Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velazquez was born in Seville, the oldest of six children. Both his parents were from the lesser nobility. Between 1611 and 1617 Velazquez 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 Velazquez absorbed the most popular contemporary styles of painting, derived, in part, from both Flemish and Italian realism.
Many of the earliest Velazquez paintings show a strong naturalist bias, as does The Meal (1617?, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), which may have been his first paintings 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 portrait paintings and religious scenes—into which his youthful paintings, executed between about 1617 and 1623, may be placed. In his kitchen paintings, a few figures are combined with studied still-life objects , as in Water Seller of Seville (1619?-1620?, Wellington Museum, London). In these paintings, Velázquez’s direct representation of nature and masterly effects of light and shadow make inevitable a comparison with the paintings of Italian painter Caravaggio. Velazquez 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, Velazquez painted his own family in the guise of biblical figures, including a self-portrait as well.
Velazquez 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 Velazquez was introduced to such luminaries as poet Luis de Góngora y Argote, whose portrait painting Velazquez executed in 1622 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Such contact was important for Velázquez’s later paintings on mythological and classical subjects.
APPOINTMENT AS COURT PAINTER
In 1622 Velazquez 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, Velazquez returned to the capital and, after executing a portrait painting(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 painting efforts were dedicated to portraiture. Mythological paintings 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 Velazquez was one of the few painters with whom he associated. Although Rubensdid not have a direct impact on the style of the younger painter, their conversations almost certainly inspired Velazquez to visit the art collections in Italy that were so much admired by his fellow artist. In August 1629 Velazquez departed from Barcelona for Genoa and spent most of the next two years traveling in Italy. From GenoaVelazquez proceeded to Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, returning to Spain from Naples in January 1631. In the course of his journey Velazquez closely studied both the art of the Renaissance and contemporary painting. Several of the paintings Velazquez 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, Velazquez 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 Velazquez 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 paintings 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 painting of the Spanish baroque.
Velázquez’s second major series of paintings from the 1630s is a group of hunting portrait paintings 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. Velazquez painted few religious paintings after entering the king’s employ; Saints Anthony and Paul (late 1630s, Prado) and Immaculate Conception (1644?, Prado) are notable exceptions.
During the last 20 years of Velázquez’s life, as his rise to prominence in court circles continued, Velazquez paintings as court official and architect assumed prime importance, limiting his artistic output. In 1649 Velazquez made a second trip to Italy, this time to buy paintings for the king’s collection. During his year’s stay in Rome from 1649 to 1650 Velazquez 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 Velazquez 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 paintings of the Velazquez last two decades are Las Hilanderas (The Spinners, about 1656, Prado), also known as The Fable of Arachne (see Arachne), a painting of sophisticated mythological symbolism, and his masterwork, Las meninas (The Maids of Honor, 1656, Prado), a stunning group portrait painting of the royal family and Velazquez himself in the act of painting.