Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez became a prominent Baroque painter of the Spanish Golden Age and one of the most revered Spanish artists of all time. He was the leading court artist, working for King Philip IV, which freed him of the necessity of working with religious orders. His contribution has reached from his time into Modernity, as he was praised by artists such as Edouard Manet. Throughout the ages, Velazquez's manner has intrigued many. His most known artwork, Las Meninas, was analyzed philosophically by the likes of Michel Foucault and several authors. His conciliation of a loose brushstroke, detailed skin depiction, and complex compositions are traits of an artist that gave the same importance to the work's visuality and the author's thoughts behind it. In art history, Velazquez marks the growing self-awareness of painting that reached its peak during Modernism.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was baptized in Seville, Andalucia, in Southern Spain on June 1599. As a child, he had a rigorous Christian education. The figure of God was feared like an authoritarian father. He was a brilliant pupil and studied philosophy and languages. Later in his life, the artist tried to claim that his family belonged to the nobility, but if they did, it was to a lower-status one.
His love for art naturally showed early, and he became Francisco de Herrera's student for a year. Herrera was praised as a masterful artist but had a difficult temper, and the young Diego Rodriguez had a hard time working under him.
The artist was only twelve when he left Herrera's studio and started to work as Francisco Pacheco's apprentice. They signed a six-year contract. Velazquez had to work as Pacheco's assistant and help with all the process and painting materials, such as frame-making, preparing canvases, and mixing pigments to produce the paint.
While his master was a rather mediocre artist, following models provided by Michelangelo and Raphael, he was knowledgeable on Classical culture, a rare trait among painters in his day. Pacheco had ties to both the clergy and Seville's literary circles, something he introduced to Velazquez. Since Francisco Pacheco's aesthetic affiliations were idealist ones, with him not being particularly fond of Flemish painting's rising naturalism, his emphasis while teaching Velazquez was on perspective and proportion.
After his contract ended in 1617, Diego Velazquez was recognized as a painter by both his teacher Francisco Pacheco and a local artist, Juan de Uceda. The Spanish artist was accepted into the city's guild. From this year on, he was able to hire assistants and make his income as a full-time artist. There is documentation of Diego Velázquez having apprentices as soon as 1620.
Right before turning 19, he married Juana Pacheco - his teacher's daughter. A pupil marrying into the family of his master was a common practice, as a way to keep their network and clientele always close and inside the family. Their first-born was Francisca de Silva Velazquez y Pacheco, who married Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo. Sadly, their second daughter, Ignacia de Silva Velázquez y Pacheco, passed away as a small child.
Velazquez created a reputation as an outstanding artist in Seville by the early 1620s and was quite aware of his city's artistic circles and trends. An oil on canvas, such as Peasants at the Table, done in 1620, is a primary example of the level of mastery that the painter had reached at an early age.
The ascending artist's approach to painting was fresh in Spanish art. Many of the painters still had the same inspiration as Francisco Pacheco: they followed the models laid out by Renaissance masters, and their settings and backgrounds were usually idealized. It's highly improbable that he had contact with Caravaggio's work, but his lighting is similar to the Italian painter, using high contrast tenebrism. His early artworks are believed to be influenced by El Greco and his most remarkable disciple, Luis Tristán.
In 1621, the King of Spain, Philip III, died. Philip IV, the new King, favored the nobleman Gaspar de Guzmán, a Sevillian who became Philip's valet. Knowing this, Francisco Pacheco tried his best to make his son-in-law closer to the court. Velazquez traveled to Madrid, where he met with the famed poet Luís de Góngora, chaplain to King Philip IV. The painter portrayed Góngora with his severe expression in the oil painting Don Luis Gongora y Argote.
While in Madrid, Velazquez was able to visit the Royal Family's art collection, with the help of Juan de Fonseca, Pacheco's close friend. There he saw many paintings and some of the most famous artworks of the Old Masters, such as Tiziano, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Bassano. This contact impacted the painter's work, and Tiziano's influence is especially perceived in Velazquez's colorful compositions of his later production.
By the end of 1622, Rodrigo de Villandrando, one of the King's best court painters, passed away, leaving a spot for Velazquez to fill. By August of 1623, Velazquez was asked to complete a quick portrait of Philip IV, which was highly praised, and because of it, the artist was commanded to move to Madrid and became an official court painter. Not only that, Velazquez became the King's exclusive portrait artist, and previous portraits concluded by other artists were stored.
For diplomatic reasons, Peter Paul Rubens arrived in the Spanish capital in 1628, where he remained for about a year. During this period, the two artists worked together, and an allegorical shift can be felt in the Spaniard's work after the encounter. Rubens strongly encouraged his fellow painter to make a trip to Italy.
With the influence of the Flemish painter, Velazquez made a request to go to Italy with the justification of completing his studies. He received money from the government to do so, and as the King's painter, had access to valuable collections. This trip was quite significant for the artist's career, resulting in the development of Velazquez's mature style. The tenebrism of his early work gives away to luminescent pictures and broader use of color.
After returning to Spain, he established an atelier in Alcazar and had assistants working with him. That's how he met, in 1631, his soon-to-be son-in-law Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo, who eventually became his most trusted assistant. The 1630s marked the painter's consolidation in the Spanish court, as he progressively received more grants and positions in art-related events.
As Philip's head painter, Velazquez joined him on various trips, like to Aragon in 1642 and again two years later. Altogether, the Spanish painter concluded forty portraits of the King, as well as portraying his family. It was considered an honor to sit for Velazquez - some soldiers, churchmen, and Cavaliers had this once in a lifetime opportunity.
The 1640s represent Velazquez's best period, in which he created his most authentic artworks. He concluded many portraits of the royal family and other notable Spanish court members, and by 1656, he culminated his efforts into his most celebrated masterpiece: Las Meninas.
From 1648 to 1651, Velazquez made a second trip to Italy, where the final shift in his art happened. A Venus at Her Mirror, a female nude of the Greek goddess, was inspired by the way the motif was treated by Rubens and Tiziano. This masterpiece is an example of how Velazquez's later phase was influenced by Italian art: with reduced and more subtle chromatism in his work.
After returning to the Spanish court, the painter is appointed to royal functions, and his job as a bureaucratic worker reduced the time he could spend painting. Yet, divided between his court's assignments and his painting practice, he was capable of making one, if not the absolute masterpiece of art history. Las Meninas, originally known as The Family of Philip IV, is a complex composition.
At first glance, the viewer sees Infanta Margarita Teresa in the center of the image. Around her, there are other children that belong to the nobility. The adults on the right, with their features obscured by the shadows, are employees of the Royal family, just as José Nieto, the man leaving through the back stairs. The remaining three figures of the work are key to understanding it: Velázquez himself on the left of Margarita, painting an easel and looking in the direction of the viewer.
On the back, between Velázquez and the door that provides lighting, there is a mirror. Reflected in the mirror there are both King and Queen, the supposed subject that Velázquez was painting during the scene. This optical resource also equates the viewer to the figure of the Royal Family, who in the narrative of the picture would be standing in the position of the spectator. Painted in Velázquez's later style, using a reduced palette and a more harsh and somber illumination, reminiscent of the bodegas, the first Sevillian scene created by the artist, Las Meninas, is a masterpiece.
The faces of the figures were rendered with detail and smooth surfaces, while many aspects of their clothing can be seen done in alla prima, gestural brushstrokes, and a variety of painterly marks. The details of the faces disappear as the figures are farther into the background, giving the whole image a sense of photographic focus. This sensation of a fulgurant moment, rendered through the manner, is what captivated Manet's eye.
After returning to Madrid in 1660, the 61-year-old artist began running a horrible fever, which led to his death in less than a week. Velazquez's artwork was truly impactful for Spanish art and continued to inspire the XIX century artists, like Edouard Manet and the Impressionists. In figurative painting, few are as influential as Velazquez was.