His paternal grandfather was a Portuguese noble who, all fortune lost, moved with his wife from Oporto to Seville. To their son Juan de Silva and to Doña Jerónima Velázquez the artist was born, in the same year as Vandyck, one year after Zurbarán and Bernini, eighteen before Murillo. He was named Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velazquez; usually he called himself by his mother’s name, a practice common in southern Spain. He received a good education, learned some Latin and philosophy, and for a while tried science; then he turned to painting, studied briefly with Juan de Herrera, longer with Pacheco. “I married him to my daughter,” Pacheco tells us, “induced by his youth, integrity and good qualities, and the prospects of his great natural genius.”17
Velázquez set up his own studio, and soon attracted attention by his predilection for profane subjects. He mingled with the lowly, and delighted to put their thoughts and biographies into their faces. When he was still a lad of twenty he painted a great picture, The Water Carrier of Seville;18 here, in rags and patience, is the dignity of honest poverty. And at twenty-three he portrayed with already mature insight the poet Góngora (Boston)—eyes and nose piercing the world.
Presumably this was done during Velázquez’ first visit to Madrid (1622). Seville and its ecclesiastics were too narrow a field for him; some heat of ambition drove him to the capital, with his Water Carrier under his arm. There he courted the court unsuccessfully, for Philip IV and Olivares were busy with politics, marriages, and wars, and a dozen other artists were climbing the same stairs. Diego returned to Seville. A year passed; Prince Charles Stuart came to Madrid, wooed an infanta, and showed a taste for art; now Olivares sent for Velázquez. The black-eyed, black-haired youth rode up again to the capital, was made court painter, and took the fancy of the King by picturing him as an intrepid horseman on a prancing charger. Philip not only posed for Velázquez a dozen times, but encouraged the royal family (brothers, wives, children) and the court (ministers, generals, poets, jesters, dwarfs) to take their turn before that immortalizing brush. Diego was given a studio in the royal palace; and there, or near it, he spent nearly all the remaining thirty-seven years of his life. It was a magnificent opportunity and a narrowing imprisonment.
Two major influences broadened him. Rubens, then the most famous artist in the world, visited Madrid again in 1628—a master of light and shade, a reckless painter of pagan deities and voluptuous nudes; Velázquez was stirred. Rubens advised him to go to Italy, especially to Venice, and study those geniuses of coloring. Diego pleaded with Philip and was granted congé and four hundred precious ducats for the trip. We get a sample of maritime speeds in that age when we learn that Velázquez left Barcelona August 10, 1629, and reached Genoa August 20. He crossed Italy to Venice and sat for days before the great canvases of Tintoretto and Veronese, the portraits and the mythologies of Titian. He passed on to Ferrara and Rome, copied the ancient marbles in the Forum, and envied the drawing in the frescoes of Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Those majestic forms helped Velázquez to pass from the dark shadows of Caravaggio to a sharper rendering of figures in clear light. Then he moved south to Naples to visit Ribera; and from Naples he sailed back to Spain (January 1631).
Was it vanity—the sustaining shadow of every self—that prompted Philip to sit so often for an artist of such penetrating vision and meticulous veracity, or was it to give his portrait to soliciting friends? Sad is the change from the fine tall youth of the early pictures to the later revelations of color gone from the face and painted into the hair, of somber autocracy persisting, through years and defeats, in the cold blue eyes and the prehensile Hapsburg chin. If there is something superficial in these royal portraits it may be because there was nothing beneath the visible surface. When there was something there, as in the portraits of Góngora and Olivares, it came out on the canvas.
Between the King’s pictures came Queen Isabel, then Queen Mariana, and Philip’s sister Queen Maria of Hungary, sitting to no great result. Philip’s younger brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, posed as a hunter, with a dog all muscle, nerve, and alert devotion. Olivares mounted a black charger for his picture in the Prado, and a white charger for the same pose in the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York, leaving no doubt as to who was in the saddle in Spain. The most pleasing of these court portraits are those of the young Don Baltasar Carlos, in whom all the hopes of the dynasty rested. Velázquez painted this lovely child again and again, with transparent delight: in 1631 with an attendant dwarf;19 in 1632 as already the charm of the court;20in 1634 as swinging a marshal’s baton and (aged five) proudly bestriding a tremendous horse; in 1635 as a hunter carefully grasping his gun, but clearly too gentle to kill or rule; that guileless face answers those who thought that Velázquez rendered only surfaces. And so the series progressed, from Carlos’ second to his sixteenth year, when the beloved Prince fell into a fever and died.
The dwarf seen in one of these pictures was among several who gave the failures at Philip’s court a comforting sense of superiority and magnitude. The custom had come down from Imperial Rome and the still more ancient East. Even the papal court had dwarfs; Cardinal Vitelli collected forty-four to wait upon his guests. The first Duke of Buckingham presented Queen Henrietta Maria with a pie that contained a dwarf eighteen inches tall.21 For their own satisfaction, and the general amusement, Philip IV’s dwarfs were dressed in sumptuous raiment flashing jewelry and gold. Velázquez painted them with sympathy and humor: one, called Antonio el Ingles (the Englishman), proudly taller than his dog, though not half so handsome; another, Sebastián de Morra, scowling in his massive beard and clenching his fists against his fate. There were jesters too at the court. Velázquez painted five of them; one, whose portrait is called The Geographer22 because he points to a globe, looks more rational than Olivares; a second,Barbarossa, draws a ferocious sword; a third has dressed himself as Don Juan of Austria; a fourth struggles with an enormous book; a fifth, portrayed in The Idiot, is harmlessly, almost ingratiatingly insane.
Though always a courtier, and unmistakably a gentleman, Velázquez found relief from protocol by studying the life of those stately commoners who still adorn the Spanish scene. Early in his career (1629) he persuaded two handsome youths and half a dozen peasants to pose for Los borrachos (The Drinkers): a nearly naked Bacchus, sitting on a barrel, crowns with vines a kneeling figure, while about them gather rough devotees of the grape, some worn with work, some grizzled with age; this is perhaps the only memorable bacchanal in Spanish art of the Golden Century. Even more remarkable than these topers are the two strange paintings that Velázquez labeled Aesopus, the portrait of an old sad author, destitute and half blind, carrying his fables down the years, andMenippus, that of a Cynic philosopher of the third century B.C.; these are unforgettable faces. And not least in the world that Velázquez has left us are the animals: horses that now seem to us ungainly stout, but redeemed by proud heads and flashing eyes; a stag’s head with philosophic countenance resigned to human ferocity; and dogs on the qui vive for action or alertly asleep.
These were the byplays of Velázquez’ brush, perhaps a relief from the perils of painting without compliment the dignitaries of the court. Our estimate of the seventeenth-century Spaniards rises when we see these nobles, unassumingly robed, yet confronting with proud faith a world in which their beloved country seemed palsied with decay. Don Diego del Corral y Arellano, Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco,23 the sturdy sculptor Montañes, the supercilious Knight of Santiago,24 the handsome and diffident Francesco II d’Este,25 the magnificent, lordly Don Juan Francisco Pimental—these are portraits that reach the soul. And if the Portrait of a Man in the Capitoline Gallery of Rome is really of Velázquez himself, it is impossible not to love him—the carelessly curly hair, the modest dress, the soft and meditative eyes.
It is remarkable how, in Velázquez, the court crowded out the Church and the hallowed religious themes. He could not rival El Greco or Zurbarán in picturing wrinkled old Apostles and saints; only The Coronation of the Virgin among his religious paintings evoked all his powers. He was much happier in secular scenes. In Las lanzas, which we know better as The Surrender of Breda, he spread himself out lavishly, making it one of the largest (120 by 144 inches), but also one of the most detailed, canvases in the history of art. In the long war of Spain against the rebels in the Netherlands, Ambrosio de Spinola had recaptured for Spain (1625) the strategic city of Breda, in northern Brabant. Velázquez had met Spinola in 1629 on the voyage from Italy; he had been struck by the knightly nobility of the great general; now he signalized this in a masterpiece that showed the victorious Spanish lancers raising their pikes aloft, the captured city burning, the defeated and surrendering general, Justin of Nassau, offering the keys of the town to Spinola, and the chivalrous victor complimenting the loser on the bravery of his defense. In the striking contrasts of colors, and the individualization of the attendant figures, Velázquez achieved a triumph, which Philip IV was happy to display in the Palace of Buen Retiro.
In 1649, as reward for twenty-six years of work, Philip financed Velázquez’ second visit to Italy and commissioned the artist to secure castings of classic statuary and to purchase paintings by the Italian masters. Velázquez found prices already awesome; hardly any major work by the great Venetians could be bought at any price; for five pictures he had to pay 12,000 crowns ($150,000?). Were millionaires and others already using art as a hedge against inflation?
The best painting done in Italy in that year 1650 was Velázquez’ portrait of Innocent X. When the Pope consented to sit for him the artist, feeling out of practice, prepared his hand and eye by making a portrait of his mulatto slave, Juan de Pareja.II26 This picture met with universal acclaim among the artists of Rome, who at once elected Velázquez to their Academy of St. Luke. The Pope gave him only a few sittings; Velázquez made preliminary studies of the head, and one of these, in the National Gallery at Washington, is almost indistinguishable from the finished portrait that passed down as an heirloom in the Doria family to which the Pope belonged; it was preserved in the Palazzo Doria Pamfili, where Reynolds, viewing it, judged it “the most beautiful picture in Rome.”28Coming upon it there today, one feels in it a power, both of character and of art, that places it alongside Raphael’s Julius II and Titian’s Paul III, among the most impressive portraits of all time. Innocent X was seventysix when he posed for this picture; he died five years later. But for his pontifical dress and ring, one could mistake him for one of the bandit leaders who had troubled so many popes; but then, studying those hard and resolute features, we realize that Innocent was what he had to be—a ruler governing a state of unruly Italians, a pontiff guiding a Church of unchristian Christians reaching from Rome to the Philippines, from Rome to Paraguay; he had to have iron in his blood, steel in his eyes, mastery in his face; and Velázquez saw and placed them there. Seeing the portrait, the Pope made one wry comment: “Too true!”29 Roman artists admired the compact composition, the striking harmony of red, white, and gold, the suspicious, searching, sidelong glance of the blue-gray eyes, the hands themselves announcing character. When Velázquez left Italy (June 1651), it was not as a pupil seeking old masters, but as himself the acknowledged master of the age. For Rubens now was dead, and no one dreamed that an obscure Dutchman, struggling with debts and soon to retire to an Amsterdam ghetto, would rise from the grave after centuries to challenge that supremacy.
Returning to Madrid, Velázquez made the outstanding blunder of his life: he applied for, and obtained, appointment as aposentador del rey—manager of the royal palace. Perhaps he was tired of painting, or felt that he had reached the limit of his possibilities in that field. The post was no sinecure; it involved personal supervision of the palace, of its furniture and decoration, heating and sanitation; moreover, he was expected to make arrangements for court plays, balls, and tournaments, and to provide quarters for the court on royal tours. He had to accompany the King on all major journeys, for pleasure or politics or war. Could anything be more absurd for a man who had painted Innocent X? The pride of place had surmounted, in Velázquez, the consciousness of genius.
In the nine years that remained to him he gave to painting only such time as could be spared from his official chores. He resumed the portrayal of the royal family, of distinguished courtiers, and of the King himself. He made three lovely pictures of the Infanta Margarita, and painted her again as the center of one of his masterpieces, Las meninas—The Maids of Honor, servants, dwarf, and dog gather around the Princess, and Velázquez himself is seen in the background, putting them all on canvas. He portrayed her again in the great blue skirt that made her legs thenceforth a sacred and inscrutable mystery;30 and shortly before his death he pictured her as a miracle of innocence in lace. In 1657 he digressed from the court to paint Las hilanderas—The Tapestry Weavers—magnificent figures caught in the turmoil and dignity of work. In that same year he dared the Inquisition, and scandalized and delighted Spain, by painting the shapely back and buttocks of The Rokeby Venus, so called from its long stay in the home of an English family that bought it for £500 and sold it to the London National Gallery for £45,000. A suffragette, angry at such an exposure of trade secrets, slashed that rosy back in six places, but it was sewed up again alluringly.
In Las meninas we see Velázquez as he saw himself in his final years—hair abounding, proud mustache, slightly somber eyes. The mouth seems sensual, yet we hear nothing, in his record, of those sexual diversions and personal conflicts that use up so much of so many artists. He had a high standing at the court for his fine manners, his sense of humor, his decent family life. He has left us portraits of his wife Juana and his daughter Francisca;31 perhaps the subject of The Lady with the Fan32 is again Francisca. Her husband, Juan Bautista del Mazo, painted The Family of the Artist,33 showing Velázquez, in a studio background, and five children who helped to keep the family one.
His death resulted from his office. In the spring of 1660 he arranged the complex ceremonies and festivities that were to accompany, on an island in the boundary river Bidassoa, the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees and the betrothal of the Infanta María Teresa to Louis XIV. Velázquez had to provide for the transit of the court halfway across Spain to San Sebastián, and for four thousand pack mules carrying furniture, pictures, tapestry, and other decoration. The painter, now lost in the official, returned to the capital “tired with traveling by night and working by day,” as he reported to a friend. On July 31 he was put to bed with tertian fever. On August 6, or, in the words of his first biographer, “on the Feast of the Lord’s Transfiguration … he resigned his soul to God, who had created it to be a wonder of the world.”34 Eight days later his wife was laid beside him in the earth.
Those of us who do not know the technique of painting can only enjoy Velázquez’ works, not judging their quality, but letting them show us an age, a court, a roi fainéant, and a proud but gentle soul. Even so we may relish the classic clarity, simplicity, dignity, and truth of these pictures; we can surmise the labor and the skill that underlay their triumphs, the tentative sketches, the experimental distribution of figures, the apposition, depth, and transparency of colors, the molding play of light and shade. Critics, tired of hackneyed adulation, have pointed out the defects of the Spanish master: minor faults like the silly headdresses of his Infantas, the barrel bellies of his horses, the disproportionate mirrored face in The Rokeby Venus; and major blemishes like his lack of emotion, imagination, idealism, or sentiment, his almost feminine absorption in personalities rather than ideas, his apparent blindness to anything unseen by his eyes.35 Even in Velázquez’ days one of his rivals, Vincenzo Carducci, accused him of a myopic naturalism that mistook the conscientious representation of external reality as the highest function of pictorial art.
Who shall reply for Velázquez (who would never have replied) that he was not responsible for those headdresses and those equine bellies; that controlled emotion is more moving than emotion expressed; that the portraits of Baltasar Carlos and the princesses, the pictures of the maids of honor, and The Surrender of Breda show a delicate sentiment; that Aesopus and Menippus are studies in philosophy; that the portraits of Góngora, Olivares, and Innocent X are not imitations of surfaces but evocations of souls? There is no obvious pursuit of beauty in Velázquez, but rather a quest for the revealing type; few females smoothed with loveliness, but many men lined and charactered with life.
Always honored in Spain as her greatest painter, Velázquez was hardly known north of the Pyrenees—perhaps because so much of him was in the Prado—until Raphael Mengs proclaimed him to Germany in 1761, and the Napoleonic wars in Spain revealed him to England and France. Manet and the Impressionists hailed him as their precursor in the study and representation of light and atmosphere; and for half a century Velázquez was ranked with the highest. Whistler called him “the painter’s painter,” as the teacher of them all; Ruskin declared ex cathedra that “everything that Velázquez does may be regarded as absolutely right.” Then Meier-Graefe went to Spain to seek Velázquez in the Prado, found El Greco in Toledo, and announced that Velázquez “stopped where El Greco began,” and “always remained in the antechamber of art.”36 Suddenly half the world believed Velázquez to be second-rate.
Fame is a fashion. We tire of wearing old admirations on our pens, and find it exhilarating to discard worn idols from our fancy, to take down the dead mighty from their seats, and to put on the praises of new gods, blown up by our originality or exhumed by some fresh renown. There is no telling how great Velázquez will seem when the vanes of taste veer again.