The primary duty of a Baroque-era court painter was to produce flattering, yet lifelike, portraits of the reigning monarch and the royal family. Spanish painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
(1599-1660) mastered the art of portraits and is considered one of Spain's greatest painters, if not the most influential artist in European history. His most famous masterpiece, Las Meninas
(The Ladies-in-Waiting), hangs today in Madrid’s Museo del Prado.
Velázquez was the eldest of seven children born to working-class parents in Seville. Despite his humble upbringing, he aspired to become a Hidalgo (the lowest noble rank in Spain at the time). At the age of 11, he began an art apprenticeship with master painter Francisco Pacheco, whose daughter he would end up marrying. At the age of 18, the Seville Painters Guild certified Velázquez as a master painter, which allowed him to work freely as a professional. He spent the next few years doing various religious paintings, tavern scenes of everyday life known as bodegones
, and random aristocratic portraits. Two famous works from this early period are Vieja friendo huevos
(Old Woman Frying Eggs) and El aguador de Sevilla
(The Waterseller of Seville). His works earned him enough money to buy a comfortable house for himself, his wife, and their daughters, as well as a second house to rent out.
Velázquez realized from the very beginning that portrait painting would be a key aspect of his work. The painter wished to rid himself of his working-class status and fulfill a life-long ambition of attaining noble status, and he saw that the best way to achieve both would be to work in the royal courts of Madrid. Thanks to a recommendation by King Phillip's Chief Adviser — the Count-Duke of Olivares — and the King being pleased with Velázquez's rendition of him when he visited the court seeking work in 1622, Velázquez became an official court painter. Five years later, he became Usher of the Royal Chambers. His duty was to look after the royal quarters in addition to painting. This rapid ascension secured his position as an important member of the King's court but also earned him jealous criticisms from veteran painters of court.
In 1628, Velázquez was named chamber painter, one of the most important titles for a court painter, which allowed him to explore new themes and techniques as he created paintings to decorate the royal palaces. The most representative painting from this period is El triunfo de Baco
(The Triumph of Bacchus), popularly known as Los borrachos
(The Drinkers). During this time, Rubens visited the Spanish court and encouraged Velázquez to visit Italy. Velázquez took his advice and traveled to the country for the first time. His connection to the King of Spain ensured him access to numerous works, and he learned new techniques that would make a lasting impact on his style. During this period, Velázquez painted La Fragua de Vulcano
(Vulcan’s Forge) and his first paintings of landscapes using a technique with quick brush strokes that announced the coming of Impressionism
Velázquez’s return to Madrid in 1631 marks the start of his mature phase. Thanks to the king, who hadn’t let anyone else paint a portrait of him during the two years Velázquez spent in Italy, the artist continued to move up in the court and created a wide collection of portraits of the royal family
and other people of the court. His series of portraits of court dwarves, beginning in 1634, is particularly noteworthy because, in addition to the respectful depiction of his subjects, Velázquez’s stylistic innovations
are clearly visible. Almost a third of Velázquez’s work was painted in the 1630s.
In 1643, Velázquez was named chamber assistant, one of the most important positions of the court. In 1649 he made his second trip to Italy to buy old paintings and sculptures for the king. While there, he would paint one of his most famous and influential masterpieces, Retrato de Inocencio X
(Portrait of Pope Innocent X).
In 1651, Velázquez returned to Spain and continued his work as chamber painter, although his other administrative functions absorbed much of his time. Between 1656 and 1658, Velázquez painted two works that earned him the name “painter of the painters
” among artists of his time: La familia de Felipe IV
(The Family of Phillip IV), better known today as Las Meninas
(The Ladies-in-Waiting), and La fábula de Aracné
(The Fable of Arachne), also known as Las Hilanderas
(The Spinners). These two paintings are part of the permanent collection at the Prado Museum.
Both paintings contain symbolic complexity and play with light
. Las Meninas
, which includes a self-portrait of the painter behind his easel, depicts Infanta Margarita, the daughter of Phillip IV, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, her dwarf, and her dog. A complex composition of a group portrait, self-portrait, and candid scene paired with the canvas's size and brushwork emphasize Velázquez's skill of recreating reality, presenting viewers with a painted “photograph” that leads us to ask, “Who is he really painting, the infanta, the king and queen, or us?” By painting himself in close relation to the royals, he makes a point that he wishes to become a Knight of the Order of Santiago.
Velázquez died of a fever in 1660 with a well-established reputation as a master realist whose subjects "come to life" on canvas. Tradition states that Velázquez attained his dream of knighthood posthumously: the King himself painted Santiago's cross on Velazquez's chest in Las Menina
s as an honor.
His ability to merge color, light, and lines has greatly influenced many other artists, especially Picasso
. Picasso re-created 58 cubist versions of Las Meninas
, and Dalí his own version of Margarita. Las Meninas
is the most commented painting discussed in art history classes worldwide — and we hope you seek its beauty when you come to learn Spanish with don Quijote in Madrid