was allowed to paint the king, and all his other portraits were taken out of circulation. Later on, Velázquez rose in the court to also become the king’s curator (being the person in charge of choosing and purchasing the furniture and paintings that would decorate the king’s palaces). Velázquez served the king for over 40 years, while Philip IV was the most powerful man on Earth.
At the beginning of his career, Velázquez soon distanced himself from the usual religious themes most Spanish painters produced at the time, due to the influence and power of the Catholic Church, and the overwhelming surveillance of the Spanish Inquisition. Instead, he started painting bodegones - kitchen and tavern scenes, involving common people - which, despite being considered a low genre of painting in those days, started to attract the attention of rich purchasers and patrons. Among these paintings, we have, for example, Old Woman Frying Eggs, and the breathtaking Water Seller.
His art was clearly influenced by Caravaggio in his use of contemporary, common people as models, and also in the use of the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow (chiaroscuro). Another major influence on Velázquez’s work was the art of Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who spent seven months at the court of King Philip IV on a diplomatic mission. Later, after spending time in Italy on two different occasions, he incorporated elements of both the contemporary local art and features of the Renaissance into his technique.
When he began working for King Philip IV, his main assignments consisted of portraits. He painted the members of the royal family in a great number of portraits, but his most famous ones are his own slave and studio assistant Juan de Pareja’s and the stunning portrait of Pope Innocent X. The realism and strength of these works, in which Velázquez managed to capture not only the physical but also the personality traits of his models, astonished his contemporaries and are a source of awe and inspiration to many artists to this day. Since most of Velázquez’s works were made for the king, they remained unseen for many years, hanging from the private walls of the royal family’s many residences.
In addition to the bodegones and portraits, he also produced famous mythological scenes (e.g. The Triumph of Baccus; Vulcan’s Forge; The Spinners; The Rokeby Venus), landscapes (e.g. Philip IV Hunting Wild Boar) and historical scenes (e.g. The Surrender of Breda).
Velázquez’s technique, draftsmanship and use of color have amazed the general public, critics and other painters for centuries. He’s many people’s candidate for the post of best painter ever. His paintings are included in what is called the Spanish Baroque movement of the XVII century, but they stand out as very personal and unique, the work of a genius.
Velázquez struggled his whole life to become part of the nobility he served so faithfully. His Jewish blood, however, was a constant obstacle for him to achieve such recognition. Only at the very end of his life, in 1658, did he become a knight, receiving the insignia of the Military Order of Santiago, the red cross that features on his chest in his most famous painting Las Meninas.
Velázquez died on August 6th, 1660, at the age of 61.