Velázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y

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Velázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y

(rôthrē`gāth thā sēl`vä ē vāläth`kāth), 1599–1660, b. Seville. He was the most celebrated painter of the Spanish school.

Early Life and Work

At 11 he was apprenticed to Francisco de Herrera the elder, whom he soon left for the studio of Francisco Pacheco, where he remained for five years, learning the technique of painting and being introduced to the history and theory of art. There he also came into contact with the most intellectual society of Seville and with the work of the Spanish naturalist painters and the great Italian masters. His earliest paintings, such as Christ and the Pilgrims of Emmaus (Metropolitan Mus.), show great vigor and a strong naturalistic point of view. In 1618 Velázquez married Pacheco's daughter Juana, and five years later moved to Madrid.

Mature Life and Work

Under the protection of the condé de Olivares, Velázquez was introduced to the court and painted an equestrian portrait of Philip IV (later destroyed), which won him immediate recognition. At 25 he was made court painter and given a studio in the royal palace. During his first years at court Velázquez painted the portrait of Olivares (Hispanic Society, New York City) and full-length portraits of Philip IV and Don Carlos, a bust portrait of Philip IV, and the celebrated Borrachos [the drunkards] (all: Prado). In 1629, shortly after a visit by Rubens to the Spanish court, Velázquez made his first visit to Italy, returning in 1631. During his stay he copied some works of Tintoretto and painted two large figure compositions, The Forge of Vulcan (Prado) and Joseph's Coat (Escorial).

To his second period (1631–49) belong the great equestrian portraits of Olivares and the king, Christ on the Cross, the magnificent Surrender of Breda, the series of dwarfs and buffoons of the court, the Aesop, the Menippus (all: Prado), and the three-quarter-length portrait of Philip IV (Frick Coll., New York City). To the 1640s belong the Coronation of the Virgin, St. Anthony the Abbot and St. Paul the Hermit, the famous full-length portraits of Mariana of Austria (Philip's second wife), and the Infanta Margarita, The Spinners (also known as the Fable of Arachne), and Las Meninas (all: Prado). Also of this period are the head of the Infanta (Louvre) and the portrait of Philip IV as an old man.

In 1649 Velázquez paid a second visit to Italy to buy statues and paintings for the king and returned two years later, having enriched the Spanish royal collection by many Italian masterpieces. While in Italy he painted the superb portrait of Pope Innocent X (Doria Palace) and two small, exquisite landscapes of the Villa Medici gardens (Prado). His only nude, Venus and Cupid—also called the Rokeby Venus—(c.1650; National Gall., London) exemplifies his moral view of mythology, emphasizing the vanity of the goddess.

Throughout his career Velázquez enjoyed the close friendship of the king; he was made marshal of the palace and administrator of the royal galleries. His duties often interfered with his freedom to paint. He died shortly after organizing the marriage ceremonies of Marie Thérèse of Austria to Louis XIV.

Achievements and Influence

Velázquez's development as an artist was uncommonly steady. His first forms were monumental and powerful, enveloped in a strong chiaroscuro. The artist slowly evolved an extraordinarily subtle art based on exquisite color values, of which he remains the unrivaled master. His cool palette and consummate use of silver tones in conjunction with brilliant color sometimes recall El Greco. In spirit, however, Velázquez is far removed from the art of El Greco due to his worldliness and compassion for all levels of humanity. He imbued all human beings from dwarfs to kings with a sense of dignity and individual worth.

Velázquez had many followers. His son-in-law Mazo imitated his portrait style so successfully that many works now thought to be his were formerly attributed to Velázquez. But in his great works Velázquez has never been successfully imitated. His mature works are very few—some say not more than 100. He was obliged to produce replicas of many of his court portraits. Some of these were executed by Mazo, and all are inferior to the originals. Velázquez can be fully appreciated only in Madrid, although more or less authentic examples of his work are to be seen in many galleries in Europe and the United States.


See studies by E. Lafuente Ferrari (tr. 1960), J. López-Rey (1968), J. E. White (1969), J. Brown (1986), J. C. Aznar (1986), J. Brown and C. Garrido (1999), and D. W. Carr, ed. (2006).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Velázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y


Born June 4 or 5, 1599, in Seville; died Aug. 6, 1660, in Madrid. Spanish painter.

The son of an impoverished nobleman, Velázquez studied in Seville under F. de Herrera the Elder and F. Pacheco (1610-1616). In 1617 he received the title of master. He worked in Seville until 1623, where he painted the bodegones (Spanish bodegón—eating house)-—scenes of everyday life (Breakfast, c. 1617, Hermitage, Leningrad; The Water Carrier, c. 1620, Wellington Museum, London). The technique of painting with a thick coat of opaque paints, the contrasted illumination of figures placed in the foreground of the composition, and an interest in recording precisely the external qualities of nature link these works by Velázquez to the tradition of M. da Caravaggio. Velázquez sometimes introduced religious subjects as an independent motif in an everyday setting (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c. 1622, National Gallery, London). In his early works he was already turning to subjects that were new in Spanish painting and deftly characterizing popular types.

In mid-1623, Velázquez moved to Madrid, and in the same year he was appointed court painter. His artistic development was influenced in many ways by familiarity with the royal collections, which were rich in Italian painting (in particular, the works of Titian), meetings with P. P. Rubens, who was then in Spain (late 1628 to early 1629), and travel in Italy (late 1629 to early 1631). At the same time, his outlook on the world became more and more penetrating. Perceiving life with its real relationships, the artist broke boldly with the conventions of contemporary art. At that time he sought ways to create paintings with broad, general meaning. In the painting The Topers (Los Borrachos, before 1630, Prado, Madrid) Velázquez portrayed tramps carousing with Bacchus and fauns against a landscape background. There is not an insurmountable difference between the tramps, coarsened by life, and the classical god; they are linked by a general atmosphere of high spirits and closeness to the forces of nature. The Forge of Vulcan (1630, Prado) is imbued with a feeling of real life that is achieved by its coloring, which is close to nature, and the naturalness of its simplehearted heroes.

With the painting Surrender of Breda (1634, Prado), Velázquez laid the foundation for all European historic painting on the theme of contemporary reality. An actual episode in the war between Spain and the Netherlands gave him the opportunity to show the belligerents in all the complexity of their interrelationships. The rhythmic structure of the composition, the grouping of figures, and the forest of lances over the Spanish troops reveal the correlation of the forces that decided the battle’s outcome. The high degree of objectivity with which the participants in the event are characterized permits us to feel acutely the contrast between the refined Spaniards and the coarse Dutch, representatives of a young country and new social forces. The scene in which the keys to the city of Breda are transferred is the picture’s symbolic center, affirming the right of the vanquished to respect and of the victor to magnanimity.

During the same period Velázquez completed numerous portraits that make up an unusually varied gallery of representatives of Spanish society: equestrian parade portraits (Duke Olivares and Prince Balthasar Carlos, both 1634-35, Prado); half-length figures or busts of courtiers, friends, and pupils (Juan Mateos, c. 1632, Picture Gallery, Dresden; Duke Olivares, c. 1638, Hermitage; Lady With a Fan, c. 1648, Wallace Collection, London; má Juan Pareco, 1650, Radnor Collection, Salisbury); and a series of portraits of the royal children (Museum of Fine Arts, Vienna; Prado; and Louvre, Paris). Court life taught Velázquez to penetrate to the depths of human character hidden under the mask of arrogance and cold courtesy and capture the hidden life of the soul. He was restrained in his choice of means of representation and extremely reserved in the expression of emotion. In his portraits the artist gathered and synthesized his observations, exaggerating nothing, as if leaving judgment of his subject to others. He barely depicts accessories and rarely portrays gestures or movements. His background is usually neutral and acquires a special depth and airiness because of the relationship of color values: dark clothing directs the viewer’s attention to evenly illuminated faces. But under the artist’s superficial impassivity a deeply human attitude toward his surroundings is hidden. Therefore, his portraits are no more alike than living people. Although his color range is restrained, for each portrait he finds a uniquely refined combination of the most delicate shades of silver gray, olive, and gray brown, which gives the painting an individual emotional pitch.

Of particular interest are Velázquez’ portraits of court fools and dwarfs (those nicknamed Juan the Austrian, El Bobo from Coria, El Primo, the boy from Velescas, Sebastian Moro, and others; all 1631—48, Prado.) His wise, unprejudiced approach to life allowed him to see in these people, many of whom were deformed, their intrinsic human qualities. The unusually fine and carefully worked range of red and pink shades in the portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650, Doria-Pamfili Gallery, Rome) is the emotional key to the painting, whose cruel rectitude frightened the pope himself. This portrait was done by Velázquez during his second trip to Italy (end of 1648 to mid-1651). At the same time in Italy (or soon after his trip to Spain) he completed Venus and Cupid (1651, National Gallery, London). An unusual compositional device (the head of Venus is seen only in a mirror) gives a special freshness and poignancy to this portrayal of a nude female body—supple, slender, and full of charm and life. Also from this period are two landscapes (both of the Villa Medici, 1650-51, Prado) in which the artist, with a freshness and seeming sketchiness so unusual at that time, created integral images of nature.

In the last years of his life Velázquez painted two of his most famous pictures: Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor, 1656) and The Spinners (original title, The Myth of Arachne, 1657), both in the Prado. In Las Meninas the artist depicted the Infanta Margarita in the foreground, accompanied by maids of honor and dwarfs. Beside them, Velázquez painted himself at the easel working on a portrait of the royal couple, whose reflection can be seen in the mirror at the far end of the room. Velázquez divided space boldly in the composition: the king and queen seem to be in front of the picture, among its viewers; in turn, the viewers are found to be participants in the portrayed scene. A particular moment in the daily life of the court is presented here as a moment in the general flow of life, with all the complications of its intertwining and changing developments. Everything is penetrated by the trembling movement of silver air. The captivating beauty and picturesque diversity of reality is re-created in the general pearl gray coloration of the painting, with blue, pink, dark gray, and brown translucent paint applied with free strokes of the brush.

In another more buoyant style of painting is The Spinners, a scene in the royal tapestry studio with the figures of the spinners in the foreground. The court ladies in the background of the brightly lighted room are admiring the carpet, which represents the myth of Arachne, whose work surpassed that of the goddess Athena. The figures of the spinners—especially the young spinner on the right, full of energy and life—are wrapped in golden dust and are in sharp relief against the bright background. The beauty of the people and their creative force is the leitmotiv of the painting.

In Velázquez’ late works the unique qualities of his creative method revealed themselves most fully: the deepest comprehension of reality with all its richness and contradictions and the integrity of its pictorial re-creation, in which all the elements of artistic form become part of an indissoluble unity. He painted without preparatory sketches directly on the canvas, combining direct impressions of nature, rigorous planning of composition, free use of the brush, and integrity of an artistic system, thus achieving the impression of free improvisation while aiming for broad generalization. The creative work of Velázquez is the high point of Spanish 17th-century painting and among the most brilliant examples of the world’s realistic art.


Malitskaia, K. M. Velaskes (1599-1660).Moscow-Leningrad, 1939.
Kaptereva, T. P. Velaskes. Moscow, 1961. (Bibliography.)
Kemenov, V. S. Kartiny Velaskesa.Moscow, 1969.
López-Rey, J. Velasquez: A Catalogue Raisonné of His Oeuvre. London, 1963.
Camón Aznar, J. Velázquez. Madrid, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Caption: Three depictions of the Immaculate Conception, from left, two by Diego Velazquez and one by Bartolome Esteban Murillo
In 2010, John Marciari made worldwide news when he announced that a long-neglected painting in the storerooms of the Yale University Art Gallery was an important early masterpiece by Diego Velazquez. Depicting The Education of the Virgin Mary, the work was damaged, had no known provenance, and had never been on public view.
Then there are poems like "Francis Bacon or Diego Velazquez in the dentist's chair" that seem to be imitations of Zbigniew Herbert.
When Diego Velazquez visited Rome in 1649-50, he commissioned Matteo to produce gilded bronze lions and other bronze casts for the king of Spain.