Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (baptized June 6, 1599 – August 6, 1660) was a Spanish painter, the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV and of the Spanish Golden Age. He was an individualistic artist of the contemporary Baroque period. He began to paint in a precise tenebrist style, later developing a freer manner characterized by bold brushwork. In addition to numerous renditions of scenes of historical and cultural significance, he painted scores of portraits of the Spanish royal family and commoners, culminating in his masterpiece Las Meninas (1656).
Velázquez’s artwork became a model for 19th century realist and impressionist painters. In the 20th century, artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon paid tribute to Velázquez by re-interpreting some of his most iconic images.
Velázquez was born in Seville, Spain, the first child of Juan Rodriguez de Silva, a notary, and Jerónima Velázquez. He was baptized at the church of St. Peter in Seville on Sunday, June 6, 1599. The baptism most likely occurred a few days or weeks after his birth. His paternal grandparents, Diogo da Silva and Maria Rodrigues, were Portuguese and had moved to Seville decades earlier. When Velázquez was offered knighthood in 1658 he claimed descent from the lesser nobility in order to qualify; in fact, however, his grandparents were tradespeople, and possibly Jewish conversos. As was customary in Andalusia, Velázquez usually used his mother’s surname.
Raised in modest circumstances, he showed an early gift for art, and was apprenticed to Francisco Pacheco, an artist and teacher in Seville. An early-18th-century biographer, Antonio Palomino, said Velázquez studied for a short time under Francisco de Herrera before beginning his apprenticeship under Pacheco, but this is undocumented. A contract signed on September 17, 1611, formalized a six-year apprenticeship with Pacheco backdated to December 1610, and it has been suggested that Herrera may have substituted for a traveling Pacheco between December 1610 and September 1611.
Though considered a dull and undistinguished painter, Pacheco sometimes expressed a simple, direct realism although his work remained essentially Mannerist. As a teacher, he was highly learned and encouraged his students’ intellectual development. In Pacheco’s school Velázquez studied the classics, was trained in proportion and perspective, and witnessed the trends in the literary and artistic circles of Seville.
On April 23, 1618, Velázquez married Juana Pacheco (June 1, 1602 – August 10, 1660), the daughter of his teacher. She had two daughters. The elder, Francisca de Silva Velázquez y Pacheco (1619–1658), married painter Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo at the Church of Santiago in Madrid on August 21, 1633; the younger, Ignacia de Silva Velázquez y Pacheco, born in 1621, died in infancy.
Velázquez’s earliest works are bodegones (kitchen scenes with prominent still-life). He was one of the first Spanish artists to paint such scenes, and his Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618) demonstrates the young artist’s unusual skill in realistic depiction. The realism and dramatic lighting of this work may have been influenced by Caravaggio’s work—which Velázquez could have seen second-hand, in copies—and by the polychrome sculpture in Sevillian churches. Two of his bodegones, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha (1618) and Kitchen Scene with Christ at Emmaus (c. 1618), feature religious scenes in the background, painted in a way that creates ambiguity as to whether the religious scene is a painting on the wall, a representation of the thoughts of the kitchen maid in the foreground, or an actual incident seen through a window. The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1618–19) follows a formula used by Pacheco, but replaces the idealized facial type and smoothly finished surfaces of his teacher with the face of a local girl and varied brushwork. His other religious works include The Adoration of the Magi (1619) and Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos (1618–19), both of which begin to express his more pointed and careful realism.
Also from this period are the portrait of Sor Jerónima de la Fuente (1620) – Velázquez’s first full-length portrait – and the genre The Water Seller of Seville (1618–1622). The Water Seller of Seville has been termed “the peak of Velázquez’s bodegones” and is admired for its virtuoso rendering of volumes and textures as well as for its enigmatic gravitas.
STYLE AND TECHNIQUE
It is canonical to divide Velázquez’s career by his two visits to Italy. He rarely signed his pictures, and the royal archives give the dates of only his most important works. Internal evidence and history pertaining to his portraits supply the rest to a certain extent.
Although acquainted with all the Italian schools and a friend of the foremost painters of his day, Velázquez was strong enough to withstand external influences and work out for himself the development of his own nature and his own principles of art. He rejected the pomp that characterized the portraiture of other European courts, and instead brought an even greater reserve to the understated formula for Habsburg portraiture established by Titian, Antonio Mor, and Alonso Sánchez Coello. He is known for using a rather limited palette, but he mixed the available paints with great skill to achieve varying hues. His pigments were not significantly different from those of his contemporaries and he mainly employed azurite, smalt, vermilion, red lake, lead-tin-yellow and ochres. His early works were painted on canvases prepared with a red-brown ground. He adopted the use of light-gray grounds during his first trip to Italy, and continued using them for the rest of his life. The change resulted in paintings with greater luminosity and a generally cool, silvery range of color.
Few drawings are securely attributed to Velázquez. Although preparatory drawings for some of his paintings exist, his method was to paint directly from life, and x-rays of his paintings reveal that he frequently made changes in his composition as a painting progressed.