Explore the life and art of Spanish painter Diego Velázquez
After the Renaissance, art continued to flourish in most of Europe. 17th-century Spain was marked by a period of creative renewal known as the Spanish Golden Age, which coincided with the drama and opulence of the Baroque period. Among the many influential artists who emerged during this time, one is best known for his honest and exquisite portraits of royalty: the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.
Employed by Philip IV of Spain, Velázquez was commissioned to create more than 30 portraits of the king during his lifetime. His position as a court painter allowed the artist to travel to Europe and see the art of the Old Masters, and capture some of the most prestigious people of the time. His portraits are considered to be among the most beautiful ever made and have had a lasting impact on future artists like Manet and Picasso.
Here we will explore the life and art of Velázquez.
Who was Diego Velázquez?
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was a prominent Spanish painter during the Baroque movement, and a major figure in the Spanish Golden Age—A period of artistic renewal in Spain. Originally from Seville, he showed a talent for art from an early age and apprenticed with a local painter in the city. In 1622, King Philip IVThe favorite court painter of died and Velázquez, who was already well known, was ordered to step forward and submit a portrait. Later, in 1624, the young artist moved to Madrid and became a official court painter, the first milestone in a long career with the Habsburg royal family and many other people of power.
Philip IV of Spain (1605-1665), also called the “King of the planet” by his contemporaries, was famous for his arts patronage. When Velázquez was first retained in royal service, he was the same age as the royal and the two developed a friendly relationship. Most of Velázquez’s early commissions were portraits of the king, intended to show the richness and majestic demeanor of the subject. These images have been distributed to other courts in Europe.
Later, when Philip IV’s son Prince Balthasar Charles was born, Velázquez documented the heir in a series of realistic portraits, until the prince’s death in 1646. The Spanish painter also captured the first and second wives of the king and his other children. All these works testify to the mastery of the artist tenebrism—A contrast of light and dark — and attention to detail. Velázquez wanted to represent his subjects as he saw them.
Besides his numerous portraits of the Spanish royal family, Velázquez also produced paintings of other characters, both at the court of Philip and abroad. Among his other subjects were jesters, dwarves, soldiers and poets.
During one of his trips to Italy he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. Velázquez prepared for the occasion by painting a portrait of his assistant Juan de Pareja-a Spaniard who was born into slavery. This coin displays the Impressionist style brushstrokes that Velázquez would employ in the portrait of the Pope, as well as a limited color palette. A few years later, Velázquez released Pareja and he became a freelance artist.
Velázquez was known to have captured the reality of its subjects without too much flattery. In fact, when the Pope saw the finished image, he was recorded exclaiming, “This is too true! It’s so true ! Nonetheless, he accepted it, and the portrait is considered by many historians to be one of the greatest ever made.
Francis Bacon made his own version of this painting called Study after the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez.
Late art & Las Meninas
After working as a royal painter for 30 years, Velázquez was a staple of the Spanish court who painted portraits of the entire royal family. After the remarriage of Philip IV with Mariana of Austria, Velázquez was commissioned to make a huge portrait of their daughter, the Infante Marguerite-Therese, to be displayed in the king’s private office.
Entitled Las Meninas, this massive and highly layered painting represents the young 5-year-old princess wearing an opulent white dress, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting. On the right are two dwarfs and a sleeping Spanish mastiff. On the left is Velázquez himself, looking at the viewer as he paints his portrait. Additionally, the background features other characters including Margaret Theresa’s chaperone Marcela de Ulloa chatting with a shady bodyguard and Queen’s chamberlain José Nieto standing in the doorway. The mirror hanging on the back wall presents another hidden portrait of King Philip IV and the Queen.
Las Meninas is by far the most complex painting Velázquez has produced at this point, showing his incredible pictorial prowess and affinity for capturing his subjects in ever new and engaging ways.
Despite being a major figure in the Baroque movement, Velázquez retained a very individualistic style that was rooted in expressive brushstrokes, a limited color palette and beautiful light. He managed to capture the inner and outer reality of his many different subjects, winning praise from art lovers all over Europe.
Velázquez had a major impact on the course of art history, especially in the work of Édouard Manet (which straddled the line of realism and impressionism), Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. His masterpiece Las Meninas is considered one of the greatest paintings of all time.
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