BY 1599, the year Velasquez was born, his native place Seville had reached the height of its fortunes, and was about to decline from its renowned position as “the capital of all the merchants in the world.” The site was built upon by successive civilisations— Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance; so that Seville was truly both an “essentially Oriental city” and a “very Catholic city.” At the end of the sixteenth century, its Catholicism, though paramount, allowed it to be called a “city of pleasure,” the home of poetry and ” Italian culture “a town whose Alcazar was named “The School of Love.” The great painter’s family was not of Sevillian origin ; his grandfather, Diego Rodriguez de Silva, came to Seville, from Oporto, the home of the Silva family. His name, Velasquez, the painter took from his mother, who belonged to an old family of Sevillian hidalgos. Juan de Silva made no attempt to thwart his son’s inclination towards painting, but about 1612 he placed the boy with Francisco de Herrera (1576-1656), an architect as well as a painter of religious pictures, low-life and still-life. Dissatisfied with the rough temper of this master, Velasquez left him after about a year, and passed into the studio of Francisco Pacheco (1571-1654), where he remained for five years.
Pacheco was a careful and severe teacher of drawing as well as a pedant, a scholar, and the author of a work on painting. From his writings we gather much information concerning Velasquez, his friendships with artists, and his connection with great personages.
Pacheco felt so satisfied with the birth, the industry, the talent of his pupil that he chose him for his son-in-law, and, on April 23, 16I8, married him to his daughter, Juana de Miranda. Thus the good-will, the friends, the interest of Pacheco were placed henceforth at the service of his son-in-law. Among these friends were most of those who took any account of art and letters in Seville. An opportunity to use their kind offices soon occurred. Philip III. died on March 31, 1621; the young king, Philip IV., dismissed his father’s minister, the Duke of Lerma, and gave his confidence to the Count Olivarez, a son of the governor of the Alcazar at Seville. Up to 1615 Olivarez had lived in Seville as a patron of poets and painters ; when he became the new king’s favourite, some Sevillian men of letters spoke to him of Pacheco’s son-in-law. Velasquez went at once to Madrid, but it was not till his second visit in 1623, and only then after some delay, due to the arrival of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Buckingham, that Olivarez managed to get him a sitting for an equestrian portrait of the king. A bust in armour (Prado, 1071) must have been painted at the same time as the now lost equestrian portrait. The likeness pleased, and its author, at twenty-four, received his appointment as Court painter to a king of eighteen. In this position Velasquez found himself associated with the Court painters, Eugenio Caxesi, Carducho, Gonzales, and later on, Nardi. They were not well disposed towards a new-comer who speedily won the favour of their royal patrons and sitters.
Philip IV. (1605 – 65) had two brothers Carlos (1607-32), and the Cardinal Ferdinand (1609- ). Of these Carlos was the stoutest, the most lively, and the least funereal in aspect ; Ferdinand, with the long face of a shrewd but human Scottish lawyer, the most capable and the most active in affairs, while in sport he was second only to the king, who deserved his reputation as the best rider in Spain. Year by year the royal brothers enjoyed more and more the days spent in private expeditions to the hunting – grounds about the Escurial, Toledo, and Aranjuez. These were informal parties, attended only by kindred spirits of whatever rank. The woods of El Pardo, much nearer the capital, were chosen for such great state functions as the ” Boar Hunt,” by Velasquez, in the National Gallery. The painter often accompanied the sports-men, and in the course of his life he made many sketches and pictures of hunting scenes and trophies of the chase, which for the most part are missing.
Isabella de Bourbon (16o2-1644), daughter of Henry IV. of France, and first wife of Philip, disliked sitting, and we only know one portrait of her that on a white horse (Prado, 1067). This picture is not altogether by Velasquez, who only worked on the face, the horse, and the landscape. Isabella was an able, as well as an amiable woman, but Olivarez gave her no chance to influence Philip. The king’s temperament subjected him to female influence, and the minister, fearing the counsels of a wise wife, kept him well supplied with mistresses. Philip had three sisters, whom Velasquez painted. Anne of Austria, the eldest.
was the wife of Louis XIII. of-France, and the be-loved of Buckingham ; Mary, who married Ferdinand of Hungary in 1629, had been much admired by Buckingham at the time of her betrothal to the Prince of Wales in 1623. Margaret, a nun in the order of Barefooted Carmelites, was painted by Rubens -during his visit to Philip.
From the beginning, Philip treated Velasquez in the most friendly manner coming, says Pacheco, to the studio “almost every day,” by those secret passages hung with pictures, which led from the king’s rooms to every part of the old Alcazar. The monotony of this life was broken in the autumn of 1628 by the arrival of Rubens (1577-1640), who for nine months was constantly with the king and Velasquez. At his earlier visit to Spain, in 1603, Rubens saw little of Spanish artists, and complained of their idleness, ignorance, and incompetency. ‘According to Pacheco and others, he thought highly of Velasquez, and delighted in his society, while his view of the king appears in a letter to Peiresc : ” He evidently takes quite a special pleasure in painting, and, in my opinion, this prince is endowed with the finest qualities. I already know him from personal intercourse, as I have a room in the palace, so that he almost daily visits me.”
Rubens worked hard during his stay in Spain, painting portraits and copying all the king’s Titians. Of course Velasquez saw him at work, as it is on his authority that Pacheco gives a detailed list of all that Rubens did. Velasquez, moreover, accompanied Rubens to the Escurial, where they climbed the sierras and sketched bird’s-eye views of the palace.
It was after his nine months’ friendship with Rubens, and, perhaps, owing to the influence of the Flemish painter upon the king, that Velasquez was permitted to undertake his first Italian voyage in the train of Spinola, the conqueror of Breda. This great soldier and statesman was going out as governor of Milan and commander-in-chief in Italy. The expedition left Barcelona on the loth August 1629. From Milan, Velasquez went to Venice, where, according to Palomino, painter to Philip V., he chiefly enjoyed the works of Titian, Tintoretto, and Paul Veronese. We know, from other sources, that Velasquez preferred Tintoretto before any painter ; indeed, we might guess this taste from his own pictures, even if we had not the criticisms of Francisco de los Santos on Tintoretto’s work in the Escurialcriticisms which were inspired by Velasquez, if not entirely borrowed from the Memoria or catalogue drawn up by Philip’s painter when he arranged the gallery. Velasquez avoided Florence, and went straight to Rome ; he copied for some time in the Vatican, and he spent two months at the Villa Medici, which he was obliged to leave on account of a tertian ague. From Rome he passed on to Naples, where he saw, and apparently liked, his countryman, Ribera. In the early part of 1631 he returned to Spain, bringing with him a portrait of the king’s sister, Mary of Hungary, which he had painted in Naples, also two figure-subjects, ” The Forge of Vulcan ” and ” Joseph’s Coat”
This journey to Italy ends the first part of the painter’s life. The long second period, which began on his return, was closed by another visit to Italy in the year 1649. Justi says that the first half of this period was “probably the happiest experienced both by Philip and Velasquez.” Still, it is true that in 1632 Don Carlos died, and Philip lost his younger brother, the Cardinal Ferdinand, who left Spain to undertake the government of Flanders. Here the cardinal acted with his usual activity as his brother’s agent, not only in politics but in picture-buying. He made use of Rubens and his pupils to paint or to procure the numerous canvases which Philip required. The new palace, Buen Retiro, on the heights above the Prado, had been presented to the king by Olivarez. This must be decorated, and, later on, the Escurial and the Torre de la Paradaa hunting-lodge in the woods near El Pardo. To this work the Court painters now set themselves, with Velasquez at their head. For this end he produced his “Surrender of Breda,” and his large equestrian portraits ; and for this end Caxesi, following the lead of Velasquez, painted ” The Repulse of the English at Cadiz ” (Prado, 697). Velasquez was now the unquestioned head of the Spanish painters. He had already beaten them all in a competition on the subject of ” The Expulsion of the Moriscoes by Philip III.”
The painter was now introduced to a new sitter, the king’s little son, Balthasar-Carlos, who was born in 1629, the same year as the illegitimate Don Juan of Austria. In 1638 the Royal Family was further increased by the birth of a daughter, Maria Teresa. Then troubles came thicker upon the court. After a career of mismanagement, Olivarez was disgraced in 1643, and the Queen Isabella, who had regained her influence over the king, died in 1644. In 1643 those invincible lances of Spain, which figure in “the surrender of Breda,” were utterly crumpled up by the great Condé at Rocroi. After the fall of Olivarez, Philip exerted himself and went in person to the perpetual war which the French fomented in Catalonia. In 1644 Velasquez accompanied him, and executed, at Fraga, on the borders of Aragon and Catalonia, the most coloured of his portraits of the king. Opinions differ as to whether the Dulwich picture may be the original or a copy of this work. The heaviest blow of all now fell upon Philip ; his promising son, Balthasar, caught a cold at Saragossa, and died in 1646.
During this middle period, various people of note visited Madrid, and were painted by Velasquez ; amongst others, in 1638, Madame de Chevreuse, first the friend and then the enemy of Anne of Austria. Her visit was immediately followed by that of the Duke of Modena, a great hunter, much beloved by Philip. But the favours of a friend and a sovereign whose power was declining could not long keep the astute Duke from a French alliance.
During 1634 Velasquez married his daughter Francisca to his pupil, J. B. del Mazo. About 1641-2, his still more illustrious pupil, Murillo (1618-82), came from Seville, and spent two years under the guidance of the master, who completely altered his views, and turned him for a time to the serious study of nature. Velasquez also renewed his friendship with certain fellow-artists who were employed by the king about this time. Alonzo Cano, Herrera, Zurbaran, the sculptor, Martinez Montanéz, his old Sevillian friends, were probably called to the capital on the suggestion of the Court painter. Velasquez painted Montanéz in ’636 ; Cano, probably, before his conviction for the supposed murder of his wife ; and the satirist, Quevedo, certainly before his imprisonment in ’639.
Velasquez left Malaga for Italy on 2nd January 1649, landed at Genoa, pushed rapidly through Milan, only stopping to look again at Leonardo’s ” Last Supper,” and made for Venice, to buy pictures for Philip. At Venice he made the acquaintance of the poet, Boschini, who tells us that, although not very lucky in his search for pictures, Velasquez, to his delight, secured a finished sketch by Tintoretto for the great picture still in the Ducal Palace. At Naples, Velasquez revisited Ribera, whom he found much affected by the elopement of his daughter with Don Juan of Austria, who had seduced her when he was sent by Philip to quell the revolt of Masaniello. In Rome, Velasquez met many artists of note, Salvator Rosa, Bernini, Algardi, Nicolas Poussin, amongst the number. He had the honour of painting Innocent X. in his robes, a task which he did not undertake till he had practised on a portrait of his studio-fag–the Moor Juan de Parejahimself a painter. These two portraits may be said to stand between the second and third manners.
In the summer of 1651 Velasquez was again at Madrid. He became more than ever necessary to the king, and honours fell thick upon him during this final period of his life and art. He was made Marshal of the Palace, an office of considerable honour, and, at times, of no little trouble. He had to arrange the royal journeys, court festivities, and tournaments. As Philip, in 1649, had married a second wife-his own niece, Mariana of Austria, a girl of fourteenthe court was more lively than when Velasquez left it, and he had a good deal to do with painting, festivity, and the arrangement and decoration of the various palaces. By his second wife, Philip had the Princess Margaret, born 1651, the centre figure of ” Las Meninas “; Philip Prosper (1657-6o) ; Ferdinand Thomas (1658-6o) ; and his successor, Carlos ll. (1661-1700), the last of the house.
In 1659 Cardinal Mazarin brought about a marriage between Maria Teresa and his young master, Louis XIV. of France. The marriage took place on June 7th, the two courts meeting at the Isle of Pheasants, in the river which marks the frontier between France and Spain. The tedious journey, the imposing ceremonies, threw a great deal of work on the shoulders of the Court-Marshal, and, a few weeks after his return to the capital, Velasquez died, on the 6th August 166o.
In his latest pictures Velasquez seems to owe as little as any man may to the example of earlier painters. But, indeed, from the beginning he was a realist, and one whose ideal of art was to use his own eyes. His early pictures cannot be attached surely to any school ; they are of doubtful parentage, though, with some truth, one might affiliate them to Caravaggio and the Italian naturalists. From the first, he shows sensitiveness to form, and a taste for solid and direct painting. He quickly learnt to model with surprising justness, but for a long time he continued to treat a head in a group as he would if he saw it alone. Only slowly he learnt to take the impression of a whole scene as the true motif of a picture. In his early work he faithfully observed the relations between bits of his subject, but not always the relation of each bit to the whole. If we compare the realistic work of the young Velasquez with the pictures of the great Venetians, we shall find it lacking their comfortable unity of aspect. That aspect may have been more remote in its relation to nature, but it was certainly ampler and more decoratively beautiful. Up to the age of thirty, indeed, Velasquez seemed content to mature quietly his powers of execution, without seeking to alter his style, or to improve the quality of his realism. Had he died during his first visit to Rome, it might have been supposed, without absurdity, that he had said his last word, and that, young as he was, he had lived to see his art fully ripened. It would be difficult, indeed, to do anything finer, with piecemeal realism for an ideal, than the later works of this first period. Pictures of the pre-Italian epoch are “The Water Carrier” (Apsley House), “The Adoration of the Magi” (Prado, 1054), “The Shepherds ” (National Gallery), “Bust of Philip in Armour” (Prado, 1071), full-length, “Philip in Black” (Prado, 1070), “Philip” (young, National Gallery), and “The Topers” (Prado, 1058). “The Forge of Vulcan” (Prado, 1059) was painted at Rome on the visit which initiated the second manner.
The conversation and example of Rubens, the study of Italian galleries, as well as the practice of palatial decoration at Buen Retiro, gave a decorative character to the art of Velasquez in the second period. One tastes a flavour of Venetian art in the subject-pictures, and one remarks something bold, summary, and less intimate than usual, about the portraiture of this time. As examples we may take “The Surrender of Breda” (Prado, Io6o), “The Boar Hunt” (National Gallery), “The Crucifixion” (Prado, 1055), “Christ at the Pillar” (National Gallery), “Prince Ferdinand,” with dog, gun, and landscape background (Prado, 1075), “The King as a Sportsman” (Prado, 1074), “Don Balthasar and Dogs” (Prado, 1076), the large equestrian “Philip IV.” (Prado, 1066), the equestrian “Don Balthasar” (Prado, 1068), the equestrian ” Olivares ” (Prado, 1069), “The Sculptor Montanéz” (Prado, 1091), “The Admiral Pulido” (National Gallery), various landscapes, and a few studies such as “The Riding School” (Apsley, House) and its variations. During these twenty years, if ever, Velasquez relaxed his effort at naturalism,not that he slackened his grip upon form, but that he seems to have accepted in Italy the necessity for professional picture – making. His colours became a shade more positive or less bathed in light, and his unity to some extent an adopted decorative convention.
Upon his return from the second voyage, as if he had satisfied himself that Venetian art could not wholly render his manner of seeing, and that, at any rate, he had pushed it, in “The Surrender of Breda,” as far as it could go, he comes about once more and seeks for dignity and unity in the report of his own eyes. In fact, he adds the charm that we call impressionism to such work of the third period as ” Innocent the Tenth,” done in Rome, “Queen Mariana” (Prado, 1078), “Las Meninas” (Prado, 1062), “Las Hilanderas” (Prado, 1061), “Asop” (Prado, I 10o), ” Moenippus ” (Prado, 1101), the so-called “Maria Teresa” (Prado, 1084), “Philip IV.” (Prado, 1080),”Philip IV. Old” (National Gallery), and some of the Dwarfs and Imbeciles in the Prado.
Some sojourn in the deadly capital of Spain is necessary if one would know the variety of Velasquez, and learn how often he forestalled the discoveries of recent schools of painting. Various stages of his growth, as shown in the Prado, remind us of various stages in the progress of modern naturalism. Sudden gusts of his fancy for some type or some quality in nature ally this or that canvas by Velasquez with the work of a man or a movement in our century. The names of Regnault, Manet, Carolus-Duran, Henner, Whistler, and Sargent, rise to one’s lips at every turn in the Prado ; one thinks, but less inevitably, of Corot, when one sees the landscape of Velasquez. His early work recalls John Philip and Wilkie, while the girl in “Las Hilanderas” should be the very ideal of art to the Pinwell, Walker, and Macbeth school. Except the “Venus” belonging to Mr R. Morritt of Rokeby Hall, the Prado lacks no picture essential to the full understanding of the painter’s art. No other collection can give a just conception of the great works in Madrid. To see only the National Gallery, the Louvre, and the various private collections in England, leaves one without an adequate idea of the equestrian portraits, “Philip IV.” (1066), ” Olivares ” (1069), and “Don Balthasar” (1068); “The Surrender of Breda” (106o), “The Sculptor Martinez Montafiéz” (1091), ” Moenippus ” (1101), ” Aesop ” (1100), the “Maria Teresa” (1084), “Las Meninas” (1062), “Las Hilanderas” (1061), and the series of Dwarfs and Imbeciles.
These pictures have changed very little ; but, as with all old pigment, a good light is necessary to show the subtlety of the values and the expressive character of the subdued or suggested detail. Fortunately the light is excellent in the two chief galleries of the Prado, which contain the principal pictures. The first, a long room, wider than the long gallery of the Louvre, is covered with a barrel-ceiling. About half-way down on the left, a door opens into the other room, a large, well-lit octagon. Several large side-lit rooms with dark corners, try the eyes, and baffle efforts at comparison fortunately, however, they contain for the most part inferior pictures, the works of predecessors of Velasquez, and a few early canvases by the Master himself.