Diego Velazquez, one of history’s greatest masters of visual realism, became court painter for the Spanish king Philip IV as a young man and held the position for the rest of his life. His close personal relationship with Philip and his high office of marshal of the palace gave him prestige, and a rare opportunity to fulfill the promise of his genius.
Velazquez painted this at eighteen years of age.
Another work Velazquez created at eighteen.
Water Carrier of Seville, c. 1619. Collection of Apsley House, London
At the height of his artistic powers, Velazquez was commissioned to paint a portrait of Pope Innocient X, a work which would become a masterpiece. As a trial run, he painted this portrait of his assistant Juan de Pareja. A painting that was also destined to become a masterpiece.
The practice run . . .
The commissioned portrait . . .
Perhaps the most recognized of Velazquez’s paintings is Las Meninas.
Las Meninas, c. 1656. Collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid
In his role as court painter, Velazquez created numerous portraits of King Philip IV and his family. Las Meninas depicts the king’s daughter, the infanta Margarita, with two of her maids in waiting, her favorite dwarfs, and a large dog. It is a work of great compositional complexity. Velazquez is shown to the left, before a large canvas. What is he painting? Portraits of the king and queen (who are reflected in a mirror in the background), or what he sees in a mirror reflecting this scene? As the viewer, are we the king and queen being painted by the artist, or are we the mirror?
A fascinating sidenote . . .
In 2004, while he was a junior curator at the prestigious Yale University Art Gallery, John Marciari found a badly damaged painting stashed in the gallery’s warehouse. “The angels started singing” he says, when he realized The Education of the Virgin could be an unknown treasure. “There’s no way,” he recalls thinking, “that I just found a Velázquez in a storeroom.”
The Education of the Virgin, c. 1617-18. Collection of Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut
Smithsonian Magazine printed a fascinating article about the painting and Marciari’s quest to have it authenticated by his fellow scholars. Here is a link to the article:
And to make the story even better (for me, at least), John Marciari is now a curator at the San Diego Museum of Art. I live in San Diego, am a member of the museum and had the pleasure of attending Marciari’s absolutely fascinating lecture on the topic. (And kudos to San Diego Museum of Art director Roxana Velasquez for turning a sleepy hometown gallery into a vibrant museum.)
Are you a member of your local museum? If you are at all interested in art, JOIN! You will receive notices of wonderful events and lectures that — if you like the arts — you will love.
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, A Global History, Enhanced Thirteenth Edition, 2011, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Seventh Edition, 1980. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.