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Diego Velazquez (1599–1660)
Spanish artist Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was a court painter to King Philip IV during the Baroque* period. Although a master of history painting and genre-painting, he is especially renowned for his portrait art - completing over 20 portraits of the King along with others of the Royal Family and their friends. His best known works include his masterpieces Las Meninas, 1656 (Museo de Prado) and the Equestrian Portrait of Duke de Olivares, 1634 (Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Born in Seville in 1599 to a Portuguese family, little is known of his early life. It is believed he initially studied fine art painting and drawing under the artist Francisco de Herrera the Elder but unable to bear Herrera's temper tantrums, he shortly went to apprentice under the artist Francisco Pacheco instead. Although Pacheco was a less accomplished artist, he was more tolerant and better connected in society.
Velazquez married Pacheco’s daughter when he turned 20. His works showed an acute understanding of realism*. His early pictures and sketches are mainly studies of still life as he strove to discover his own style. Important works from this time include, The Water Carrier of Seville, c.1618 (Apsley House), Two at Breakfast (Apsley House), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (National Gallery, London), Nativity of the Prado (1619), Adoracion de los Reyes, 1619, The Adoration of the Magi and Jesús y Los Peregrinos de Emaús, 1626.
In 1622 he moved his family to Madrid, and became court painter to King Philip IV. The regular salary gave him the freedom to pursue his passion for portraiture, as unsalaried artists were reliant on (mainly religious) public commissions for a living. Portraits remained the chief part of his workload for 20 years. One of his enemies was to say 'he only knows how to paint heads'. To which the artist replied, ‘they pay me a great compliment, for I know of no one else who can do as much'.
In 1627, Philip launched a competition for the Best Painter in Spain, which Velazquez won. Unfortunately the picture was destroyed in a fire at the palace in 1734. In 1629 he took his first trip to Italy to study the Old Masters* of the Renaissance*, and although there are no records about whom he met or what he saw, he came back with a new vigor. On his return he painted the first of many portraits of the young prince Don Baltasar Carlos. Unlike other traditional artists, Velazquez painted his subject devoid of pomp and ceremony.
He painted several equestrian portraits of the King, and the sculptor Montafles modelled a statue on one of these portraits (the painting no longer exists). The sculpture was cast in bronze by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca and now stands in the Plaza de Oriente at Madrid.
At this point in time, Velazquez met the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, who had come on a mission to the King of Spain. Velazquez was so inspired by this meeting with one of the acknowledged giants of Baroque painting, that he set off again for a study trip to Italy.
On his return he executed two large paintings, Joseph's Coat and the Forge of Vulcan, c.1631 (Prado Museum). Other paintings from this period include Apolo en la Fragua de Vulcano, 1630 (Museo del Prado, Madrid), The Lady with a Fan, c.1638 (The Wallace Collection, London) and the equestrian portrait of Duke de Olivares, 1634.
In his final years - one of the most famous painters in Spain - he produced some of his best masterpieces, demonstrating a bright and fluid use of colour. These include portraits of the Royal Family children including the Infanta Margarita and the sickly Prince Felipe Prospero.
Las Meninas, 1656 shows several figures in a large room in the Spanish court of King Philip. The young Infanta Margarita is surrounded by a group of ladies in waiting, bodyguards, dwarfs and a dog. Just behind them, in a mirror, you can see the King and Queen, and the artist portrays himself painting a canvas. The use of mirror reflection echoes the Arnolfini Portrait, 1483 by Jan van Eyck. There is an elusiveness to the work that suggests art and life are an illusion. Because of its complexities, it is one of the most analyzed works in Western art.
Stricken with a sudden fever, Velazquez died in 1660 and was buried in the Fuensalida vault of the church of San Juan Bautista. His wife died within a few days of the funeral and was buried alongside him. Unfortunately the church was destroyed by the French in 1811 and the location of his grave is no longer known.
Until the 19th century his works were not very well known outside of Spain where he was an influence on painters like Zurbaran, the Naples-based Jusepe Ribera and Bartolome Esteban Murillo. He is often quoted as a key influence on the artist Edouard Manet who called him the ‘painters of painters’. His vivid brushstrokes were supposed to have inspired the young Manet to bridge the gap between Realism* and Impressionism*. Future artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon also found inspiration in his works.
Online Encyclopedia of Irish and World Artists
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