New display of the galleries by theme
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)
Velázquez’s career is usually described in terms of the three principal places in which he spent time: Seville, Madrid and Italy. He received his early training in Seville and it was there that he took his first steps as an independent painter, giving early signs of a notably confident technique and great compositional originality, characteristics that would continue to define his oeuvre. The artist then moved to Madrid, living there from 1623 until his death in 1660, with two periods spent in Italy during that time. At Court, in the service of Philip IV and in contact with international painting, Velázquez forged a career that was primarily defined by his activities as a portraitist but which also involved the production of mythological works and religious compositions. The sophisticated literary and artistic ambience at the Spanish Court offered the appropriate conditions for a confident and intelligent artist such as Velázquez to develop a unique and highly original style in which he took the colourist tradition of the Venetian and Flemish Schools, which were notably well represented in the Spanish royal collections, to their furthest consequences. Velázquez was in Italy from 1629 to 1631 and from 1649 to 1651, two periods that were of great importance for the evolution of his style and his professional advancement.
Velázquez and Naturalism. Room 10
Velázquez’s early works can be associated with the naturalist trends that had spread across Europe in the early 17th century following the pictorial revolution brought about by Caravaggio (1571-1610). This had coincided with Velázquez’s years of training, the start of his career in Seville and his first five years at the Madrid Court (1623-1629). Naturalist painting was characterised by the use of a limited chromatic range with a predominance of grey-brown tones, an extremely precise and descriptive technique and the use of human models seemingly derived from everyday life. Velázquez deployed this technique and aesthetic approach to depict a wide variety of subjects and he became one of the most versatile Spanish painters of his day.
In his Seville-period portraits Velázquez produced works of the complexity and strength of Francisco Pacheco and Sor Jerónima de la Fuente, while in Madrid he was able to adapt to the requirements of Court portraiture. In his religious paintings, the use of models taken from his everyday surroundings enabled him to produce an Adoration of the Magi that was both lifelike and moving. Finally, in his mythological paintings the artist reinterpreted classical mythology by introducing new concepts and motifs.
Velázquez. The Trip to Italy. Room 11
In 1629, aged thirty, Velázquez undertook his first trip to Italy, probably encouraged by Rubens. His principal destination was Rome and in the two years that he spent there his style underwent a profound change through contact with classical sculpture and contemporary painting. This was the most “classical” moment in his career, in which he achieved a balance between the precise description of his earlier phase and the fascination for colour that he would subsequently develop further.
The result of this trip was The Forge of Vulcan, a mythological narrative that Velázquez used to tackle issues of pictorial construction and the expression of emotions, the latter being one of the areas that most interested artists working in Rome. A comparison of this work with Los Borrachos (Room 10) is extremely helpful for an appreciation of the enormous qualitative leap in Velázquez’s style over the course of two or three years. In Rome the artist also painted two views of the Villa Medici that reveal his interest in adopting a naturalistic approach to landscape and which are landmarks within the history of the genre due to their spontaneity and the way that light and atmosphere become pictorial motifs.
Velázquez. The royal Portrait. Room 12
Velázquez worked for Philip IV from the time that he settled in Madrid in 1623 until his death in 1660, primarily focusing on the production of portraits of the monarch, his family and members of the Court. Velázquez’s starting point was the tradition of court portraiture that dated back to Titian and Antonis Mor and which had continued in Madrid with Alonso Sánchez Coello and Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. Velázquez derived various compositional formulas from this tradition, and above all a preference for the gravity and sense of distance considered to be attributes of majesty.
Velázquez was able to maintain these characteristics while rethinking and updating older typologies, which he adapted to the evolution of his own pictorial style. In his equestrian portraits and half-length portraits with sitters in hunting dress of the 1630s the careful, detailed brushstroke of his early royal portraits evolved towards a greater freedom of handling, a notable interest in the description of the natural setting and a freer chromatic range that would culminate in the richness of the portraits of the 1650s, such as Mariana of Austria. Finally, in Las Meninas, Velázquez revealed the point to which his status as royal portraitist had defined his personal and creative identity.
Velázquez. Religious Paintings. Room 14
Among the aspects that distinguish Velázquez from most of his Spanish contemporaries is the relatively limited attention that he paid to religious painting following his arrival at Court in 1623. Between that year and 1640 he executed no more than half a dozen paintings of this type and did not return to the genre until the end of his career. These few works are, however, of the highest quality. Painted with great care, they are highly original interpretations of the sacred stories depicted.
In The Crucified Christ Velázquez revealed himself as a master of anatomical description while using the empty background, the rigorously triangular composition and the mysterious feel suggested by the fall of the hair over the face to create a scene of great emotional depth. This work is also one of the key images of Spanish religious painting. In contrast, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit makes use of a more complex type of narrative and is notable for its emphasis on the landscape, painted with a dazzlingly light touch. The latter was a royal commission, as was The Coronation of the Virgin, painted as one of a series of Marian paintings of which the remainder were by Alessandro Turchi (1578-1649).
Velázquez. Dwarves and Buffoons. Room 15
The so-called gentes de placer [people who provided amusement] were essential members of European Courts, including the Spanish one. In addition to providing amusement, they were considered attributes of royal power and were thus painted by court portraitists, who depicted them alone or accompanied by their royal masters. Velázquez depicted these individuals in at least ten works including Las Meninas, a fact that points to both his obligations as court painter and to his own interest in them.
In the depiction of these figures Velázquez allowed himself compositional and stylistic liberties not permissable in other portraits, as in these works he had greater liberty to depart from tradition and to establish a more open relationship with the pictorial motif. The result is a group of portraits of enormous compositional daring, free handling and sense of empathy with the sitters that is unique in the history of the genre. Most of them are on display in this gallery, while Room XXVII houses The Buffoon don Juan de Austria and The Buffoon Barbarroja, and Las Meninas is to be seen in Room XII.
Velázquez. Mythological Painting. Room 15a
Velázquez’s employment at Court offered him contact with the magnificent mythological paintings in the royal collections. From them he learned lessons in technique and became aware of the unique potential that this genre offered for recounting narratives and for displaying the range of knowledge possessed by a painter who was highly skilled in his art, intelligent and erudite.
Velázquez made use of this genre on at least eleven occasions. Five of these works are now lost, but the rest are to be seen in the Prado, apart from The ‘Rokeby’ Venus, which is in London. In all of them the artist reveals himself as a highly original interpreter of mythology, using it as a field for formal and narrative experimentation. One example is Mercury and Argus, a brilliantly and boldly painted canvas. In works of this type Velázquez gave free range to the taste for paradox that had first revealed itself in his early years in Seville and which led him to depict Marsas a melancholy warrior rather than a victorious hero, or to conceal the dispute between Pallas Athena and Arachne in the background of The Spinners, the foreground of which is dominated by what seems to be a scene from daily life. Velázquez used a reference to The Rape of Europa by Titian via the copy of that work by Rubens to reflect on the pictorial tradition to which he himself belonged.
Velázquez. War. Room 27, central gallery
The subject of war frequently appears in Velázquez’s work although generally in an indirect manner. It is present in the portraits in which the monarch bears a sword or wears a cuirass in reference to his military responsibilities. It also underlies the portraits in hunting dress, given that hunting was considered an “image of war” for monarchs and princes, while the warlike connotations of the god Mars (Room 15a) were universally known.
This gallery has three paintings related to the subject of war, albeit on contrasting subjects, a fact that demonstrates the artist’s versatility and the subtlety and complexity of his thought. The Surrender of Breda was a commissioned work in which Velázquez effectively conveyed the official version of this prestigious military episode, creating an archetype of chivalrous combat that culminates with an act of courtly elegance. In complete contrast, Barbarroja and Don Juan of Austria are portraits of buffoons depicted as renowned military heroes, in paradoxical images used by Velázquez to present war and its glories using a tone of ambiguity.