Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez 1599-1660
Arguably one of the most famous, and influential, Spanish painters – alongside Goya, Dali and Picasso – Velazquez is best known for his unconventional royal portrait Las Meninas.
Velazquez painted during the Siglo de Oro (Golden Century), the 17th century, when Spain was riding high on a wave of artistic creativity and religious verve, funded by massive wealth from trade with the new colonies in South America.
Velazquez was born in June 1599 and grew up in Seville, in Calle del Padre Luis Maria Llop 4, in the Alfalfa district. A plaque on the house’s façade reads “Casa Natal Velazquez” (Velazquez’s birthplace).
His father, Joao Rodriquez de Silva, was an ecclesiastical notary, Portuguese by birth; Joao’s parents may have been Jewish conversos. His mother’s name was Geronima Velazquez.
Diego lived in the house with his family until 1610, when he began his apprenticeship as a painter under Francisco Pacheco at the latter’s studio in Calle del Puerco (now Hotel Venecia on Calle Trajano).
Known professionally as Diego Velazquez (in Andalucia, it was normal to use your mother’s surname), he was admitted to the Guild of Painters in 1617. During this early period, the young artist produced such celebrated paintings depicting normal life as The Water Seller of Seville and Old Woman Frying Eggs. He married Pacheco’s daughter Juana in 1618.
In 1623 he moved to Madrid, aged 24, to work as court painter to King Philip IV. Although he was based in the capital, he returned to Seville throughout his life, and his two daughters, Francisca and Ignacia, were born here.
Velazquez died in Madrid on 6 August 1660.
His most famous painting, Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting,1656) shows the infanta (princess) Margarita Teresa in the Alcazar Royal Palace in Madrid with her attendants, body guards, two people of restricted growth, and a dog. Fascinatingly, it also features the painter himself at his easel, with the monarchs behind (or possible a reflection of their portrait which he is painting).
The many layers of possible philosophical meaning in this ingenious painting have been endlessly analysed and discussed by art historians and critics: it is considered one of the most important paintings in Western art history. You can see Las Meninas at the Prado Museum in Madrid, along with other works of the artist.
Goya etched a print of the painting, and Picasso produced his own series of 58 interpretations.
The paintings of domestic scenes with prominent still lifes mentioned above, known as bodegones, were his earliest works (1618-22). These show normal people in everyday scenes, realistically painted, which was not common (also in the Prado).
Like his contemporaries, Murillo and Zurbaran, Velazquez painted religious subjects, such as The Adoration of the Magi and the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1618-19), although these topics were not painted as frequently as by fellow Sevillano artists. Royal portraits were his main output.
The Triumph of Bacchus (popularly known as The Drunks) (1628-9) shows the young god in classical dress, with a group of inebriated men. This was the artist’s first mythological painting, and is an unusual treatment of the subject, less grand, elaborate and idealised than other works showing the deity.
Other celebrated works by Velazquez include The Surrender of Breda (1634), depicting a historic event when the keys to the Dutch city were handed over to the Spanish after a siege.
Velazquez managed to avoid scandal with his Venus at her Mirror (1644-48), the first female nude by a Spanish artist and a risqué topic under a strict Catholic church, thanks to the support of his royal patron.
BIRTHPLACE IN SEVILLE
Although the house in Seville where Velazquez was born is not currently open to the public, it is being restored by a private consortium led by journalist Enrique Bocanegra, supported by a crowd-funding campaign in 2019. Contributors to the campaign, and other members of the public, can sometimes visit. The house is said to be one of the oldest in Seville, built in the city’s then-Moorish quarter in around 1560-70.