At the height of Spanish Baroque painting, Diego Velazquez was at the forefront of the newly introduced artistic style. His influences even went as far as Northern Italy, making him one of the most influential Spanish painters during the 17th century. He was also main court artist of King Philip IV, for whom he had done several religious arts and portraits.
Diego Velazquez baroque style is highly individualistic which was attributed to the way he vividly colors his characters, his realistic representations of the models, and to his dramatic approach on the subject matter. His subject matter was mostly connected to the cultural and historical relevance of the place, person or things.
Therefore, Velazquez was known to paint dramatic renditions of certain events in history and society such as the portraits of aristocrats, noblemen and even commoners.
It was very timely for Diego Velazquez to have existed during Spain’s overwhelming colonial power. At the time, families of nobility and aristocracy were in favor of Baroque style to be able to impress people with their portraits that exhibited triumph, power and dignity. And Velazquez possessed the right skills set and natural talent to have all of these characteristics expressed into a detailed and emotive painting.
Today, he is well-known for painting a masterpiece, Las Meninas (1656), which is a source of inspiration for contemporary artists such as Edouard Manet, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.
Born as Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, he grew up in Seville, Spain around 1599. However, his paternal grandparents were natives of Portugal before they moved to Seville where his father met Diego’s mother and they got married on December 28, 1597 at St. Peter Church in Seville. Although his father was a lawyer, the family lineage was considered as lesser nobility.
Velazquez grew up in a Catholic family that while growing up he would be educated by his parents about God and Christ’s teachings. He was sent to a languages and philosophy school for his early training. There, he was influenced by various artists and might have discovered his talent and interest in the arts. Subsequently he entered the studio of Francisco de Herrera, who will become his earliest art mentor.
At the age of 12, Velazquez left de Herrera for Francisco Pacheco, his new master. He worked as an apprentice to the said master who was also a teacher in the Seville school. Pacheco was an undistinguished artist however he was a great teacher to his students, for he was able to teach them his reaction to the painting style of Raphael Santi. His approach was more direct and simple yet the message is clearly expressed compared to Raphael’s exuberant artistic style.
Velazquez’ stint under Pacheco was a relevant one. It was under this master that he was able to learn and observe the artistic trends of Seville’s literary and artistic guilds, as they develop and do away from the influences of Italian Renaissance.
Diego Velazquez was also highly influenced by the naturalistic style of Caravaggio, especially when painting religious-themed art. Whenever he’s painting Christ and his disciples, he would paint their faces with dramatic expressions and this technique was enhanced with a combination of a lighted background and gloomy colors around the figures. Aside from religious art, Velazquez also found time to paint scenes of the kitchen and taverns but with a particular holy scene added to the painting’s background.
Around 1620’s, Diego Velazquez moved to Madrid by the invitation of King Philip IV. This development was the beginning of his lifetime career in the King’s court. He also began another lifetime affair with his bride, Juana Pacheco, by marrying her on April 23, 1618. The pair had two daughters, Francisca and Ignacia.
In 1622, Velazquez began his official duty for the King but before that, he attended to the request of his father-in-law first, Francisco Pacheco. He was asked to paint a portrait of Luis de Gongora, a notable poet. He painted the said poet adorned with a laurel wreath that symbolized wisdom and intellect.
Shortly after this stint, he went to the King’s court to continue what Rodrigo de Villandrando had started over the course of his lifetime. The King’s patronage earned him 50 ducats on a regular basis. He had been staying in the King’s chaplain, Don Juan de Fonseca, during the early stages of his royal career.
In 1623, King Philip IV commissioned Velazquez to paint a portrait for him. He enthusiastically completed the portrait within one day and the monarch was pleased with the results. This successful stint earned him an exclusive position to the King’s court in Madrid as appointed by Olivares. He also had the monopoly of painting all of Philip’s portraits at the time. And thus, the monarch was more than willing to pay him 300 ducats, including the relocation cost from Seville to Madrid together with his family.
In 1623, Velazquez became the most successful Spanish painter earning 20 ducats monthly plus medical and lodging benefits. Although some of his works during the time are now lost, they were highly praised by his contemporaries and patrons. A few examples of his famous royal portraits included Philip IV in Brown and Silver (1632), Portrait of the Infanta Maria Theresa, among many others.
When King Charles I of England arrived to Madrid for a visit, Velazquez also did the honor of painting a portrait of him (now lost). He also accompanied Peter Paul Rubens in 1628 when the artist visited the city. Together, they observed the Titians and developed great fondness of each other. In fact, Rubens is believed to be the one who influenced Velazquez to visit Italy to see the art creations of the Old Italian masters.
In 1627, Velazquez proved that he was the greatest painter in the country at the time, yet again. It was when the King held a competition to see who among his Spanish painters would emerge as the best of the best, with the eviction of the Moors as the subject matter. His painting included King Philip III who was commanding a group of men and women to walk away as the soldiers escort the group. This success improved his position in the court as he was assigned as gentleman usher in return and began receiving 12 reis as his daily allowance.
In 1629, he was commissioned to paint the Triumph of Bacchus and got paid 100 ducats for it. His intent was to pay homage in rather mocking manner to a half-naked handsome man that was seated on a barrel contained of wine. And this picture is true to the Spanish name of the art, which is The Drunks.
Shortly after painting the Bacchus art, Diego Velazquez went to Italy for almost two years. This trip was supported by his royal patron so he had nothing to worry about in regard to loyalty. His travels to the said country had a significant impact on his painting style for he got influenced by the contemporary works of the Italian artists at the time. He would have seen paintings such as Joseph’s Coat Presented to Jacob and The Forge of Vulcan, which helped him develop his perspective and approach to painting nude characters in a large canvas.
After completing his first trip around 1631, he returned to Madrid to finish some commissioned works, most of which were portraits. He first painted several portraits of the young prince, Don Baltasar Carlos. The prince looked proud and dignified in the picture despite his young age. He was well-dressed and adorned while the scene that he was set up to was in the riding area of the palazzo. His royal parents were looking at him from their balcony while Minister Olivares was holding the horse up as the young prince rides on it.
In 1649, Velazquez accompanied by Juan de Pareja went to Italy for the second time. He bought some paintings of the Italian masters such as Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto as he traveled from Milan to Venice. He also accepted a portrait commission by the Duke of Modena and two other portraits that are not placed at the Dresden Gallery.
His successful career and solid reputation had also earned him a commission by Pope Innocent X in Rome. He painted a portrait of the Pope in Doria Pamphilj Gallery. And as a token of appreciation he was awarded with a golden chain and a medal. By this time, Velazquez’ style had developed to something bolder and more vivid. This style will show in the Pope’s portrait in which he painted him with sheer conveyance of ruthlessness in his facial expression albeit well-received by the said patron.
In 1651, Velazquez returned to Madrid bringing with him hundreds of pictures and statues. These works were sorted out as part of the King’s royal collection. Included in the collection is the Las Meninas, a masterpiece. This work was completed by 1656 and it is composed of Margaret Theresa, her maids of honor, and several other figures from the nobility and commoners. The setting is in the Alcazar Palace in Madrid during the leadership of King Philip IV. Velazquez used linear perspective to render overlapping of shapes and layers as the large painting is supplemented with as many details as possible.
Diego Velazquez died in August 6, 1660 in Madrid, Spain. His remains were buried in Fuensalida, a vault that is located at the San Juan Bautista church. However, the said church was torn down by the French invades in 1811 so his grave is now lost.