June 6, 1599: Birth of Spanish Baroque painter & portrait master Diego Velazquez
Velazquez was born in Seville into a family of the lower nobility. He received a diverse education and studied under several of the region’s famous artists. At age 18 he received his master’s certification through Seville’s painters guild.
In 1623, he already had a growing reputation as an artist and an expanding clientele in Seville when his big break came: the favorite court painter of King Philip IV died, leaving the post vacant. A friend arranged an ad hoc interview with one of the king’s ministers to show off Velazquez’s talents, securing him the job. The painter and his young family were relocated to Madrid, all expenses paid – the ultimate work package with job security and benefits.
When the famous master Rubens traveled to Spain in 1628, their meeting prompted Velazquez to make a trip to Italy – the first of two he would make during his lifetime – to immerse himself in the country’s rich artistic heritage. He made the second journey nearly twenty years later as part of a royal assignment to build an art academy in Spain. Both trips made such an impact on him that they mark major dividing periods in his work.
In a country dominated entirely by the crown and the church, Velazquez was fortunate to enjoy a favored position with the monarchy, which gave him considerable artistic freedom. He was a trusted part of the king’s household, and was knighted in 1659. He died the following year of a fever following an excursion to a royal ceremony.
Velazquez rarely signed his paintings, and many have been lost or destroyed over time – in fact much of what we know about his output comes from documentation in the royal archives. Most of the works exhibited during his lifetime remained in the royal estates, and were little known publicly. Ironically, the wars and upheavals that damaged and destroyed so many of his paintings also scattered them across the continent, causing a surge in publicity that led to his being recognized as one of the most influential painters of the modern period. Artists of the early 1800s were especially impacted by his work. He is best remembered for his portraits, scenes from history and mythology, and genre paintings from many levels of Spanish society.
Images: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Favorite Velazquez portraits
Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas (or “The Maids of Honor”), oil on canvas, 1656. This famous piece is actually several paintings within a painting – the portraits of the Spanish infantas, the king and queen seen in a mirror observing, and Velazquez himself portraying himself both within the scene and in the facing mirror. The domestic tranquility belies its highly technical composition.
Conde-Duque de Olivares, oil on canvas, 1638. Olivares was the royal minister instrumental in obtaining Velazquez a position as court painter. Velazquez never forgot the favor; in fact when Olivares lost his rank years later, Velazquez stood by him, and the two remained good friends.
Portrait of Sebastian de Mora, oil on canvas, c1645. This was one of a series of portraits of the royal court’s entourage, including several dwarfs who served as jesters. I find these portraits particularly moving because they portray these individuals with such serious dignity, in contrast to the jibing and ridicule which they ordinarily faced.
Portrait of Juan Pareja, oil on canvas, 1650. This is my personal favorite out of all Velazquez’s portraits, and made a huge sensation at its first exhibit. Pareja was Velazquez’s personal servant, and this portrait was painted when he accompanied the painter on his second trip to Italy. It was exceptional for a person of low rank to be the subject of such extraordinary detail, sensitivity and realism in a piece of fine art.