Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, the most admired—perhaps the greatest—European painter who ever lived, possessed a miraculous gift for conveying a sense of truth. He gave the best of his talents to painting portraits, which capture the appearance of reality through the seemingly effortless handling of sensuous paint.
Born in Seville, the son of a lawyer of Portuguese origin, he began a six-year apprenticeship in 1611 with the painter Francisco Pacheco, whose studio resembled an academy in which students—including Francisco de Zurbarán and Alonso Cano—learned the techniques of painting in an idealizing style grounded in Catholic propriety. But in early works such as The Supper at Emmaus (14.40.631), Velázquez abandoned Pacheco’s old-fashioned style and painted directly from life. Influenced by the naturalism of Caravaggio, he portrayed Christ and two of his disciples with dramatic facial expressions, sharply lit against a plain background, the forms solidly modeled in somber colors. At this stage, Velázquez also specialized in kitchen scenes, or bodegones (literally, taverns), with religious scenes relegated to the background.
In the summer of 1623, Velázquez was summoned to Madrid to paint a portrait of the king (now lost, but it must have been similar to Philip IV (1605–1665), King of Spain [14.40.639] of the following year); its success led to his being named official painter to the king. He remained attached to the court for the rest of his life, ascending in the hierarchy of court appointments, eventually receiving a knighthood. At Madrid, his art was profoundly influenced by Venetian paintings in the royal collection and by Peter Paul Rubens, who spent six months at the court on a diplomatic mission during which he painted royal portraits and copied the king’s masterpieces by Titian.
From June 1629 to January 1631, Velázquez traveled in Italy. The influence of contemporary Italian artists may be seen in his mastery of perspective and his rendering of the male nude in the two large canvases he painted in Rome, The Forge of Vulcan (Museo del Prado, Madrid) and Joseph’s Coat Presented to Jacob (Escorial, Madrid).
The portrait of Don Gaspar de Guzmán (52.125) recalls the splendid equestrian portraits of individual members of the royal family that Velázquez painted in the 1630s. At the same time, he painted for the king unforgettable likenesses of court dwarfs and buffoons, capturing their inner suffering with dazzling brushwork and cool detachment.
In 1649–51, Velázquez made a second trip to Italy to collect works of art for the king, and the fresh exposure to classical antiquity resulted in masterworks such as The Toilette of Venus (“The Rokeby Venus”) (National Gallery, London). The portrait of his assistant, Juan de Pareja (1971.86), caused a sensation when Velázquez exhibited it in Rome. Hanging alongside works by the best artists of the time, the portrait was acclaimed for its extraordinary lifelike quality. Of all the painters then in Rome, he alone was granted permission to paint the pope. Upon seeing Innocent X (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), one observer wrote that Velázquez had come to Italy “not to learn but to teach, for his Innocent X was the amazement of Rome. Every artist copied it and looked upon it as a miracle.”
In his final decade, Velázquez’s handling of paint became increasingly free and luminous. This late style can be seen in María Teresa (1638–1683), Infanta of Spain (49.7.43)—a portrait probably made for her future husband, Louis XIV of France—and the breathtakingly beautiful portrayal of the royal family, Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting) (Prado). The artist stands to the left before an enormous canvas on which he is painting the king and queen, who are reflected in the mirror in the background, but the real subject of the picture is the little infanta who has come to watch Velázquez at work. She stands between two ladies-in-waiting, who coax her to behave, and two court dwarfs and a large dog, all rendered with astonishing freedom and truth to nature.
Because most of Velázquez’s work was carried out for the king, it remained in palaces where few people saw it. Not until the upheavals caused by Napoleon’s Peninsular War (1808–14) was some of his work dispersed throughout Northern Europe. In the nineteenth-century, his paintings made an enormous impact upon artists, and to the present day Velázquez is remembered as the painter’s painter.