Velázquez: From Seville to Madrid (The Court) 1623-31.
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was born in June, 1599, and for the first 22 years of his life lived in Seville, Spain’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, until his departure for Madrid in April 1622. This visit was brief; in January 1623 he returned to Seville. But Madrid beckoned and seven months later (August, 1623), Velazquez was back in the capital.
During his Seville years, he built a reputation as a gifted and original artist in a city where art flourished, demand was high and competition from other artists keen.
Several factors may have prompted Velázquez’s move, among them ambition and opportunity. To remain in Seville would have shackled Velázquez to an artistic world dominated by religious commissions. His own religious paintings showed original touches (e. g. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary) although he also showed equal if not greater interest in bodegón paintings which offered him a new world unrestricted by religious or compositional demands. In these paintings he revealed an independence of thought and inventiveness that set him apart at an early age.
Nevertheless, religious paintings and bodegón scenes with humble subjects were a dead end for an aspiring artist, and Madrid was where the action was. At the turn of the 17th century, it was a boom town, the capital not only of the country but of a vast empire over which the sun never set. It was from here that the king ruled; it was from here that all important decisions affecting country and empire were made. Furthermore, aristocrats –looking to be near the royal court—built or rented houses in Madrid creating a leisured, ambitious and competitive elite ready to be patrons to promising artists and writers. In short, Madrid was the place to see and be seen.
Velázquez’s first trip to Madrid in April1622 came a year after the young Philip IV inherited the throne (March 31,1621). Ostensibly, Velázquez wanted to see the famous collection of paintings in the Escorial, the royal monastery located some 30 miles (50 kilometres) north of Madrid. But he also harboured hopes of painting the young king and his queen, Elizabeth/ Isabel of France.
Velázquez’s hopes never materialized despite the help extended to him by several prominent Sevillians at court, including Juan de Fonseca, chaplain to the king. Within a year (January 1623), Velázquez returned to Seville. However, he did manage to leave a very favourable impression with a striking portrait of the famous intellectual and poet Luis de Góngora.
A combination of fortuitous events took Velázquez back to Madrid in less than eight months. The death of one of the court painters, Rodrigo de Villandrando in December 1622, left a position open for a replacement. Fonseca and others favoured Velázquez and sought the support of Gaspar de Guzmán, better known as the Count-Duke of Olivares, long time mentor and favourite of the king, who had risen to become First Minister of the Realm in October 1622. Olivares was also, after the King, the most powerful individual in Spain.
It so happened that Olivares, although born in Rome, came from a well-established Sevillian family, had lived in the city from 1607 to 1615, and had sat for a portrait by Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’s mentor and father-in-law, in 1610. Olivares was obviously persuaded because a command from him saw Velázquez set out again for Madrid, arriving in August 1623. From now on, Madrid was his home and focus of his activities.
1623-1629: Velázquez establishes himself in Madrid.
Velázquez got his wish to paint the young king –Philip IV—immediately upon arriving. The portrait made a very favourable impression on Philip, as a result of which Velázquez was appointed court painter by October 1623. Shortly after, he painted a portrait of Olivares.
This rapid elevation of a young artist, an outsider and untested in life in the Court, did not go unnoticed by the other six court painters who enjoyed the same privileged rank at the time. Viewed as an upstart, Velázquez quickly found himself involved in rivalry with the others, especially the well-established Vicente Carducho (c.1576-1638), a traditionalist who considered the painting of lowly people and bodegón scenes as improper subjects for Art, which for him was a noble pursuit.
The animosity aroused by Velázquez, especially after a much-acclaimed equestrian portrait –now lost– of Philip IV in 1625, culminated in a competition two years later when Philip commissioned a painting to celebrate the expulsion of the Moriscos, decreed by his father, Philip III, in 1609. [Moriscos: Muslims converted to Christianity and their descendants.] Four painters, including Velázquez and Carducho, were involved, with Velázquez being declared winner. (All four paintings are lost.). He was rewarded by being named Usher of the Privy Chamber, a highly desirable position which set Velázquez above the other court painters.
Velázquez’s experience at Court was enriched by the arrival in August 1628 of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). This was Rubens’s second visit to Madrid and its purpose was primarily political. Nevertheless, he also brought eight of his own works with him, destined for Philip, among Rubens’s greatest admirers. His political work quickly carried out, Rubens was able to spend time painting in the studio provided for him at the palace. Rubens stayed nine months in Madrid, during which time he painted at least five portraits of the King and several of the Queen and other members of the Royal family. He also accompanied Velázquez to the Escorial to admire the paintings of Titian.
Velázquez’s output was modest during his first six months in Madrid. López-Rey, in his catalogue of Velázquez’s complete works, lists 15 paintings, mostly portraits, with several of the king and two of Olivares. Nevertheless, perhaps his most striking work of the 1620s is the caricature of the mythological god Bacchus in Los Borrachos-The Drunkards (aka The Feast of Bacchus, 1628-29).
However, the exuberance of Rubens’s art did not have a direct or lasting influence on the more sober Velázquez, although Rubens’s “sketchy notational brushwork” (Brown J 179b) was a technique that certainly did impress the young Spaniard. And regular contact with such an esteemed painter undoubtedly opened Velázquez’s eyes to new artistic challenges and horizons. The Flemish master may also have had a hand in persuading Philip to let Velázquez visit Italy, still the artistic mecca/ destination for ambitious painters.
Velázquez in Italy 1629-31.
Velázquez arrived in Italy in August 1629. During his time there he travelled widely studying the masters although he spent most time in Rome. While in Rome, he painted another caricature of the mythological world, this time of the god of fire, Vulcan, in the Forge of Vulcan 1630.
In the same year, he also painted two small studies of the Villa Medici, a place he escaped to in order to avoid the summer heat of Rome. The studies are small impressionistic garden scenes of remarkable originality. Predictably, Velázquez was much admired by the Impressionists.
There is not total agreement that these were painted in 1630 since they are not dated. It has been argued, based on the impressionistic style, that they were in fact painted c. 1650, during Velázquez’s second trip to Italy.]
By the end of 1630, Velázquez was on his way back to Madrid. Taking something of a circuitous route from Rome, he called at Naples (which was then part of the Spanish crown) where he must have met his fellow countryman and artist, José (Jusepe) de Ribera. Velázquez arrived back in Madrid in January 1631 at the time when plans were being made to build the pleasure palace of the Buen Retiro. Velázquez was to do some of his finest paintings for this immense palace.
Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016
Lopez-Rey, Jose Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Tiffany, Tanya J. Diego Velázquez’s Early Painting and the Culture of Seventeenth-century Seville Pennsylvania 2012.
Philip IV: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437873
Los borrachos: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Triumph_of_Bacchus
Forge of Vulcan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_in_the_Forge_of_Vulcan
Villa Medici: https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q954473