Diego Rodriguez de Silva, who always signed Velasquez, was born in Seville but was of Porugese origin, Any training he may have had before entering Pacheco's Academy in Seville in 1613 may be disregarded; in 1617 he became an independent master and in 1618 married Pacheco's daughter. It is now known that both the bodegon scenes in Edinburgh and London are dated 1618, and the Prado Adoration is dated 1619: his Caravaggesque period is thus rendered less obscure. The early Immaculate Conception (London, NG) also owes much to Pacheco's book.
He worked in Seville until 1622 and his early paintings show his interest in the naturalistic representation of things seen in strong light. In 1622 he visited Madrid, and in 1623 returnmed there to become Court Painter. He was a slow worker, with a deliberate technique without bravura, and sober colour rather low in tone, and he used a plain background for many of his portraits so that the figure stands out as a silhouette. His court appointment gave him few opportunities for religious painting, mythologies were rare in Spain, and only occasionally did he execute subject pictures, except during his Italian journeys.
He was little influenced by other artists, though he profited from the Titians in the Spanish Royal Coll. and the visit of Rubens in 1628, which was his first contact with a great living painter, who was also a Court Painter, though one with an entirely different vision, temperament and artistic education. Whether or not it was Rubens who inspired him to visit Italy, it was due to Ruben's influence that he obtained permission to go.
He left in August 1629, visited Genoa, Venice, Rome and Naples (where he met Ribera) and returned to Madrid in 1631. The Topers ('Los Borrachos'): in the Spanish Royal Coll. by July 1629), with its character heads and still-life detail, suggests the influence of Ribera's realism, and the subject pictures painted in Italy (Joseph's Coat Brought to Jacob: Escorial, and the Forge of Vulcan: Prado) show his preoccupation with the male nude and his fuller range of colour. The main effect of his Italian journey was to increase his breadth of vision, but without affecting its fundamentally realistic basis.
The Surrender of Breda (Madrid, Prado) records an incident in the Dutch Wars of Independence which took place in 1625. In 1634 Velazquez recorded the moment when the Marchese Spinola (whom he had known in Italy in 1629) received the surrender from Justin of Nassau, as one of a series of victory pictures (others were by Maino and Zurbaran) intended to accompany his equestrian portraits of Philip, his Queen, and his heir, Don Balthasar Carlos, in the royal palace. Velazquez's composition may owe something to Tempesta's engravings after van Veen in the Bataviorum cum Romanis Bellum of Tacitus, published in Antwerp in 1612, but his brilliant colour, panoramic landscape background and heightened realism transcend any derivation. Portraits painted after his return journey possibly owe their more brilliant colour to their being the record of the only joyous years in the King's dreary reign - the portrait of the King called The Fraga Philip (1644: Frick Coll., New York, Mazo) has a richness reminiscent of Rubens.
In 1648 Velazquez accompanied the embassy which travelled to Italy to escort the new Queen, Marianna of Austria, to Spain. He again visited Genoa, Venice, Rome and Naples, returning to Madrid in June 1651. His object had been to buy pictures for the Royal College, and he also executed several works during his stay: the portrait of Pope Innocent X (Doria Coll., Rome) and his only known female nude, the Rokeby Venus (London, NG), were the most outstanding. The finest of the portraits painted after the second Italian journey is that of the little Infanta Margareta Teresa with her retinue of ladies and dwarfs, called Las Meninas (1656: Prado). In this work he reaches perhaps his highest point in the blending of realism with atmosphere and a deeply sensitive appreciation of character. During the 1630s and 1640s he had painted a series of portraits of the court dwarfs, playmates of the royal children, for they interested him as character studies, much as old age, wrinkles and rags interested him in his imaginary portraits of Aesop and Menippus (both in the Prado), and as did, too, the ageing face of his sick and gloomy King, whom he painted all through his long reign, and who acknowledged the greatness of his painter by making him a Knight of the Order of Santiago in 1659. His chief assistant was his son-in-law Mazo, but he was far from his equal, and after Velazquez's death his position at Court was held by a succession of dim foreigners, mostly French, until, late in the 18th century, Tiepolo and Mengs were followed by Goya.
There are unrivalled collections in Spain - in the Prado in Madrid and in the Escorial - but most major galleries have an example including Berlin, Boston (Mus. Gardner), Budapest, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland Ohio, Detroit, Dresden, Edinburgh (NG), Florence (Pitti), Kansas City, London (NG, Wallace Coll., Wellington Mus.), Montreal, New York (Met. Mus., Hispanic Soc., Frick Coll.), Paris (Louvre), Rouen, St Petersburg, San Diego Cal., Sao Paulo, Toledo Ohio, Vienna and Washington (NG).
Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)
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