Velazquez was born in Seville in 1599 and lived until 1660. In Seville, he studied with a local Mannerist Francisco Pacheco. In 1623 in Madrid, he was appointed the court painter. By 1627, Velazquez was established in the royal household. He eventually attained the rank of court chamberlain, which gave him a residence attached to the palace and a studio inside it. For more than 30 years, he painted King Philip IV and members of the royal family and court. From 1623 to 1660, he traveled to Italy. In 1658, the king rewarded him with the Order of Santiago. In each place he lived, he was open to a variety of artistic influences, which he then used in the creation of his personal style. This resulted from reflections on sixteenth-century Venetian painting, the naturalism of Caraveggio, and the work of contemporary painters such as Rubens and the classic artists working in Rome about 1630. Velazquez’s style is expressed primarily through court portraits, although his works also include genre scenes, religious subjects and various mythological fables.
As a court painter, Velazquez followed the tradition of court portraiture from such artists as Titian, Antonio Moro, Alonso Sanchez Coello, and Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. His composition follows the traditional model established by Sanchez Coello. The sitter appears full length, standing, dressed in black, gazing toward the viewer, with his feet placed at right angles to each other. Much of the effectiveness of the image is in the relationship of the figure to the surrounding space. Velazquez was masterful in using a range of blacks and grays. He had already mastered the earth tones earlier in his career in Seville. The use of black was imposed by the predominance of dark colors in Spanish court dress. He played with light and luster and a series of “sparkles” over the surface of the canvas to create bright areas that gave the body and volume to the figure, such as the golden chain, with the emblem of the Golden Fleece, the golilla (collar), the cuffs of the sleeves, and the gray braid on the costume in the painting Infante Don Carlos. This painting inspired poet Manuel Machado to write in the early twentieth century: “And, instead of a royal scepter, he barely holds/ with gallant unconsciousness, a suede glove/ the white hand with bluish veins.” The influence of this kind of painting can be seen in the portraits of many artists, from Manet to Eduardo Rosales to Sargent and Whistler.
It was Velazquez’s numerous portraits of court jesters, called hombres de placer (entertainers), that most attracted European attention during the nineteenth century. Characters such as these were found in many courts of Europe, and no important artist ever depicted them as often as Velazquez. They were discovered in Madrid, because the most important collection of them was in the Prado.
One of the paintings by Velazquez that was esteemed and praised by artists during the second half of the nineteenth century was The Jester Pablo de Valladolid. It inspired many other painters, and it caused Valezquez to be called the “painter of truth”. It is free of rigid classical and academic restraints. The subject shows his comic and theatrical ability and is painted in a declamatory pose. His legs are extended, and he gestures with his hand at some verbal allusion in his speech. The man in the painting has a lively gaze, and there are earth tones with grays and blacks in the background. He adds highlights of light and color in the human body that are most expressive in the head and in the hands. It is said that this painting inspired Goya, Whistler and Manet. Manet praised this painting as “possibly the most extraordinary piece of painting that has ever been done”.
Aesop painted by Velazquez also has influenced many other artists. Aesop appears to be holding a book (probably his fables), and he is surrounded by objects alluding to the circumstances of his life. His poor clothing refers to his origins as a slave and to his humble existence. The bucket of water in the painting symbolizes the ingenious answer he have to a riddle posed by his master, who consequently rewarded Aesop his freedom. The baggage by his feet could refer to the circumstances of his violent death after he criticized the inflated reputation of Delphos. The inhabitants of Delphos hid a cup in his baggage, and then, after accusing him of robbery, they hurled him off a cliff. The Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson was drawn to this painting and remarked that “one cannot imagine the fabler with any other face”. Other artists who were inspired by the painting of Aesop were Mariano Fortuny, Joaquin Sorolla, William Merritt Chase, Manet, and Sargent, all of whom were interested in the expression of his face.
Another painting of Velazquez titled Menippus was influential to others. Menippus was a simple philosopher born into slavery. His image in the painting shows him dressed in poor clothing, which alludes to his humble origins and lack of interest in worldly goods. He has a distanced smile and a pitcher on a board barely held up by two round stones. The brush stokes create a truthful image of a philosopher. Details of the Menippus’ painting showing his shoes, pants, and the hem of his cape have influenced other painters, such as, Manet, Mariano Fortuny, Degas, and Sargent.
His painting Infanta Margarita in 1653 shows a childlike grace, with a unique mix of color. Many references testify to the popularity of this painting in France among historians, critics, novelists, and artists of the nineteenth century. Renoir referred to the infanta’s pink sash when he said, “All of the painting is in it.” In 1870, Victor Hugo recreates the canvas in each of its details in literature in La Rose de L’infante.
Velazquez had a talent for rendering nature so freely, and has been called a second Caravaggio. He has the energy of the Greeks, the Romans’ propriety, and the pleasing manner of the Venetians. He transformed himself in so many ways, and he was able to “capture the particular spirit and movements of the person he was painting”, according to Papillon de la Ferte. Collector Pierre-Jean Mariette commented that Velazquez’s paintings were “executed with inconceivable bold brushstrokes and, at the proper distance, created a surprising effect, even producing a perfect illusion.”
Art, A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Frederick Hart, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1986
The Great Masters, Quantum Publishing, London, 2003
Manet/Velazquez:The French Taste for Spanish Painting, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, 2003
Velazquez, The Technique of Genius by Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998