Diego Velazquez
Biography of Spanish Baroque Painter to Philip IV: Portraits, Bodegons.

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Christ on the Cross (c.1632
Prado Museum, Madrid. One of
Velazquez's key contributions to
Catholic Counter-Reformation Art.

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Diego Velazquez (1599–1660)

Contents

Summary
Short Biography
The Life and Art of Diego Velazquez

Summary

One of the greatest exponents of Spanish painting, the artist Diego Velazquez was a court painter to King Philip IV during the period of the Spanish Baroque. Although a master of history painting and genre-painting (bodegons), he is renowned for his portrait art - completing over 20 portraits of the King along with others of the Royal Family and their friends. His best known works include his masterpieces Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome) Las Meninas (1656, Prado, Madrid), The Tapestry Weavers (Las Hilanderas) (1659, Prado), and the Equestrian Portrait of Duke de Olivares, 1634 (Prado). Rising above other Spanish Baroque Artists like Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and Zurbaran (1598-1664), he is regarded along with El Greco (1541-1614) and Goya as being among the greatest Old Masters of Spain.


Detai from, The Surrender of Breda
(1634-5).

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Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650)
One of the greatest examples of
Baroque painting.

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Short Biography

Born in Seville in 1599 to a Portuguese family, little is known of his early life. It is believed he initially studied fine art painting and drawing under the artist Francisco de Herrera the Elder but unable to bear his temper tantrums, he shortly went to apprentice under the artist Francisco Pacheco instead. Although Pacheco was a less accomplished artist, he was more tolerant and better connected in society.

Velazquez married Pacheco’s daughter just before he turned 19. His works showed an acute understanding of realism. His early pictures and sketches are mainly studies of still life as he strove to discover his own style. Important works from this time include, The Water Carrier of Seville ( c.1618, Wellington Museum, London), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (National Gallery, London), Peasants' Dinner (c.1618, Szepmuveseti Muzeum, Budapest), Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (c.1618, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), The Adoration of the Magi (1619, Prado, Madrid), St. Idelfonso Receiving the Chasuble from the Virgin (c.1620, Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville).


Detail from his group portrait,
Las Meninas (1656).
One of the most famous of all
Spanish Baroque paintings.

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Court Painter

In 1622 he moved his family to Madrid, and became court painter to King Philip IV. The regular salary gave him the freedom to pursue his passion for portraiture, as unsalaried artists were reliant on (mainly religious) public commissions for a living. Portraits remained the chief part of his workload for 20 years. One of his enemies was to say 'he only knows how to paint heads'. To which the artist replied, ‘they pay me a great compliment, for I know of no one else who can do as much'.

In 1627 Philip launched a competition for the Best Painter in Spain, which Velazquez won. Unfortunately the picture was destroyed in a fire at the palace in 1734. In 1629 he took his first trip to Italy to study the High Renaissance artists, and although there are no records about whom he met or what he saw, he came back with a new vigour. On his return he painted the first of many portraits of the young prince Don Balthasar Carlos. Unlike other traditional artists, Velazquez painted his subject devoid of pomp and ceremony. He painted several equestrian portraits of the King, and the sculptor Montanes modelled a statue on one of these portraits (the painting no longer exists). The sculpture was cast in bronze by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca and now stands in the Plaza de Oriente at Madrid.

At this point in time, Velazquez met the Flemish artist Rubens, who had come on a mission to the King of Spain. Velazquez was so inspired by this meeting with one of the acknowledged giants of Baroque painting, that he set off again for a study trip to Naples and other cities in Italy. For more, please see: Painting in Naples (1600-1700). On his return he executed two large paintings, Joseph's Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob (1630, Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid), and the Forge of Vulcan (1630, Prado Madrid). Other paintings from this period include Apolo en la Fragua de Vulcano, 1630 (Prado), The Lady with a Fan (c.1638, The Wallace Collection, London) and the Equestrian Portrait of Duke de Olivares, 1634 (Prado).

 

Las Meninas

In his final years - when acclaimed as one of the most famous painters in Spain - he produced two of his best Baroque paintings, demonstrating a bright and fluid use of colour. The first is the group portrait of the Royal Family children including the Infanta Margarita and the sickly Prince Felipe Prospero. Las Meninas (1656, Prado, Museum), shows several figures in a large room in the Spanish court of King Philip. The young Infanta Margarita is surrounded by a group of ladies in waiting, bodyguards, dwarfs and a dog. Just behind them, in a mirror, you can see the King and Queen, and the artist portrays himself painting a canvas. The use of mirror reflection echoes the Arnolfini Portrait, 1483 by Jan van Eyck. There is an elusiveness to the work that suggests art and life are an illusion. Because of its complexities, it is one of the most analyzed works in Western art. The second masterpiece of his last years is The Tapestry Weavers (Las Hilanderas) (1659, Prado).

Stricken with a sudden fever, Velazquez died in 1660 and was buried in the Fuensalida vault of the church of San Juan Bautista. His wife died within a few days of the funeral and was buried alongside him. Unfortunately the church was destroyed by the French in 1811 and the location of his grave is no longer known.

Legacy

Until the 19th century his works were not very well known outside of Spain where he was an influence on painters like Zurbaran and Bartolome Esteban Murillo, as well as the Neapolitan School of Painting (c.1600-56) and the Neapolitan Baroque (c.1656-1700). He is often quoted as a key influence on the artist Edouard Manet who called him the ‘painters of painters’. His vivid brushstrokes were supposed to have inspired the 19th century painter Edouard Manet to bridge the gap between Realism and Impressionism. Future artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon also found inspiration in his works.

Works by Velazquez can be seen in the best art museums across the world, notably the Prado Museum in Madrid.

 

The Life and Art of Diego Velazquez

Introduction

In the early years of the 17th century the realism which for two centuries had been latent in Spanish painting found a robust expression in the work of Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and Francisco Herrera the Elder (1590-1654). Both consulted actual appearances most strenuously, but both inclined to reduce the infinite variety of appearances to a kind of monotonous formulization. It remained for Diego Velazquez to fulfill and perfect the syle of Spanish realism by a consummately fine observation and by an amazing ingenuity in organizing his tints and hues so that they became equivalents of what he saw and felt in nature. To reach this perfection required nearly twenty years of constant study and experimentation. It was a course possible only for a painter under favourable circumstances, and it seems that Velazquez's lifelong service as a court painter, which has often been deplored as a servitude, really provided the conditions which were essential to the flowering of his art. He was to suffer distractions and interruptions from his duties as a chamberlain, but his livelihood never was in question. In Philip IV he had a patron who let him paint in his own way. One doubts if Velazquez's art could have developed under any private patronage that Spain then afforded.

Early Life and Artistic Training

Diego Velazquez was born in Seville, in 1599, his father being of Portuguese and gentle extraction, his mother of patrician stock from Seville. At thirteen he was taken from the Latin school and placed with Francisco de Herrera. Within a year Herrera's notoriously brutal manners had become unbearable, and the fourteen-year-old boy was articled for five years on very onerous terms to the cultured and friendly painter, Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644). No very definite influence of Herrera appears in Velazquez's early works. Indeed the fury of Herrera's workmanship, his combing and streaking heavy loadings of pigment about, must have been distasteful to a pupil who from the first sought refinement and reticence. Yet it is likely that on broader lines the 12 months or so with Herrera was fruitful. He was the only painter then working in Spain who knew that colour pigments may and should be convertible into coloured light; that modeling is merely the registration of the significant degrees of light reflected to the eye from the form under observation. The task of Velazquez was merely to pursue this principle to its ultimate and exquisite consequences.

It was a task for which Francisco Pacheco could offer little help to the young Velazquez. He was, on the whole, a well-meaning and kindly pedant, with the saving grace of a lively curiosity as to the art of the present. He adored the High Renaissance style and tried to follow it. Eventually he wrote a treatise on the art of painting, Arte de la Pintura, in which, with much good advice to young painters, he embodied the gist of the more important artist lives of Vasari, adding on his own account such information as he could gather concerning contemporary Spanish painters. More importantly, Pacheco had the acquaintance and good will of the art-loving intelligentsia of Seville. To be his apprentice was after all an admirable training for a youth who was to become a court painter. The dignified and serious pupil readily won the master's favour and, just short of nineteen, Diego Velazquez married Pacheco's daughter. Juana. It is the last that we hear of her, but in the marital relations of artists no news may be presumed to be good news.

Paintings During His Early Career As a Seville Painter

Of the score or so of pictures that have come down to us from Velazquez's early years in Seville, none show any trace of the prevailing Italian Renaissance art favoured by his father-in-law. All are soundly Spanish. It appears then that Pacheco had the good sense to let his talented young apprentice and son-in-law alone. In his later writings he deprecates in principle the painting of bodegons as an inferior branch of art, but approves them when they are as well painted as those of his son-in-law. They show the future great painter more plainly than the few pieces of religious art and portraiture of this early period, but before considering the bodegons, a word on the other pictures. In such religious pictures as the Assumption and St. John on Patmos, Frere Collection, London; the Epiphany, Madrid; the Investiture of St. Ildefonso, (St. Idelfonso Receiving the Chasuble from the Virgin, 1620, Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville), nothing is very remarkable except the tenacity of the modeling in harsh contrasts of light and dark, and the Spanish types. We have the work of a very strenuous young painter coping with the difficulties of construction and character, acquiring his fundamentals. He hardly knows what to do with these hard-won elements, compiles them rather casually into pictures which in their metallic protuberances give an unpleasant sense of effort. But there is progress towards unity. The Supper at Emmaus, New York, is really a transfigured bodegon, has dignity, a cool harmony of silvery colour, while the swing of the figures of the disciples, and the outstretched, foreshortened arm of the nearer one, give a fine sense of space, which is enhanced by the transparent greys of the prevailing tone. The modeling of the face and the shoulder of Jesus is strong and sensitive.

The very detailed account of such features as the drapery and the tablecloth is singularly large in feeling. On the religious side, Jesus is merely serious and affable, the disciples merely astounded. The reading is adequate, not penetrating. It is, to repeat, a sort of glorified bodegon, as if, to the amazement of the honest frequenters of the tavern, a devout and dignified wayfarer were to say an unexpected grace.

The Investiture of St. Ildefonso has evoked little admiration, yet one admires the asceticism of the saint who maintains before a miracle in his favour a gentleman's imperturbability. I like, too, the practical sense shown in bringing the baroque cloudland peopled by Sevillian girls down to a level which makes the Virgin really bestow the vestment on the saint. A sort of housewifely carefulness with which she performs her office is most happily expressed, and is altogether entrancing. When one recalls the scores of operatically conceived St. Ildefonsos, the rigorous prose of Velazquez's reading of the theme will seem, not merely very Spanish, but very distinguished.

Of the three or four Baroque portraits from the Sevillian years, far the finest is that of the poet Gongora, at Boston. It is modeled up in neutral tints with great energy and with a fine sense of the larger forms of the hatchet-faced head. It has heavy passages - the unmodulated shadow of the farther side of the face, the unsatisfactory placing of the shadowed eye, the hard further contour which interrupts the rounding in space. With all these signs of inexperience, it conveys the somewhat vain and aggressive character of the self-conscious stylist and fashionable poet; is for a painter of twenty-three an extraordinarily competent and promising performance.

But it is in the bodegons that the future master most plainly declares himself. Of these tavern or kitchen pictures there are, according to the authority you consult, a dozen, more or less. With a single exception (The Water Carrier, 1620, Wellington Museum, London), these are all half-length character studies in oblongs, after the fashion set by Caravaggio and his followers. The Caravaggian tavern pieces, however, are in feeling a world apart from those of Velazquez. Where Caravaggism rested its appeal on sensational human relations - generally on something strange, sinister, overtly picturesque in the action represented - Velazquez dispenses with action altogether, or merely emphasizes the dignity of habitual and routine relations.

The few bodegons in which he seeks animation or drama - the Musicians, Berlin; the Old Fruit Woman, Oslo - are the poor bodegons. While the Caravaggians stood on the dramatic appeal of some odd event happening in the place, Velazquez stands on the worth and interest of the place itself, and of those persons who normally frequent it.

What may be Velazquez's earliest bodegon is also one of the finest - Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (c.1618, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). A good replica is at Chicago. The sturdy figure of the girl, fore-shortened as she leans over the table, dominates the long oblong. The curves of her face and white headdress are repeated along the bottom of the canvas by a fine assortment of kitchen bowls and pots; mostly in glazed pottery; one piece, copper. There is a suggestion of a tidy little world, of permanence and dignity. The posture of the girl preparing for her work is very grand. Velazquez has anticipated Millet in asserting the monumental character of the commonest useful actions. The modeling, through light, is at once very emphatic and tender. As in all his early works, the figure is pushed forward to the picture plane, but shows no tendency to transgress its bounds. There are empty or ambiguous areas at the upper corners, but they hardly impair the effect. The full lights on the head and sleeve of the figure, and on the kitchen gear, are most subtly modulated - no repetition, no wide intervals. For the work of an eighteen-year-old youth, this picture is amazingly complete and skillful.

The grandest of the bodegons seems to be not the famous Water Carrier, El Aguador - superb as that great picture is - but rather Peasants' Dinner (c.1618, Szepmuveseti Muzeum, Budapest). Though the figures and still life crowd the oblong frame, there is a sense of ample space. That is achieved by various means, the swing in and out of the figures, the foreshortening of the table, the carefully observed distances between the four rows of kitchen utensils on the table, but even more by the translucency of the all-enveloping atmosphere. The composition is very interesting. The roughly crumpled napkin is the central accent. Its mobile lights are physically exciting. All other lights are kept smooth and globular and tranquilizing. The heavier off-centre weight and mass of the two men is oddly but effectively balanced by the greater number of lighter forms on the tablc to the left, and by the prominence given to the table top. The whole arrangement shows a sensitive regard for linear composition, which will soon yield to other interests. Again, in the grandeur discovered rather than imputed in these habitual postures and everyday acts, lies much of the greatness of the picture.

We may recall in passing that the mood is Spanish. In Spain a workman is still hailed as caballero, knight. Other painters of bodegons shared this mood. None expressed it with the integrity and finesse of young Velazquez.

For more about the past, see: History of Art. For chronology, see: History of Art Timeline.

 

Becomes Court Painter to Philip IV - Moves to Madrid

For some five years, with Pacheco's influence behind him, Velazquez seems to have practiced independently at Seville, painting more tavern pieces (bodegons), and religious pictures, than portraits. In 1621 Philip IV came to the throne, called Count Olivares, a notable patron of poets and painters from Seville, to be prime minister. Scenting opportunity, Velazquez and Pacheco hastened to Madrid, without success. Two years later, in 1623, Velazquez repeated the visit, and through the kindness of Olivares got a sitting from the king. The resulting equestrian portrait was early destroyed, but it must have been satisfactory, for Velazquez was appointed court painter and, at twenty-four, assured of an adequate and permanent livelihood.

It might reasonably be argued that Velazquez's first six years as a court painter mark a retrogression in his oil painting. Certainly nothing made in this period is as pictorially accomplished as the best of the bodegons. These were years of re-education chiefly in the elements of construction. In the rich galleries assembled by Philip II at the Escorial and Madrid, Velazquez had before him masterpieces of Titian and El Greco. At the moment, they helped him little, if at all. Both predecessors indulged conventions of picture-making which were alien to his spirit. As for himself, he wished to approach natural appearances as much as possible without preconceptions, wanted the picture to grow out of the observation itself. It was an unprecedented quest in which he had to find his own way. Luckily, handsomely supported by salaries as a court painter and minor chamberlain, he could take his time without worry. And he was positively encouraged by frequent visits from the young king to the basement studio in the old palace.

The new manner is admirably illustrated in the standing portraits of Philip IV and of Olivares, at New York, both painted in 1624. As pictures, both portraits, with all their impressiveness as readings of character, have an unpleasant stiffness and coldness. The forms seem rather casually set in the frame and tend to break through the picture plane. The merely silhouetted legs give an inadequate sense of support. There are dead areas in the expanse of black costume, and the accessories, just a table or a chest, are of little compositional value.

But these apparent defects are the result of calculation, not negligence. In observing the forms, Velazquez resolutely focuses on the faces and hands, which he models up with the utmost care. When the eye focuses on such points, the mass and projection of the whole figure is only vaguely seen and apprehended. He will paint the body and legs only as he sees them when he is looking intently at the face. It is easy to say that by waiving this principle of focus and optical centre of interest, and painting the figure not as he saw it, but as he knew it to be, Velazquez could have made more attractive pictures of the king and Olivares, but he could have done so only on condition of abandoning that long quest which was to lead to his most personal and beautiful discoveries.

As modeling in light and dark, in careful gradations of tone, these portraits mark an advance over the heads in the bodegons. The modeling shadow is lighter and more transparent; nothing is lost in it. The edges no longer check the rounding away of the form. But the construction of the entire picture in modulations of tone is as yet beyond his powers. He comes to passages where the forms will not detach themselves from the background, and has to help himself out by arbitrarily whitening the background alongside the refractory edge. The contours of the Olivares show five or six such cobbled-up transitions. It is an expedient which Velazquez will employ for many years before he is able to make the tone tell everything about form and envelopment. The king and Olivares showed great generosity and open-mindedness in encouraging a new style which outraged the decorative and linear conventions of official portraiture in Spain, while lacking the charm of the popular Venetian manner.

It is a moment of acute self-consciousness for Velazquez, which results in such disagreeably assertive portraits as the so-called Geographer, probably rather a court fool, at Rouen, and finds its ablest and most emphatic expression in the famous and almost equally disagreeable masterpiece, the Drinkers, (Los Borachos), Madrid.

Meets Rubens - Travels to Italy

Shortly after the painting of Los Borachos the great Peter Paul Rubens came to Madrid and worked in a studio in the old Alcazar near that of Velazquez. The younger and older painter, both men of the world, maintained friendly relations, though there was probably little that either approved in the other's work. Los Borachos would have shocked Rubens for its chaotic emphasis. He himself, during his nine months' stay, was mostly copying the king's Titians. From Rubens, whose decorative formality must have been distasteful to Velazquez, could be learned only that a plenitude of form could be expressed with smallest contrasts of blond tints. It was a lesson which Velazquez was already learning through direct observation of nature, and I doubt if the example of Rubens' highly stylized sketches did much to further Velazquez's new endeavor. But the generous and open-minded Rubens cannot have failed to recognize the prodigious talent of Velazquez, and also the fact that it needed some central principle of direction. It is a reasonable guess that Rubens' advice counted for much in Velazquez's decision to visit Italy in 1629 and 1630.

I think Los Borachos may have been Velazquez's challenge to the Italian and Italianate painters about the court. Lacking grandeur, grace, everything to which they gave lip service, Velazquez must have seemed to them just a journeyman portraitist of an inferior kind. It seems as if Velazquez may have decided to meet these cavilers on their own ground in an elaborate composition with many life-sized figures.

Evidently the gusto and vitality of Los Borachos easily put down the anemic work of the Italianates, and the picture has ever since been enthusiastically acclaimed. Such praise it well deserves for its power of construction and characterization, for its superabundant vitality. Yet a sum of superb parts does not necessarily add up to a fine picture, and this is far from being a fine picture. One thinks of a more genial Ribera. Everything to the right is a bodegon motive enhanced and taken into the open air. In a mock ceremony a drinker, aping Bacchus, places a wreath upon the head of a kneeling initiate. In this group of unforgettable heads there is no principle of focus, no point from which the eye must begin its explorations. The total effect of the group is restless, lumpy and crowded. The two figures at the left are entirely alien and unassimilated. The foreshortened torso of the youth at the upper left has a borrowed, Venetian elegance; the seated figure below, silhouetted in an entirely unexplained and illogical half-light, again might have come directly from a Venetian pastoral. The Drinkers makes it clear that, having abandoned the chiaroscuro construction of the bodegons, Velasquez at twenty-nine had arrived at no principle under which he might organize an elaborate composition. It is as if he felt the need of study that he passed most of his thirtieth and thirty-first year in Italy.

Velazquez spent most of his time in Italy in Venice and Rome. Rome had very little to his purpose, for he was far in advance of the new Caravaggians, while the stately or pompous way of the Renaissance masters was not his. Venice, on the contrary, offered much to his purpose. The Venetian compromise between decorative and optical effect was to dominate his art beneficially for nearly twenty years. Just from whom he drew the new principle is not easy to say, and does not greatly matter. From the informal composition and general silvery tone of the pictures which he painted in Italy, or immediately on his return, I am inclined to guess that the colourful monumentality of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, attracted him less than the calmer tonality and looser arrangements of such outlying Venetians as Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), Giovanni Savoldo (active 1506-48) and Moretto da Brescia (1498-1554). It is these masters that are suggested by the two big pictures which he painted in Italy, in 1630: Joseph's Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob (Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid), and the Forge of Vulcan (Prado Madrid). In certain expressions and attitudes they also recall the dramatic mood of Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), who, during Velazquez's stay at Venice, was the leading painter in the city.

Both pictures must be regarded as study pieces, and as such they mark a long stride beyond Los Borachos. In Joseph's Coat, the pictorial focus is sharply established in the two jealous and lying brothers and in the coat which they hold between them. This involves a veiling of the figure of Joseph, at the right, in half-light, with a consequent attenuation of the narrative interest. The glimpse of landscape behind the group of brothers through the open door is felicitously managed and gives a liberating effect. The relation of the group of three to the rectangular aperture which it overlaps is happily felt. Velazquez is beginning to pay attention to pattern. The conscious effort involved in the composition betrays itself in the handsome but unfunctional posture of the nearly nude figure at the left, and in the two uncertainly placed figures in middle distance who are merely stop-gaps.

As a linear composition the Forge of Vulcan is more thoroughly thought out. Velazquez has found a function for the postures of the four brawny semi-nudes, and a sufficient topical motive in the almost irate astonishment with which Vulcan regards his celestial cousin, Mercury, who breaks the news of Venus's infidelity. The peasant masquerading as Mercury is inherently rather silly, but the classically draped form, with the torso and one arm bare, is at once the necessary counterfoil and echo of the four almost-nude smiths. The picture is well unified by a cool, silvery tonality, the accessories are skillfully subordinated, and the play of light and shadow about the space is handsome.

 

Mature Paintings

The next fifteen years or so witnessed the completion of all Velazquez's greatest portrait paintings. Velazquez's construction is now both sure and various. He can make his tones say anything he wants, and at all degrees of emphasis and definition. He knows that a face looks one way under a fixed top light and quite another way in the diffused light outdoors and, outdoors again, the difference in appearance between the face of a sitter at rest or riding a galloping horse. He studies most assiduously the relations of tones in the ensemble, attaining unprecedented refinements in their adjustment. This adjustment is still somewhat artificial, in the Venetian manner. In as fully achieved a masterpiece as the Surrender at Breda, one figure receives the light from in front and a neighbouring figure is seen dark against light coming from behind. Velazquez, like the great Venetians, as yet uses the light as a resource of stage managership, as an arbitrary means of emphasis or subordination. He is still far from the thoroughgoing luminism of his last years.

Before dealing with the great masterpiece of Velazquez's maturity, the Surrender at Breda, a word on the portraits. One of his earliest and best portraits of children is Prince Balthasar Carlos and his Dwarf, Boston. The general stately setting is one that Titian would have approved, but Titian would not have given the floor its rise in perspective, thus throwing the dwarf forward and lower. This acceptance of the actual perspective distinguishes most of the full-length portraits. It gives liveliness to the stance of the figures. The details of the little prince's costume are touched in with snap and precision. His head is constructed with infinitesimal gradations of blond tones, contrasting with the heavy shadow employed in constructing the heavy, moody face of the dwarf. This difference of treatment brings out the physical frailty of the ailing and short-lived little prince. His fixed, somewhat distrustful eyes singularly hold the attention. The total feeling is of rectitude, permanence and completeness, as if everything had been said that needs to be said, and not a syllable more. The date is just after the Italian journey, 1631.

Merely mentioning a number of indoor portraits of members of the royal family, which differ from those of the second period chiefly in greater ease of workmanship, we may pass to the portrait of Velazquez's friend, the sculptor Montanes, 1637, Madrid. At first sight it is merely such a wholesome, full-blooded portrait as the Venetians, for example, Giovanni Moroni (1520-78) and Francesco Bassano the Elder (1475-1539), produced in abundance. On closer inspection its superiority begins to appear. The head is constructed in a larger and simpler fashion, with modulations of fewer values, the definition of everything is adjusted with regard to its distance from the face, and this principle reduces the heroic head on which Montanes is working to a mere indication. A Venetian painter would have represented it completely, to the detriment of pictorial concentration. And while the Venetians, as born colourists, were adept in the use of black, they rarely, if ever, created a black like that of the sculptor's coat, so lively, so full of implicit colour. The sense of a robust, self-confident nature, fit for great executive enterprises, is vividly conveyed. Except in the treatment of the hair and beard there is no apparent dexterity, just the plainest and most inevitable statement of the visual facts. It is as if when painting a fellow artist Velazquez worked with a kind of humility and homage. Montanes was of a character to dispense with pyrotechnics.

Velazquez's unpretentious perfection in these years may be more readily grasped in the small compass of the Head of a Little Girl, in the Hispanic Society, New York. The processes are entirely effaced. The fine, rounded face seems to bloom out of the background in all its dignity and graciousness as a mass of coral detaches itself from the seaweeds as your boat drifts over shallow waters. Of an art that conceals its art, this is one of the finest examples.

Velazquez, on the contrary, employs every audacity of handling in the outdoor portraits of these middle years, and logically, for the large scale of the pictures required a broader treatment, and a method at once more summary and emphatic was needed to make the forms and textures count in that great leveler which Leonardo da Vinci called "the universal light." The great pictures of this sort are all in the Prado at Madrid - the standing portraits of Philip IV and Prince Balthasar Carlos with their fowling pieces; the equestrian portraits of Count Olivares, the king, and the prince. The brilliant handling of these pictures is so obvious, their freshness and vitality so captivating, that they are equally popular with the layman and the connoisseur. It seems as if the naturally clean and silvery air had been especially washed for the reception of these great personages.

Such details as purple scarves and gold trimmings are quietly splendid, but without the sumptuousness a Venetian painter would have given to such features. Here comparison of Titian's magnificent Equestrian Charles V, in the same museum with Velazquez's equestrian portraits, is most instructive. Titian insists more on his few colour features; they have a value of contrast as against the prevailing neutrals. In Velazquez the positive colour is merely the high note in a chord, is not different from, but in the general scale of, the prevailing neutrals. Again, because Titian keeps the key low and maintains a merely decorative unity of tone, he is able to detach his horse and rider without resort to such expedients as arbitrary irradiations around the contours. This dodge, which Velazquez had outgrown in his indoor portraits, is freely used in all these outdoor pictures. He has not arrived at the point of making the natural light create the sense of relief. But these illogical accents are in such decorative accord with the generally brilliant handling, that only a detective eye ever notices them.

In the three equestrian portraits, the landscape is treated with panoramic breadth. The eye sweeps easily over the miles between a brown foreground and the snow-covered crest of the Guadarrama mountains. In the Philip and the Olivares a fine poplar, with leaves that seem to twinkle, brings the sense of growth into the composition. In these landscapes there is steady progress in breadth and energy. In the Olivares, painted before 1634, the landscape is somewhat sensationally cut up, and the billowing clouds are theatrical. In the Philip IV, about two years later, all landscape forms are simplified and tranquilized. The level clouds which veil the sky echo the easy diagonal parallel lines of the landscape, the growing poplar is set further away. All this centralizes the energetic elements in the horse and rider. The dignity of the main theme is once for all asserted in its own right, and needs no repetition or extraneous advertising. The false accents of light along the contours used profusely in the Olivares are here frugally employed. Velazquez is learning that subtler registration of tone which gives assurance of form. The prevailing feeling of the picture is less of force, though that was probably intended, than that of a reticent dignity. The king, despite his cuirass and firmly held baton of a field marshal - compare the way in which the king holds his baton, low, level and inconspicuous, with the operatic way in which Olivares brandishes his - the king seems rather a distinguished aristocrat than a resolute military commander.

Interesting details tell us how the Philip IV was composed. A pair of hind legs of the horse, which had been painted out, have faintly reappeared, and strips about six inches wide have been added at the sides. It is evident that the composition was not thought out in advance, but corrected as the painting proceeded, and that even the size of the rectangle was not pre-established. The painter began with the leading motive, which developed its own accessories more or less unpredictably. A Florentine, who before painting fixed his composition irrevocably in a cartoon, would have been shocked at such a procedure. Even a Venetian, who had the habit of working out the composition approximately in a sketch, would have thought Velazquez's habit far too casual. It remained his practice to the end, as is shown by seams and cuts in many of his canvases. It may have been inevitable when the arrangement rested rather on very subtle relations and balances of tone than on anything so concrete as linear pattern and equipoise of mass and motion. with these factors known, the amount of space necessary can be foretold; when the bounds are merely those emanating as tonality and light from a central theme, no such pre-establishment of their extent seems possible.

The popular favourite among the equestrian portraits will always be the Prince Balthasar Carlos on the barrel-bellied pony that almost leaps out of the frame, before a spacious panorama of riverland, mountains and clouds. And for once the popular verdict seems sound. The picture carries the whole freshness of a windy morning with it. While the confident boyish face, and the large, fatal eyes of the lad soon to die are the centre of attention, the eye readily grasps the snapping scarf, the bristling tail and mane of the pony and the active, docile mass of the beast, who rears as the little hand of his rider just feels the curb. I sometimes think one must have been a horseman fully to appreciate these equestrian portraits of Velazquez. So many painted horses are badly ridden. The diagonal plunge of the pony is magnificently increased by the opposed diagonals of the landscape. The landscape itself, with its sense of vastness, obtained with a few carefully chosen features rendered almost in monochrome, has scant analogies in European painting. One must seek them rather in the early landscape painting of China and Japan. In none of his pictures has Velazquez paid closer attention to linear pattern, and he does so without abandoning his quest of the subtlest relations of tone. Thus the Balthasar Carlos combines the old equipoised composition of the Renaissance with that new principle of equipoised atmospheric relations which was his own discovery.

All the portraits, indeed, virtually all of the pictures of the twenty years between the two Italian journeys, reveal the same compromise. In accepting the Venetian compositional scheme, while rejecting the decorative splendor of Venice, these pictures are not quite consistent. They look forward to a kind of picture which should have the strongest appeal, while dispensing both with the established compositional formulas and with the consecrated colour conventions.

The masterpiece of this period by common consent is the Surrender of Breda, better known from its mass of lances against the sky as Las Lanzas. It was finished about 1635, as one of thirteen examples of mural painting for a hall in the new palace of Buen Retiro, and this explains an arrangement which virtually omits the middle distance. What was to count decoratively at distant view was the picturesque mass of the group as a whole, such contrasting elements as the horse seen from behind, and a wide prospect of smoking, level country glimpsed over the heads of the soldiers or between the uncertainly held pikes of the defeated Hollanders and the rigid palisade of the lances of the victorious Spaniards. And all this was to serve merely as a sort of elaborate margin for the central feature - a magnanimous victor declining to humiliate a beaten foe, rather greeting him as an honoured brother in arms.

This great invention really makes the picture. You could imagine these two central figures cut out and the loss in the marginal features would be surprisingly small. But a given space had to be covered, and the extensions of the theme are appropriate. In 1629 Velazquez had made the considerable voyage from Barcelona to Genoa in Spinola's train, and doubtless his chivalric courtesy in this picture corresponds to Velazquez's personal estimate of the man. Such an invention should dispel the legend that Velazquez was a frigid character, a mere technician. No frigid person imagined this meeting of the Marquis of Spinola and Justin of Nassau.

Even the best reproductions misrepresent Las Lanzas, push the figures too far into the foreground, diminish the expanse of the landscape, and the canopying effect of the marbled sky. But even in a mediocre reproduction the dignity and completeness of this greatest of military pictures is apparent. In order to harmonize with the other battle pieces in Buen Retiro, Velazquez had to follow what we have called the Venetian manner of composition, as usual studying the actual illumination more closely than the Venetians ever did. The picture was finished about 1635, ten years after the event commemorated. Spinola must have regarded it with mixed feelings, and with a retrospective consolation, for meanwhile his battalions, victorious in the Netherlands, had been shattered in France before the army of the Great Conde. Having himself tasted the bitterness of defeat, it must have pleased him to be immortalized as softening the defeat of a gallant foe.

As if to show that he could still paint a conventional subject in a conventional way, when Velazquez was commanded, about 1641, to paint a Coronation of the Virgin for the queen's oratory, he produced a picture that at first sight might have been made a century earlier, in, say, Brescia. Even the Madonna is a type. Velazquez repeats the formal symmetry of the Renaissance in the composition, and avoids baroque extravagance where it would have been effective, in the clouds and draperies. As his repudiation of the baroque, this picture is chiefly significant.

In January, 1649, Velazquez sailed for Italy, and made his way as quickly as possible to Venice. This time he came not as a student, but as a master, with a commission to buy pictures and engage decorators for the king's new palace. He bought chiefly the Venetians, notably Tintoretto's sketch for the Paradise. Passing to Rome, he was well received by such leading artists as Bernini, Poussin and Salvator Rosa (1615-73). Salvator questioned him as to his favourite Italian painters and heard with amazement that Raphael did not please Velazquez at all. The anecdote is interesting as showing a blind spot in Velazquez's taste, and as showing that, even for the romantic and ruffianly Salvator, Raphael's pre-eminence was axiomatic.

From Pope Innocent X came an unexpected and, since Velazquez was very busy, possibly unwelcome command for a portrait. To get his hand in, Velazquez painted the head of his mulatto assistant, Pareja, and then began the astounding Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650, Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome), which Sir Joshua Reynolds was later to call the finest picture in Rome. Perhaps no other portrait in the world grips so promptly and holds so strongly every sort of beholder. Why? Not for the usual reason of charm. The reds and whites in which it is painted are rather strident than harmonious; the man himself, repellent. There he sits eternally, sensual without geniality, choleric yet sly, and he is God's vice-regent on earth. I suppose it may be this disparity between the gross male and his sacred office that constitutes the irony of the presentation and much of its effect, yet I doubt if such considerations were in Velazquez's consciousness in the few breathless hours in which he made mere paint strokes give the look of the man before him. While the figure is admirably set in the frame in the Venetian fashion, no one would think of it as decorative or composed. The greatness of the work grows out of the sinister interest of the subject matter. Everything is rather discovered afresh than made after any pre-existing pattern. So this great portrait is at once Velazquez's highest triumph in what we may call his conservative vein, and also the prelude to the unprecedented masterpieces of his remaining years.

 

Final Years - Las Meninas and The Tapestry Weaver (Las Hilanderas)

Velazquez stayed so long in Italy that the Spanish king, who valued his company as much as his services, repeatedly called him, and got him back in June of 1651, after an absence of more than two years. During this period Velazquez was too busy to do much painting. We may imagine him resting up and thinking much, and more or less disinterestedly training his eye to finer observation. The king appointed him marshal of the palace, which put him in charge of ceremonies, entertainments, of the higher royal housekeeping generally. It was a position that required tact and took much time. Knighthood promptly followed this honour. The king had remarried, and the entertainments for Maria Anna of Austria taxed the marshal's time and energy. Often he must have looked at two little sketches of the Villa Medici which he had brought back from Rome, and perhaps sighed when he thought how difficult it was to find time to realize what these modest studies foreshadowed.

These little sketches, at Madrid, simply show that charming concord of formal planting and formal architecture which still makes the Villa Medici one of the most delightful garden spots in the world. What composition there is, is simply that of the architectural features in the foreground; the rest is tall cypresses melting into the sky, clipped hedges, the tops of which draw down the light. There is no great variety or force of colour, but the neutral grey, green and brown fully express the play of the universal light about the forms. In landscape nothing similar had been done, nor was this achievement to be equalled until nearly two centuries later.

The prophecy of Velazquez's fourth and final manner is found in certain character studies and portraits of court fools and dwarfs painted well before the second Italian journey. In these records of social nobodies Velazquez was perfectly free to experiment. What he was seeking is clearly shown in the full-length portraits of two vagabonds, Madrid, posing as the philosopher, Menippus, and the fabulist, Aesop. These figures, which nearly fill the space and are presented without compositional accessories, are more impressive than the royal portraits of the same date. The contrast in handling is instructive. The constructional planes of the Aesop are strongly and crisply asserted. It is the technique that Manet will later repeat with great mastery. The Menippus seems to be merely a varying luminous surface which becomes face, features, body, drapery, by some magical modulation of tone and light. One can hardly speak of workmanship. The brush simply bestows the light that is necessary to create the form. These pictures are usually dated about 1640.

This inscrutable technique reappears in several of those most pathetic portraits of dwarfs, notably in the lolling idiot, El Prima, and in the Idiot of Coria, both of about 1647, and at Madrid. The head and the lace ruff of the Idiot are documentary for the new style. There are no linear accents, really no edges, no sense of linear pattern, simply a rounding of variously illuminated forms in space. Velazquez has arrived at a complete synthesis, has found equivalents in colour pigments for those subtle modulations of lighter or darker tones which the eye reports to the mind and the mind interprets as forms.

On his return from Italy in 1651 Velazquez pursues a twofold course. The royal portraits are still conceived in the Venetian manner, but are brushed with an ever-increasing dexterity which is, after all, devoted to simple truth-telling. Notable among the royal portraits are that of the Infanta Maria Teresa, Vienna, all muted silver about the proud, warm face; the adorable half-length, unhappily defaced by a big inscription, of the Infanta Marguerite, Paris; and, perhaps most brilliant of all the royal portraits, that of the Infanta Marguerite, now grown into her 'teens, at Madrid. In her absurdly stiff and hoop-skirted costume she becomes a princess of a luminous fairyland, in which the brush strokes that create the curtain and describe the cherry-red ribbon laced through her silvery frock are beyond their connotation a circumambient glory of light and colour. It is one of the few official Velazquezes that seem to be joyously executed, as if he had emerged from long effort into a realm of effortless and rapturous creation. It was painted in 1658, a little before the master's death.

The Venus and Cupid, London, was painted about 1657. Unusually, it seems to be a badly over-rated picture, and since it is also a very famous picture, this view of it may be unpopular. Intrinsically, it is just an academy, an alert, slender female nude seen from behind. The method of construction is, for the moment, strangely linear. Naturally so, for the supple line that runs the length from the nape of the neck to the relaxed instep has interested Velazquez. One wishes he had left it as an academy with few accessories, for the accessories which make a nude into a Venus are ill-chosen and untelling. The stuffy draperies serve no compositional purpose; the enlarged reflection of the face in the mirror is obtrusive and confusing, the plump, well-conditioned Cupid who holds the mirror is extraneous and silly. In short, the picture should either have been more naturalistic or of a more studied conventionality. Even granting the beautiful painting of the nude, the picture compares badly with the honest naturalism of Courbet and Manet in this vein, as it does with the provocative sensualism of Goya's Maya, or the artificial grandeur of Titian's Venus and Danae.

One should perhaps regard Velazquez's Venus as a very able but un-successful attempt to dispute Titian's inalienable laurels. Velazquez, whose intelligence was probably as narrow as it was acute, had not learned that there is no equivalence between a naked woman and a nude Venus.

At about fifty-seven Velazquez painted the two pictures, Las Meninas (1656, Prado, Museum), and the Tapestry Weavers (Las Hilanderas) (1659, Prado), which most fully expressed his lifelong ardor of research. For nearly a century they have been scrutinized and studied by ambitious young painters, and, despite the present vogue of anti-Impressionism, it is hard to foresee a time when these pictures will lose importance.

Before considering them separately and carefully, a word on their composition. In both cases it is entirely unprecedented. The pattern of Las Meninas is fixed once and for all by the character of the interior - the repeated rectangles of windows, a door, picture frames, the exposed edge of the big canvas on which the artist is working. Within the big, shadowy, yet luminous space which opens before you, the figure group forms at the level of the heads an undulating curve which counters the general rectangularity. The curve comes down and out to the picture plane in the head and body of the fine hound at the right.

Las Hilanderas offers a composition of quite a different sort. You look through a larger, dusky world, animated by the magnificent gesture and pose of the woman reeling yarn, through an arch into a world higher up and quivering with light, in which courtly women view a tapestry, their figures just distinguishable from its woven figures. It is a kind of picture within a picture - a fairyland created by the skillful work of the toilers seen in the nearer space. Strangely enough, within a dozen years or so the finest eye among Dutch painters, that of Jan Vermeer, was to make compositions of much this sort, and, of course, without knowledge of these masterpieces of Velazquez. But Vermeer was to conduct his experiment on a small scale. It is doubtful if he could have carried it off on the scale of life. It needed the eye and hand of a Velazquez to heroize what are essentially genre subjects.

In viewing Las Meninas one is first aware of the vast, dimly lighted space, of which the figures seem a sort of incident. Yet when you consider the group as such, it expresses a singularly tense solicitude for the lovely child in the centre, a devotion which has almost a religious character, like that of the saints in some Italian Adoration of the Virgin.

Perhaps the appeal of Las Meninas is chiefly technical. But here we should realize that the technique is merely the expression of a noble and gracious way of seeing. For the value of any picture is simply that it enables a sensitive beholder to experience the disciplined rapture of thc artist's creative act. Everything depends on the fineness and breadth of the artist's vision. If he sees in a small and mean way, his king, his saint, his Olympian deity will have a small and mean effect. If he sees in a large and generous way, his beggar will have grandeur. Very rightly Delacroix insisted that a ragged Jew by Rembrandt could be as sublime as a Sibyl by Michelangelo.

This largeness of vision develops the appropriate technical means. The size of the picture is very carefully adjusted to the natural angle of vision. The natural spaciousness is maintained at all sacrifice. The play of the light in space is fastidiously registered. And all these factors in simple representation become as well elements in decorative effect. In short, Velazquez decorates a space by the use of tone more than any painter before him. It is an unusual means of decoration. The eye trained to swirling lines and balanced areas of positive colour easily misses it. And because most of us see in a small way, it is easy to find Velazquez's airy spaciousness empty and uninteresting. His pictures, then, are an invitation and a challenge to see largely.

As for the magic of his tonalities, we can study his palette as he paints in Las Meninas. It contains only black, white and red. Yet the picture gives the sense of great variety and richness of colour. All these technical values were first values of contemplation to Velazquez, and may be values of contemplation to us.

At first sight Las Hilanderas has a stranger beauty. Its values are those of action deeply contemplated. On closer study, the picture stands less apart than Las Meninas, falls more in line with established attractions, recalls, say, the athletic romanticism of Tintoretto. The picture was painted in 1657, a year after Las Meninas. It is as if Velazquez, having created a masterpiece along completely unprecedented lines, wished to show that he could create a striking novelty while working under established procedures. Except the inner room, the fantastic picture within the picture, there is little that would have struck Tintoretto and his followers as new or odd. Even the greater subtlety of construction would have been approved by a Fetti or a Strozzi.

The composition may be regarded as a sort of emanation from the superbly posed head, back and arm of the spinner at the right, just as the light from her flesh and her white basque seems to pervade the space in radiating diminuendo. The theme, in a narrative sense, is artistic creation in two aspects - that of the worker and that of the beholder. Velazquez asserts the grandeur of the mere work, and suggests the joy that work makes possible. The picture is more brilliantly handled than Las Meninas, with larger sweeps of the brush and heavier applications of pigment. Again one feels Velazquez had his favourite Venetian, Tintoretto, in mind.

The composition is exceptional in Velazquez in observing central symmetry - a formality well disguised by the variety, energy and absence of symmetry in the balanced elements. The ladder that catches the light alongside the portal is an indispensable element in composition. Without it the central symmetry would be too apparent. Again, it required utmost tact to give the courtly scene in the inner room its fairy charm without sacrificing its reality. Perhaps the larger motive of the picture is that of the two phases of the work of art, creation and appreciation, the work of creation is the more real and significant. Such a reading at least corresponds to the emphasis which Velazquez has given to the two spaces which constitute this great picture.

As between these two pictures, in keeping with its more lively colour scheme, the composition lines of the Weavers flow more sinuously and harmoniously than the rigid forms of Las Meninas, and the masses twine and interweave in a more rhythmic and balanced pattern. Las Meninas is graver, nobler and more imposing, also less expected, less formal, and less aided by artificial elegancies of arrangement. Las Hilanderas is more supple and insinuating in its grace of pattern, more enchanting and varied in its treatment of colour and detail.

Death and Legacy

In June of 1660 they married the Infanta Maria Teresa to the young King of France, Louis XIV. The ceremony, which was held on the Isle of Pheasants, in the river dividing France from Spain, had to be planned by Velazquez in his role as marshal of the castle, and apparently over-taxed his resources, for on his return to Madrid he was stricken with a violent intermittent fever, and a little past midsummer he died. He had won generous acclaim from fellow artists, but apparently the laity regarded him simply as one more portrait painter. His pupil, Esteban Murillo, was far more widely known and admired until about seventy years ago. In the eighteenth century the magnificent Velazquezes owned by the king of France were hung, not in the public halls, but in the bathrooms. Similarly, a great American art patron of recent times relegated the Cezannes to the servants' quarters. The critical rehabilitation of Velazquez came with Impressionism, the ancestor and incomparable model for which he obviously was. Now that Impressionism itself is everywhere in retreat, one would expect a corresponding abatement of Velazquez's fame. But nothing of the sort seems to be happening, which is perhaps a sign that his Impressionism is, after all, merely one of many capacities that constitute his greatness.

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