Velázquez, Diego 1599-1660. His Early Years and Seville, 1599-1623.
The exact date of Diego (de) Velázquez y Silva’s birth is unknown. However, we do know that he was baptized on June 6, 1599 in the parish church of San Pedro, Seville, the oldest of several children. His parents, Juan Rodríguez de Silva and Jerónima Velázquez, were both of modest social status. The choice of his maternal surname rather than that of his father was not that unusual in those days; such a choice often indicated that the maternal side enjoyed higher social status.
Little is known of Velázquez’s childhood, but at the age of 12 he was apprenticed to Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), governor of the painters’ guild of Seville from 1599 and author of an important treatise, Arte de la pintura (Art of Painting) published posthumously in 1649.
Pacheco’s workshop was also a cultural centre for a circle of intellectuals: other painters, poets, influential patrons, theologians and scholars. It was here that Velázquez would have heard discussions on the role of art and especially its application to Catholic doctrine as outlined by the Council of Trent (met between 1545 and 1563). The relationship between art and Catholic tenets was, for Pacheco, an “obsessive concern.” (Brown 102a).
Velázquez would also have been exposed to arguments and discussions on a topic dear to artists of the time: the question of whether painting was a noble pursuit and not mechanical craftmanship, as it was then considered in Spain. This had financial and social-standing implications.
Unlike Italy –where successful artists enjoyed prestige and elevated social status– in Spain, artists were viewed as manual workers because they sold their paintings, haggled over prices and paid taxes, all of which was looked down upon by the aristocracy. In an attempt to change opinion, arguments were made (e. g. by El Greco) that painting was a noble endeavour which had long been patronized by royalty, aristocracy and churchmen and enjoyed an esteemed history from antiquity to Renaissance Italy. But attitudes died hard thanks to an ingrained mindset in Spain, and especially in Castile, that manual work was incompatible with nobility.
[The dignity of painting was a matter that preoccupied Velázquez too, and one he may well have addressed in his most famous painting, Las Meninas (c. 1656), a work where Velázquez is seen wearing the Cross of Santiago –the most prestigious of the three main Spanish religious orders– prominently on his chest. Significantly too, the two figures reflected in the mirror are the king and queen. Their very presence in Velázquez’s atelier suggests that they would have automatically conferred noble status to his activity.]
In 1617, Velázquez was accepted into the painters’ guild, a step that allowed him to open his own workshop, take on apprentices and to paint professionally. A year later, Velázquez’s relationship with Francisco Pacheco became personal: he married Pacheco’s only daughter, sixteen-year-old Juana. Pacheco, by his own words, was evidently impressed by Velázquez’s character, family pedigree and intellect, or as he put it “his virtue, purity of blood … and … his natural and great intellect” (López-Rey, José 33.)
For the next four years, Velázquez worked in Seville, building a reputation as a gifted and original painter in a city where art flourished, demand was high and competition from other artists keen.
What was Seville Like?
Seville was Spain’s largest and most cosmopolitan city during much of the country’s Golden Age (approx. 1500-1700).
Cultural life in the city flourished under the Church, the aristocracy, and the newly affluent enriched by trade with Spain’s transatlantic colonies (Las Indias). There were endless commissions for artists and sculptors to fill the increasing number of churches, convents and monasteries in the city and in the colonies.
Seville also enjoyed a vibrant period of literary fame from the mid 16th century. There were literary salons, Cervantes knew the city well (he was even imprisoned there in 1597), it was home to the iconic seducer Don Juan Tenorio (brought to life by the dramatist Tirso de Molina c. 1579-1648) and arguably the birthplace of the picaresque novel (Mateo Alemán’s two-part Guzmán de Alfarache, Part I 1599, Part II 1604).
Seville was a city of extremes: ostentatious wealth and abject poverty and corruption. On the one hand, it was Spain’s most overtly religious city; its Semana Santa (Holy Week) was already famous and its devotion to the cult of the Virgin Mary already well established. On the other hand, it was the criminal capital of Spain teeming with hardened delinquents, beggars, spongers and landless peasants. The city was famous for its charitable fraternities and also for its organised criminal brotherhoods.
Seville’s rich cultural activity flowered for much of the 17th century against a background of floods, a virulent bubonic plague in 1649 that reduced the population from about 120,000 to 60,000, and social unrest that led to an uprising three years later! Predictably, with such unrest and instability, the city lost its cultural vitality. This coincided with the time that its monopoly on trade with the Americas began to weaken. Larger transatlantic vessels found it increasingly difficult to navigate the Guadalquivir, and by 1680 most Atlantic ships were loading and unloading at Cádiz; in 1717, the administration of trade with Las Indias passed definitively to that city.
Painting in Seville.
It was here that Velázquez cut his artistic teeth and there was more than enough material for his canvases. Three themes dominated the artistic output of the period in Seville: 1. Religious scenes; 2. Genre paintings, which encompassed still-life and bodegón scenes (drawn from daily life often in everyday eating places); and 3. Portraits.
Velázquez was an accomplished practitioner of all three forms, even at an early age. That he should have painted religious works was totally predictable given Seville’s religious environment and his apprenticeship to his father-in-law, the devout and conservative Francisco Pacheco.
Still life (i. e. paintings of fruits, vegetables, table ware etc.) was a European phenomenon “beginning to emerge as an independent artistic category … in the closing years of the (16th) century” (Brown 86b).
The interest in bodegón scenes complemented the interest in picaresque literature, that is, in the life of the marginalized and their plight, the pursuit of food being a major concern. This interest also coincided with a general tendency towards the “demythification” of myths, legends, even biblical tales etc. which were placed in contemporary settings and modern dress. In the case of myths and legends, “demythification” frequently carried strong doses of satire (e. g. Don Quixote Part I 1605, Part II 1615); biblical tales brought the Christian message “up to date,” rendering it universal in time and geography. Both approaches form one of the hallmarks of what we call the Baroque.
Portraits retained their established purposes of depicting important social figures –royalty, nobility, religious figures, wealthy merchants etc. They signalled power, status, wealth. However, by the 17th century, attention also turned to the marginalized, not necessarily as individual sitters but as “individualized” figures in a group. We may not know, for example, their identities but they have the stamp of real people. Just look, for example, at Velázquez’s Three Men at Table c. 1617 (which, incidentally, also contains a still-life rendering of food and a couple of pieces of crockery).
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.
López-Rey, José Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Tiffany, Tanya J. Diego Velázquez’s Early Painting and the Culture of Seventeenth-century Seville Pennsylvania 2012.
Velázquez: Las Meninas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas
Velázquez. Three Men at a Table: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lunch_(Vel%C3%A1zquez)