Velázquez. Madrid. Italy. 1631-60.
[This post follows on Velázquez: From Seville to Madrid (The Court) 1623-31.] After a fruitful first trip to Italy, Velázquez was back in Madrid in January 1631 at the time plans were being made to build the pleasure palace of the Buen Retiro. Its construction, thought up by Olivares, had two objectives: 1. to distract the King and allow Olivares a freer hand in running the country, and 2. impress foreign dignitaries –through its lavish display of abundance and grandiosity– that Spain was still a great power to be reckoned with despite its political and economic woes.
Predictably, the large complex –surrounded by gardens with numerous fountains and dotted with hermitage chapels— called for a vast array of decorations, paintings, sculptures and tapestries. The Great Hall of Realms (Salón de Reinos) was the centrepiece, the ceremonial room intended to emphasise and glorify the power of the monarchy.
Among Velázquez’s contributions to the Great Hall were the Surrender of Breda (1634-35) and equestrian portraits of Philip IV and the young prince, Baltasar Carlos, heir to the throne. Still, his first painting for the Retiro was located in the hermitage chapel of San Pablo in the palace grounds. This was St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit 1633/4, a canvas dominated by a striking landscape whose precipitous cliff towers over the two saints.
For the next several years, Velázquez not only established himself as the Spanish court’s most eminent artist but had also ascended the social ladder in Madrid. He continued to enjoy a close relationship with Philip who in January 1643 promoted him to ayuda de cámara (Gentleman of the Bedchamber). In June that year, he was named Assistant Superintendent of Works, which involved him in collaborating with the king in planning the decoration of rooms at the remodeled Alcázar in Madrid.
Despite his consultative and organizational duties, the years between 1631 and 1648 –when he undertook his second trip to Italy– were Velázquez’s most productive period. Besides painting some of his best-known canvases of the royal family and the nobility, he also found time to paint dwarfs, buffoons, classical figures, a superb rendition of Christ on the Cross and a magnificent interpretation of the aftermath of war in his Surrender of Breda c. 1635. According to the calculations of the Velázquez scholar, López-Rey, Velázquez completed 60 canvases during these 17 years. The following are a small selection divided into thematic groups for easy reference. All are in the Prado Museum in Madrid:
Royalty: Philip IV in Hunting Dress 1632-4; Philip IV on Horseback c. 1635; Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback c. 1635; Queen Isabel on Horseback 1634-35. [Aristocracy: Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback 1634.]
Religion: Given his duties as court painter requiring him to paint the royal family and nobility with portraits and pictures to decorate their palaces, Velázquez produced few religious pieces during this period. Some scholars have speculated that he was not in any case overly religious and he evidently found time for several other, non-religious, works, e. g. buffoons and dwarfs and classical or mythological topics. López-Rey lists only three religious works, the moving Crucified Christ c. 1632 (which may owe something to a strikingly similar painting by his fellow Sevillian artist and acquaintance, Francisco de Zurbarán, painted in 1627), St. Anthony and St. Paul… (above) 1633-34, and The Coronation of the Virgin c. 1645.
Buffoons and Dwarfs:
It might be surprising that a court artist who enjoyed a very close relationship with his King would deign to paint buffoons/ jesters and dwarfs, even if they did frequent the royal halls. They were marginal figures meant to amuse the court at a time when people with disabilities were viewed as curiosities. Velázquez, however, had already shown an interest in marginal figures in his bodegones, and had treated them with dignity and respect. He extended the same courtesy to the court jesters and dwarfs portraying them with warmth and understanding and endowing each with individual qualities. The individuals shown below are: Buffoon Don Juan Martín Martín or Calabacillas (painted 1637-39); Francisco Lezcano: The Boy from Vallecas 1643-45; Buffoon Don Sebastián de Morra: El Primo c.1645. [The dating of these works varies somewhat. We have followed the dates suggested by López-Rey.]
Classical/ Mythological Paintings:
Two well-known works of mythological inspiration had been painted by Velázquez prior to 1631. The first, Los borrachos is dated 1628-29, the second The Forge of Vulcan (1630) was done during Velázquez’s first visit to Italy. Velázquez did not attempt another mythological work of a large scale until he produced Las Hilanderas (The Fable of Arachne) in 1656-58.
In between, there are three “portraits” of classical inspiration all produced around 1638: two philosophers: Aesop and Menippus, and the Roman god Mars. Both philosophers are notable for their down-to-earth appearance. Aesop looks a rough and ready character in keeping perhaps with his alleged birth as a slave. Menippus, with his sharp eyes and nose, his body encased in a long cloak, and a slight smile playing on his lips, could well pass for a pícaro, the cynical literary anti-hero in vogue at the time. Mars was the Roman god of war, but here –sitting largely disrobed on the edge of his bed, his torso a mite flabby, and his shield and armour at his feet—he looks anything but warlike. In fact, he looks pensive and chagrined, perhaps the result of having just been discovered having sex with Venus, Vulcan’s wife. A walrus moustache is the clinching comic element in demythifying this militant god. Does any classical god sport such a moustache?
Velázquez’s second trip to Italy 1648-51.
In late November 1648, Velázquez again returned to Italy, this time not with the aim of immersing himself in the works of the great Italian masters but as collector of paintings and sculptures for Philip IV. This time, too, Velázquez was himself an acknowledged artist whose reputation was recognized in Rome when he was admitted to the painters’ guild at the Academy of St. Luke in January 1650 and a short time later by the confederation of painters called the Virtuosi al Pantheon.
While in Rome, Velázquez painted some half dozen portraits, the best known being a remarkable portrait of Pope Innocent X Innocent X (1649-50). [Velázquez took the opportunity to solicit Innocent’s support in his bid to be elected to an order of knighthood, a long-standing ambition of his. His request was received favourably.] Also painted his assistant (Brown D 144), Juan de Pareja, who accompanied him to Italy.
Return to Madrid 1651. (1651-1660).
Urged to return by Philip, Velázquez arrived in Madrid in June 1651. In February 1652, he was promoted to aposentador de palacio (Chamberlain of the Royal Palace). It was a personal decision by Philip who overrode the choice of a council struck to recommend the next holder of the office. It was a very coveted post, but along with its privileges came responsibilities which left Velázquez with relatively little time for painting.
Lopez-Rey records only fourteen paintings in the eight years between Velázquez’s return from Italy and his death on August 6, 1600. Ten were portraits of the king, the queen and of the royal princesses. The remaining four included one mythological work, one religious painting and Velázquez’s two great masterpieces, Las Hilanderas 1656-58 (The Fable of Arachne) and Las Meninas 1656-58 (The Ladies in Waiting).
Velázquez’s close relationship with the king and the prestigious positions he occupied no doubt helped him in his ambitious pursuit to be recognized as a member of the nobility. In June 1658, Philip nominated Velázquez for a knighthood in the prestigious Order of Santiago. There were however two serious obstacles: 1. to qualify for the knighthood, Velázquez had to provide proof of unblemished lineage, and 2. Painting was viewed as a menial occupation, and artists only qualified for membership of the Order if it was shown that they did not accept payment for their paintings. Fellow artists, e.g. Zurbarán, Alonso Cano testified that Velázquez painted only for his own pleasure and for the king. This was clearly stretching the truth, but it might have been enough to convince the Council of Orders charged with looking at Velázquez’s application. However, in the matter of his lineage doubt was cast over the noble status on his paternal grandmother’s side. As a result, in February 1659 the Council rejected Velázquez’s application. Nevertheless, with the King’s support and a papal dispensation (demanded by the Council) the rejection was overturned and Velázquez was finally admitted to the Order of Santiago on November 28, 1659.
During the deliberations over his knighthood application, Velázquez was heavily involved in preparations for the marriage of the Spanish infanta (princess), María Teresa to Louis XIV of France. The marriage was to seal a peace treaty –to be signed on the Isle of Pheasants**, close to the border just off Fuenterrabia– between Spain and France after a long and exhausting war. [**For those interested, there is an absorbing history of the Isle of Pheasants on the BBC post: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220706-europes-island-that-swaps-nationalities]
As aposentador, Velázquez was charged with preparing accommodation for the royal party along the route north and with the decoration of the Spanish rooms of the pavilion where the meeting was to take place. Exhausting as all the preparations were, it must have pleased Velázquez to be able to display at such a formidable gathering the “gold chain from which hung the diamond-studded badge of the Order of Santiago” (Brown D. 174).
Velázquez returned to Madrid with the royal entourage, but confessed in a letter to a friend that he was “weary of traveling by night and working by day but in good health” (Brown D 175). It would appear, however, that all was not well with his health, since rumours had already circulated before his arrival in Madrid (on June 26) that he had died. At home, he took care of routine business matters, and on July 1 accompanied the King to a bullfight. At the end of the month, while attending the King he felt tired and feverish and retired to his apartment.
He died on August 6, 1660, having received the Last Sacrament. He was laid out in his bedroom clothed in the robes of the Order of Santiago, and buried the next day the Church of San Juan Bautista with many nobles and royal servants in attendance. A week later, his wife of forty-three years, Juana, also died and was buried alongside him. Unfortunately, nothing remains of the church or their burial place.
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.
St. Anthony and St. Paul: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_of_Thebes
Surrender of Breda: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Surrender_of_Breda
Philip IV in Hunting Dress: https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q956015
Philip IV on Horseback: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4727424
Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15587981
Queen Isabel on Horseback: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5910962
Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15587902
Crucified Christ: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4214227
Buffoon Calabacillas: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15588055
Francisco Lezcano, The Boy from Vallecas: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15588121
Buffoon El Primo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15588096
Innocent X: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9556265
Las Hilanderas: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25475342
Las Meninas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas