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Diego Velazquez

Biography

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660)

Spanish painter of Portuguese descent, born in Seville. At the age of 14 he began to study under Francisco Pacheco, an indifferent artist whose daughter he married.

At first working closely from life, he painted genre scenes, such as kitchen interiors, with figures and objects in realistic detail. The strong contrasts of light and shade recall the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, then becoming popular in Spain. In 1622 and 1623 Velázquez visited Madrid where he painted his first portrait of Philip IV, which led to his appointment as court painter and to other more or less honorific appointments as his reputation grew.

Rubens visited Madrid in 1628 and his influence enabled Velázquez to go on a two-year visit to Italy (1629–31), which resulted in a softening of the harshness of his early style: colour began to show in the shadows, light and space became his preoccupations, whilst the range of subjects was enlarged.

He resumed his position as royal painter on his return. In his royal portraits he avoids flattery but the infantes and infantas have freshness and charm despite their elaborate and formal clothes.

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Velázquez was an assiduous courtier, eager for royal favours but his treatment of his masters is unsparing. In his only surviving battle piece, the Surrender of Breda (1634–35), the chivalrous compassion depicted in the attitude of the victors to the defeated gives a humanity to the picture almost unknown in paintings of this kind.

Where he is less inhibited by his subject, e.g. in his pictures of court jesters and buffoons (notably the moving Calabazas, 1637, in the Prado), he is at his most effective in combining realism with interpretation of character. The loose brush work of the views of the Medici Gardens, two of his rare landscapes, indicate a stylistic development to which his second visit to Italy (1648–51) may have contributed.

To this last period belong the masterpieces The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus, painted in Italy, his only nude, now in the National Gallery, London), the outstanding portraits of his mulatto slave Juan de Pareja (1649, New York), Pope Innocent X (1650, the subject said ‘troppo vero’), Maids of Honour (Las Meninas, 1656, in the Prado, Madrid), voted in 1985 as ‘the world’s greatest painting’ by an international panel of experts and The Tapestry Weavers (Las Hilanderas).

Velázquez was a rapid but not very prolific painter: of 125 canvasses confidently attributed only 98 survive. He founded no school of painting and his genius was unknown outside Spain until the 19th century. Among painters deeply influenced by Velázquez were Manet, Picasso, Dalí and Bacon.

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