Diego Velázquez is considered the most important painter of the Spanish Baroque period. His service as court painter to Felipe IV allowed him to study the great masters of national and international art and, with this, he achieved a very personal style that would leave an indelible mark on the history of painting.
But how was the life of Diego Velázquez? What are the characteristics of his style and his technique? What teachers had influence on him? What were his most important works?
Biography of Diego Velazquez
Diego Velázquez: Self-Portrait, 1640, oil on canvas, 45.8 cm × 38 cm, Valencia Museum of Fine Arts.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, better known as Diego Velázquez, was born in Seville in 1599. Of Portuguese grandparents, he was the son of Juan Rodríguez de Silva, and the Sevillian Jerónima Velázquez.
Diego Velázquez’s artistic training took place mostly in his hometown, Seville. There he received classes from two important masters. Apparently, the first was Francisco de Herrera. Later, he entered the workshop of master Francisco Pacheco, who was a fundamental figure in his life and subsequent performance.
In fact, in 1618 he married his teacher’s daughter, Juana Pacheco, when she was not yet 19 years old. With her he had two daughters, Francisca and Ignacia, also born in the city of Seville.
Diego Velázquez: The Water Carrier of Seville, c. 1620, oil on canvas, 106.7 cm × 81 cm, Apsley House, London, UK.
During his time in Seville, Diego Velázquez extensively developed still lifes, as well as tavern scenes or kitchen scenes and religious paintings. In everything, Velázquez displayed a tenebrist naturalism of great invoice that earned him wide recognition.
From this stage, in fact, is his celebrated canvas El aguador de Sevilla, which gave him an important professional projection. This naturalism of Velázquez dialogued with the great masters Caravaggio and Ribera, representatives of this trend in painting that reached levels never before explored.
From Seville to the court of King Felipe IV
Diego Velázquez: Portrait of the Infante Don Carlos, 1626-1628, oil on canvas, 209 cm × 125 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Encouraged by his teacher and father-in-law, Velázquez traveled to Madrid in 1622 with the idea of obtaining a position in the service of the Spanish monarchy. Although he does not achieve his goal and returns to Seville, he paints at that time a portrait of Luis de Góngora that catches the attention of the capital’s elite.
A year later, in 1623, he was called to Madrid by the Count-Duke of Olivares to paint a portrait of King Philip IV. He liked it so much that he obtained the position of master of the court chamber. Once installed, he was able to study the masters of the palace’s collection, such as Titian, whom Velázquez considered his favorite painter.
Under royal protection, Velázquez produced much of his work. Given the conditions of that time, his production was mostly limited to portraits of the royal family, courtly portraits and outstanding personalities.
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Velázquez had the recognition of important peers in the world of European painting. This was the case of Pedro Pablo Rubens, who was in Madrid during those years and with whom he came to collaborate. It was Rubens himself who recommended him to travel to Italy to study the great masters. Under his influence, Velázquez produced the famous canvas The Triumph of Bacchus, but unlike conventional painters, his frank naturalism made it closer to a still-life scene than to a mythological scene.
Trips to Italy in the work of Velázquez
Diego Velázquez: Equestrian Portrait of King Philip IV, h. 1635, oil on canvas, 301 cm × 314 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
In 1626, Velázquez traveled to Italy to study the great masters and perfect his artistic technique. During this period, he consistently studies the work of Tintoretto, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Sanzio. Supported by such studies, he refines his perspective model.
Velázquez returned to Madrid in the year 1631. His work, already mature and subject to a perceptible change of style, was extremely prolific from then on, and collaborated with many royal projects, among which we can mention the decoration of the new Palacio del Buen Retiro and the Torre de la Parada. It is also the time of his great canvases The Surrender of Breda and The Coronation of the Virgin.
In 1649, Velázquez would travel a second and last time to Italy in order to acquire new pieces for the royal collection, both pictorial and sculptural. The trip was also an opportunity to deepen his studies.
In that period, Velázquez has a son out of wedlock, named Antonio. He also gives freedom to his slave Juan de Pareja, portrayed by him in one of his best-known works.
Influenced by the technique, composition and sensualism of the great Italian masters, the artist made his only female nude in Rome: Venus in the mirror. The painter’s prestige was such that, after his insistence, he managed to get Pope Innocent X to grant him a portrait. In this portrait, Velázquez would show off a new artistic line refined in Italy, which would guarantee his definitive consecration back to Spain.
As can be seen, Velázquez gained in technique and broadened the spectrum of pictorial themes and genres that he executed with equal mastery: still lifes, portraits, history paintings, genre scenes, religious scenes and mythological scenes. The rise of his prestige was unstoppable.
The definitive consecration of Velázquez and his last years
Diego Velázquez: Las meninas, 1656, oil on canvas, 318 cm × 276 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Upon returning to Madrid, Velázquez brought an endowment of 300 new pieces for the collection of the royal house. After this, he was appointed chamberlain of the palace and continued to work for the king until the end of his days. At this stage, Velázquez obtained the long-awaited appointment as Knight of the Order of Santiago.
This will be the period in which he painted his most famous work, Las meninas, which reveals the artist’s conceptual interest in dignifying painting on a par with the liberal arts, while hinting at the monarchy’s concerns about royal succession.
Diego Velázquez died on August 6, 1660 with all the honors that a talented and consecrated artist like him could receive.
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Characteristics, style and contributions of Diego Velázquez
Diego Velázquez: Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650, oil on canvas, 140 cm × 120 cm, Doria Pamphili Gallery, Rome.
Although Velázquez showed great mastery in all his stages, the transformation of his line over the years is recognizable, thanks to which he managed to develop a particular and distinctive language that would immortalize him. Therefore, to talk about his style characteristics, it is necessary to take into account his evolution over time.
In any case, as general features we can mention the following: spatial depth, use of aerial perspective and direct work on the canvas, that is, without sketches, a technique called “painting alla prima”.
First stage or Seville stage
dark naturalism. Precise modeling. Great realism in the scenes. High contrast lighting. Manipulating light sources based on effects. Diagonal type composition. Pasty brushstrokes. Color palette between earthy and red.
Second stage or Madrid stage
In the early years of his time in Madrid, the painter changed his color palette. Little by little, he separated himself from tenebrist naturalism. The influence of Italian art can be perceived in the features of this stage, an expression of his artistic maturity. Let’s see.
Frank luminosity in his compositions. Use of light backgrounds. Replacement of finished brush strokes with loose brush strokes, with the application of translucent colors to accentuate details. Refinement of perspective. anatomical refinement.
With the latter, Velázquez left behind the coloration by layers, as was typical of his Spanish colleagues. This allowed him to create a original style which set a precedent in the history of Spanish painting.
His latest paintings show this new concept of the pictorial stroke that is not exhausted in detail, but leaves the textures open so that the image is completed in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps for this reason, Velázquez was an important influence on the Impressionists.
Paintings by Diego Velazquez
It is difficult to make a list of the most important works of Diego Velázquez, since the painter showed great importance in each one of them. Still, a few pieces in particular stand out. In addition to those that we have already exhibited, such as The Water Carrier of Seville, Portrait of the Infante Don Carlos, Equestrian Portrait of King Philip IV, Las Meninas and Portrait of Pope Innocent X, we can refer to the following works by Diego Velázquez:
The Immaculate Conception
Diego Velázquez: Immaculate Conception, c. 1618, oil on canvas, 135.5 cm. × 101.6 cm, National Gallery, London.
old woman frying eggs
Diego Velázquez: Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618, oil on canvas, 100.5 cm × 119.5 cm, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Diego Velázquez: The Triumph of Bacchus or The Drunkards, 1628-1629, oil on canvas, 165 cm × 225 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Diego Velázquez: The Tunic of José, 1630, oil on canvas, 223 cm × 250 cm, El Escorial Monastery, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain.
The Coronation of the Virgin
Diego Velázquez: The Coronation of the Virgin, 1635-1648, oil on canvas, 176 cm × 124 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa in a blue dress
Diego Velázquez: Portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress, 1659, oil on canvas, 127 × 107, Art History Museum, Vienna.
The Surrender of Breda or The Spears
Diego Velázquez: The Surrender of Breda or The Spears, 1634, oil on canvas, 307 cm × 367 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The Fable of Arachne or The Spinners
Diego Velázquez: The Fable of Arachne or The Spinners, c 1657, oil on canvas, 222.5 cm × 293 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.