On 31 March 1621, King Philip III of Spain died unexpectedly, and his fifteen year-old son, another Philip, succeeded him. The following year, the aspiring artist Diego Velázquez travelled to Madrid where he tried to gain admission to Philip IV’s new court, but failed and returned to his home city of Seville.
Velázquez knew that success required influence, and undertook to strengthen his influence with the Count of Olivares, who dealt with most affairs of state for the young monarch. Velázquez’s father-in-law had conveniently painted the Count’s portrait a decade earlier, giving the young painter a valuable introduction.
In 1623, Velázquez headed off to Madrid a second time, meeting with success. On 6 October, he was appointed a Painter Royal, and embarked on his long career at court with his major patron.
Philip IV, Standing is one of Velázquez’s first portraits of the monarch, and is recorded as being formally accepted in December 1624. One of the mysteries surrounding this work is its extensive pentimenti. It has been suggested that it wasn’t intended for open display, but as a model for the workshop. However, examination has shown that the changes, which bring greater realism in the king’s Habsburg facial features, weren’t made until four years later, probably in 1627-28. The reason remains obscure.
At around the same time, Velázquez painted the king’s most trusted advisor, in his Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares (1624). This was intended as a pendant to that of the king, both being commissioned by Don García Pérez de Araciel, a close advisor to the Count of Olivares.
Velázquez was of course not the only painter at court: he became the most junior of a group of artists of varied status and influence. Among the most senior was Vicente Carducho, who had been painting religious and narrative works for the court for over twenty years. Carducho was quite opinionated, and a decade later published what became one of the standard references for Spanish art.
The young Velázquez had limited experience in religious or narrative works, and initially his court work consisted almost entirely of portraits: a genre which, though lucrative, was despised by the ‘best’ painters. For Velázquez to rise in status and influence at court, he had to become a superior narrative artist so that his work entered the royal collection on merit, rather than as a mere record.
In 1627, a jury appointed by the King recommended that Velázquez’ portrait of the king was superior in competition against those of Carducho, Caxés, and Angelo Nardi. The reward was appointment as Usher of the Chamber, an honour which brought with it a free apartment, medical care, and coincidentally backpayments which had been due to him. The king also agreed to Velázquez visiting Italy, although no date for that was set.
In August of the following year, Peter Paul Rubens came to stay in Madrid for one of his diplomatic missions. Rubens and Velázquez became friends (they had already corresponded), and Rubens helped the younger artist transform his narrative works.
Painted while Rubens was on hand to advise, The Triumph of Bacchus, or The Drinkers from 1628-29 marks a point of departure for Velázquez. Surrounded by a drinking party of older rugged-faced men, the young Bacchus is placing a crown on the head of a younger man, who kneels for the honour. Five of the figures are amazingly lifelike: very contemporary but also timeless, their faces and clothing telling so much about them. For this, Philip paid Velázquez 100 ducats, a goodly sum.
Like his predecessors, the King was both a collector of paintings and a patron of the arts.
Among the seven poesie paintings commissioned by King Philip II from Titian was his justly famous Rape of Europa (1560-2).
When Rubens was in Madrid he painted this fine and faithful copy to add to the royal collection. Velázquez and Rubens then agreed to travel to Italy together, so the former could copy old masters and develop his skills. Unfortunately, Rubens was recalled to Antwerp, leaving Velázquez to journey without him. Velázquez left Madrid in August 1629, and headed first to Genoa by sea, then overland to Milan and Venice.
From there he travelled on to Rome, where he stayed for almost a year in rooms in the Vatican Palace. During the hottest two months of the summer, he moved out of the city to the relative cool of the Villa Medici, where he painted what are almost certainly the first landscape oil sketches made en plein air in Europe.
Villa Medici in Rome, Pavilion of Ariadne (1630) shows a sculpture which Velázquez had apparently been interested in drawing. It is relatively small, and executed in a very sketchy manner, with thinned paint which has subsequently abraded from patches of the surface. The columns and arches are quickly formed, and the details of the two figures in the foreground are made from a series of quick brushstrokes, some with thicker paint.
The second landscape to have survived is Villa Medici in Rome, Two Men at the Entrance of a Cave (1630), which is the better-preserved. This shows the entrance to a grotto, which is thought to have been undergoing repair at the time, and is therefore boarded shut.
When Velázquez returned from Italy by early 1631 it was time to get on with his court duties. Over the next fifteen years, he and his workshop produced a great many portraits, of Philip IV, his relatives and aides, of court jesters and royal children, standing and mounted on horseback.
His duties didn’t stop at creating paintings for the royal collection. He was heavily involved in the completion of the new royal palace in Madrid, the Buen Retiro, whose decoration was being finished in 1635. This was a project which had first been proposed by Count-Duke Olivares, and involved selecting paintings from other palaces and deciding where best to display them – a delicate task to meet royal satisfaction. Then in 1636, the king decided to enlarge his hunting lodge at El Pardo, near Madrid, known as the Torre de la Parada. Once again, Velázquez was employed in choosing and making paintings for it.
During the 1640s, Velázquez and the King became closer. Royal visits to the artist’s workshop became more frequent, and an escape for the King from the world of politics. Velázquez painted the first of his two great enigmatic paintings in this latter part of his career.
The early history of Las Hilanderas is as dubious as its reading. It first appears in the inventory of paintings owned by one Pedro de Arce, in 1664, when it was recorded as depicting the story of Arachne. However, it seems most unlikely that de Arce was its original owner, as he didn’t own any paintings by Velázquez in 1657, and seems to have traded in luxury goods rather than being a connoisseur of them. Knox suggests that it was probably painted for the king, or another member of the royal court, who sold it on to de Arce between 1657-1664.
As he was completing this, Velázquez seized the opportunity of the king’s desire for more paintings for his palace in Madrid, and proposed he should be sent to Rome and Venice to secure for him works by Titian, Veronese, Bassano and Raphael which would please the monarch. He was successful, and in November 1648 set off, reaching Genoa by sea in April the following year.
He made his way slowly to Rome, and on to Naples, purchasing several paintings and sculptures which are now in the Prado in Madrid.
When Velázquez was in Rome during this second visit, he painted one of his most famous portraits, that of Pope Innocent X (1650). This is one of two portraits which are thought to have been made at the time; the second, of bust length, exists in several copies as well. Velázquez didn’t rush back to court, and started receiving missives from Madrid that he should return by early June 1650 at the latest. However, the artist was clearly enjoying a spree of painting more varied portraits, and didn’t arrive back in Barcelona until June of the following year!
Back in Madrid, Velázquez returned to portraiture, which concentrated on the ladies and daughters of the royal family. This portrait of Queen Mariana (of Austria) painted in 1652-53 is the earliest of three surviving paintings of her that he made during the period 1652-57. Even in such a formal royal portrait, Velázquez’ brushwork had become extremely painterly. Despite this unfettered application of paint, the fabrics appear very lifelike – a skill as remarkable as that of Rembrandt.
This portrait has a surprising secret, which was only revealed following its radiography: so similar were the Habsburg features of Mariana and Philip IV that Mariana’s head was actually painted over an unfinished portrait of the king.
In February 1652, Velázquez was appointed the Chamberlain of the Royal Palace, a very senior position at court which would have kept him busy. The king frequently came to Velázquez while he was painting in his workshop, often just for a quick chat. This was a remarkably close relationship between a monarch and his painter.
In about 1656, Velázquez painted this portrait of the Infanta Margarita, daughter of Queen Mariana, and later by marriage the Holy Roman Empress. She was born in 1651 in Madrid, and died at the age of only 21 in 1673, but still outlived three of her four children.
For Velázquez and his workshop, painting portraits of royal children remained an important task. Many were sent overseas to other courts in the hope that they would encourage politically important arrangements for marriage. Infant and child mortality was also so high that, in many cases, those portraits were the most enduring records of their subjects’ existence.
The culmination of these portraits is Velázquez’ most famous and enigmatic painting, Las Meninas, or The Maids of Honour, its translation, or the more descriptiveVelázquez and the Royal Family, which he made in 1656-57. King Philip IV, Queen Mariana, the Infanta Margarita, other members of the royal circle, and Velázquez himself all come together in one of the most intriguing paintings of the century.
The artist is thought to have painted this for King Philip IV himself, and it continued to hang in the Alcázar Palace until its major fire at Christmas in 1734, when it was damaged. It is one of the most important paintings in the Prado in Madrid, perhaps as attractive as the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.
The figures occupy a strip across the painting, although this isn’t frieze-like as they are at different depths into the view. Working from the left, these are:
- Diego Velázquez, the artist, making this a self-portrait and more;
- Doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor, one of the Maids of Honour;
- Queen Mariana of Austria, wife of King Philip IV, seen in the mirror behind;
- King Philip IV, also in the mirror;
- the Infanta Margaret Theresa, who is literally in the limelight and the focus of the painting;
- Don José Nieto Velázquez, the queen’s chamberlain, who is far back in the distance;
- Doña Isabel de Velasco, to the right of the Infanta, another Maid of Honour;
- Doña Marcela de Ulloa, behind Isabel de Velasco, who is the Infanta’s chaperone;
- an unidentified bodyguard, or guardadamas, with Marcela de Ulloa;
- Maribarbola, or Maria Barbola, a German dwarf;
- Nicolas Pertusato, an Italian dwarf whose foot is trying to arouse the large mastiff dog in the foreground.
Although hard to see now, attached to Velázquez are the keys symbolic of his official duties at court, and emblazoned on his left chest is the distinctive red cross of the Order of Santiago. That is a puzzle, because he wasn’t admitted to the order until 1659, long after he had completed this painting. Most readings suppose that he added this detail after this last great honour had been bestowed on him, although I’m not aware of any good evidence that was the case.
Two figures given a prominent and unusual place are the King and Queen, who are shown reflected in the rectangular plane mirror on the far wall.
In 1660, Velázquez was put in charge of decorating a wedding pavilion for the marriage betweem Maria Theresa and Louis XIV, which sealed a peace treaty between Spain and France. It was held on a swampy island, and a month after his return from that, Velázquez developed a fever. He died on 6 August 1660, with his wife joining him a week later, presumably from the same infectious disease. His royal patron and friend entered decline and died five years later.
Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido (1998) Velázquez, the Technique of Genius, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 10124 9.
José López-Rey and Odile Delenda (2014) Velázquez The Complete Works, Taschen and the Wildenstein Institute. ISBN 978 3 8365 5016 1.