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Velazquez (1599-1660)

( Originally Published 1955 )

Court painter to Philip IV of Spain. A major Baroque painter and one of the most profound interpreters of the artistic experience of the eye. Born in Seville of Portuguese extraction, he may have studied with Francisco Herrera the Elder, but spent six years in Seville with Pacheco, whose daughter he married. From this point on his career falls into several distinct phases. His painting in Seville reveals the teaching of Pacheco and strong influence of Caravaggio (accounting, for instance, for the quantity of bodegones (see) he painted at that time). He used thick smooth pigment, hard sharp contrasts and plastically separate bodies: a style essentially tactile like Zubaran's. Examples of this early Baroque stolidity are an Immaculate Conception for the Carmelites, an Adoration (Prado) and Christ in the House of Martha (London). By 1623 he was in Madrid where, introduced by Pacheco, he became painter to the king in the service of Olivares. His painting, mainly portraits, began to show the influence of Venetian and Flemish works in the royal collection. Typical are the portraits of Philip IV and of the Infante Carlos in the Prado. The work of this period culminated in the Topers (Prado). Curiously this painting shows no specific influence of Rubens, at that time in residence at the Spanish court. However, it is definitely more light and lucid than his early tenebrist (see) work and shows the growing two-dimensional, silhouetted character of his impressions, Iconographically it is a mixture of myth and bodegon, a down-to-earth classical study.

Velazquez' research into perception was twice punctuated by trips to Italy where he was able to measure his eye against the ancients. In 1629 he traveled in the suite of the Marquis of Spinola and visited Venice, Rome, Genoa, Bologna and Naples, becoming a friend of Ribera's in the latter city. He copied Renaissance paintings and, in Rome, painted the Forge of Vulcan (Prado) which he shipped home. In this painting he started with a Venetian composition and rendered it in fluid colors and silver tones, getting a more homogeneous atmospheric effect than before. On his return to Spain he was kept busy with countless portraits and decorative projects, mainly for the king. His equestrian portraits of the King, Prince Carlos and Olivares date from this period, as do such famous studies as the dwarfs, buffoons and the characters to whom he gave classical names. In 1635 for the Palace of Buen Retiro he painted the Surrender of Breda, commemorating the victory of the Marquis of Spinola over the Dutch. By this time he had abandoned classical pretensions and was painting in a plein-air style (although in the studio) that was not equaled until Impressionism.

In 1649 Velazquez again traveled in Italy, purchasing old masters to satisfy the King's appetite for paintings. On this occasion he painted the portrait of Pope Innocent X (Rome), based on El Greco's Cardinal Guevara. He also did his remarkable landscape studies of the Medici Gardens (Madrid). After his return in 1651, his official duties as superintendent of the Palace cut seriously into his painting. However, the works of this time are a fitting culmination to the career of the Knight of Santiago. The Maids of Honor (Prado), the Tapestry Workers (Prado) and the Rokeby Venus (London) are masterpieces of his dramatic constructional system. In each case space is created and measured not only by perspective, but also by the interpolation of sheets of light which emphasize the elements of planar recession. This light and the many competing centers of optical interest (including the pictorial image at the rear of the pictures) contradict the sense of centrality and classical composure to be felt in the main figure group. Here, focusing is done impressionistically: that which is more crucial or more central is in sharper detail. The dynamic interrelation of all these elements lends the paintings a dramatic quality not implicit in their subjects. Velazquez died in 1660 as a result of illness brought on by the strain of his courtly duties.

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