Diego Velázquez
Diego Velázquez; drawing by David Levine

Velázquez was one of the first artists to understand the importance of painting directly from life, and he did so from the start. His knowledge of geometry, philosophy, scientific theory, and even medicine (suggested by what we know of his library) did not get in his way when he turned to the canvas; nor did the conventions observed by his fellow painters in Spain. It is as if all his knowledge was acquired in order to release him from it and allow him to paint what he saw. This is how a painter’s eye still sees him.

Art historians often see art differently from artists. Being more attentive to what is painted instead of how it’s painted, they tend to be carried away into cultural history. This is not the case with the recently published book by Jonathan Brown on Velázquez. It is one of the best books on Velázquez I have read, the product of twenty-five years of a growing passion for the artist during the author’s investigations of virtually every aspect of life in seventeenth-century Spain.

Brown’s remarkable erudition does not tempt him to venture beyond the “wall of fact,” as he puts it, although the facts are scarce. There is no remaining correspondence, as in the case of Rubens or Poussin; nothing is left in writing about Velázquez’s ideas, and almost nothing about his character—beside the saying that he was witty. But his activities at the court of Philip IV and principal events of his life are well documented. His interests can be guessed from the listed contents of his library, which contained virtually all the books a seventeenth-century humanist could have wished. Brown concludes from its titles that “without knowing the name of the owner, it could be supposed that he was either an artist with an interest in science, or a scientist with an interest in art.”

Although Velázquez’s painting gives the impression of a simple transcription of nature, this apparent simplicity is both misleading and enormously difficult to analyze or describe. Brown writes: “Blessed by nature with extraordinary talent, and by the kind with extraordinary opportunities, he became the only Spanish painter of his age capable of holding his own with the best works of Flanders and Italy.” But his work was not considered of any importance in France or Italy during his lifetime. He remained unnoticed by the principal European commentators of the seventeenth century, such as the Italian classical-art theorist Giovan-Pietro Bellori, and the French theorist Roger de Piles. He is mentioned with contempt by the French historian and critic André Felibien (not mentioned by Brown) who writes that Velázquez lacked the “bel air of which only the Italians were capable.” Putting Velázquez together with the minor Spanish landscape painter Francisco Collantes, Felibien concludes that they had “the same qualities which we find among others who were not first rate.”

Although Velázquez made two long visits to Italy (1629–1630 and 1649–1651), and while his portraits of Pope Innocent X and of Juan de Pareja had some impact on artists working in Rome in the 1650s, Velázquez was soon forgotten there. This can be explained by the dominance in Italy of the classical ideal, which did not admit such straightforward painting from life as Velázquez’s, and imposed instead the Neoplatonic conception of idealizing or “improving” nature.

In Spain itself, no other Spanish artist of the seventeenth century was written about so much during his own lifetime, yet he had scarcely any influence on other Spanish painters. “Given the sophistication of his art,” Brown writes,

it is not surprising that he left no immediate followers. Except in the realm of court-portraiture, there is scarcely a trace of his impact on the painters who succeeded him. The School of Velázquez, to use that antiquated but still expressive term, had no pupils. His successors at court and the other painters in Madrid turned to other models, notably Rubens, and painted almost as if Velázquez had never lived. Within the history of Spanish art, he stands alone; the greatest of Spanish painters seems to have been the least typical representative of Spanish art.

One could argue, as Brown does, that he was isolated because “he was a gentleman and knight of Santiago while his colleagues lived as artisans, finding work where they could,” or because of his own unique qualities as a painter; but of course the two are connected. His genius could take its own direction because he was at the center of power and could follow his inclinations as none of his contemporaries could. “The patronage of Philip IV, a discerning, passionate admirer of painting, gave him the freedom he needed to paint as he chose and to test his mettle against the masterpieces of the royal collection.” This was a rare situation for an artist, and not only in seventeenth-century Spain.


Yet Spain was a peculiar place. The Renaissance had its effect on sculpture and architecture there, but hardly on painting, which remained stagnant and provincial. There was, as Brown says, little significant patronage for Spanish artists other than from the Church, and ecclesiastical patronage went chiefly to architecture and sculpture; the king and Court patronized the great artists of the European centers.

Things started to change in the sixteenth century during the last years of the reign of Philip II, with the construction of El Escorial between 1563 and 1584. Italian artists made the trip to Spain to work on the building and some of them, such as Bartolemé and Vicente Carducho, even remained there. They brought with them the buon maniera of history painting based on proportion and perspective, which aimed at fidelity to nature. Still those aspects of a picture that fell under the categories of disposition and décor (the positioning of figures and propriety) were dictated by the Church. Thus, as Brown rightly puts it, the painter was a mere practitioner rather than a creator. Medieval rules still governed sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists in Spain, who were considered craftsmen, not artists, on the same level as carpenters, masons, and butchers.

That was the prevailing situation when Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in Seville on June 6, 1599, to parents of the minor nobility, and when he entered the studio of Francisco Pacheco (1564–1654) in 1610. Pacheco’s studio and academy were described by Palomino, often called “the Spanish Vasari,” in 1724 as a “gilded cage of art and an academy and a school for the greatest minds of Seville.” During his apprenticeship with Pacheco, whose daughter he married in 1618, Velázquez must have been taught idealist theory. Pacheco, who was to become his first biographer (1638), was apparently a believer in the idealist mode of painting, mixed with Catholic propriety and Jesuit overtones, but he was more concerned with technique. He was not much interested in painting from life. He recommends in his Arte de la pintura (1649) that the artist use a print instead of a live model for painting the female nude, and he must have disapproved of the influence of Caravaggio. But after Velázquez passed his examination and was granted the license to practice as an independent master, on March 14, 1617, his first works were all painted from life. They rejected the idealizing manner he had been taught, and followed Caravaggio’s example, at least in their willingness to emphasize direct observation. This was more a matter of attitude than of style: “truth” must take precedence over beauty.

Velázquez’s relation to Caravaggio and to the Caravaggism of the time has been much debated. The great Italian art historian Roberto Longhi saw in the early work of Velázquez a direct link to Caravaggio. But Benedict Nicolson pointedly excluded Velázquez from his catalog of the “International Caraveggesque Movement” (1979) and Jonathan Brown rejects the connection with Caravaggio on stylistic grounds, even though the example of Caravaggio was exciting to most of the young artists in Western Europe for at least a decade up to the 1620s. It can be argued that Velázquez did not see any original painting by Caravaggio in Seville. The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art), brought to Spain from Naples in 1610 by Don Juan Conde de Benavente, was hanging in the palace of Valladolid. The young Velázquez may have seen a copy, but there is no evidence that he did so.

Brown believes that Velázquez was more influenced by northern painters, as was first suggested by Carl Justi in his pioneering biography of Velázquez (1888). Brown mentions the Netherlandish artists Pieter Aertsen (1508/9–1575) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1530–1574), as well as the Cremonese painter Vincenzo Campi 1525/1530–1575). It is plausible that works by such northern and Cremonese artists could have been in Seville, a rich international port where goods from all over the world were exchanged, and trade was principally in Netherlandish hands. Velázquez must have seen not only prints by Jacob Matham after Aertsen, but originals as well of his Keuken, or kitchen scenes with still life, called in Spain bodegones. Brown also mentions as a possible influence the “subspecies” of northern Italian genre painting called pittura ridicola, “a type of scene in which the antics of the lower orders were turned to moralizing purposes.”

Frequently, these pictures display still-life objects as tokens of vicious behavior, employing a form of symbolism which had long been in existence.

Pacheco had written of this type of painting, and Brown points to at least one Spanish example by the obscure Andalusian painter Juan Esteban de Ubeda in his satire of gluttony dated 1606. Brown thinks that in “using familiar objects which symbolize the vice of gluttony, sexual license and drunkenness,” Velázquez’s early genre painting may convey a moralizing message. Even such works as Old Woman Cooking (1618, Edinburgh, National Gallery) or the Waterseller (London, Wellington Museum) may in his view contain cryptic messages.


These early paintings, which seem to me rather hard and inert, are for Brown “audacious but overreaching, and finally unresolved.” They were nevertheless extraordinary achievements for such a young painter—Velázquez was nineteen years old when he painted the Old Woman Cooking. The early works got him increasing attention, which, with the backing of his former teacher, now father-in-law and admirer, brought him to Madrid, where he was commissioned to paint the portrait of the young King Philip IV, five years his junior.

The portrait was a success and within a few months, on October 6, 1623, Velázquez was appointed by royal decree a royal painter, pintor real. For the next thirty-seven years, until his death on August 6, 1660, he lived at Court, rose in its hierarchy, and produced the great works that probably wouldn’t exist had he remained in Seville, where he was settling down to a comfortable life with his young wife and two daughters. The move from Seville to Madrid must have been something like a move from New York to Albany. Madrid was a small, dull place centered around the palace, but as its citizens boasted, “Selo Madrid es corte,” “only Madrid is the court.”

In a fascinating chapter, “In the Palace of the Planet King,” Brown describes the artificial town Philip II built around the palace, chosen as the kingdom’s capital because it lay geometrically at the peninsula’s center. More important, Brown has been able to penetrate the secrets of the Hapsburg court, one of the most complex and hierarchical in Europe; its organization he traces to the “etiquette of the Burgundian court, which had been introduced into Spain by the Emperor Charles V in 1548.” The detailed account he gives is important for understanding the various positions held by Velázquez in Philip’s service. Brown’s account permits us to see Velázquez emerge as in a developing photographic negative: he appears gradually, becoming clearer and clearer, although in a reverse image, because delineated by his surroundings.

The surroundings were austere. “The contrast between opulence and gravity, of luxury and austerity, lies at the heart of Philip’s court style.” Velázquez certainly shared that style. The empty rooms of the Alcázar palace, dimly lit and without much ornament, have their counterpart in Velázquez’s conception of space in his middle and late paintings: simplicity, modesty, and limitation to an austere palette. Ascending in the hierarchy of the court, Velázquez was appointed not only pintor real but also ugier da camara (1647), ayuda da guardarropa (1636), ayuda da camara (1643), veedor de las obras (1647), and finally aposentador mayor de palacio (1652). In contemporary language, we could say he was royal painter, chamberlain of the palace, decorator and curator of the royal collections. As such, he had to use his connoisseurship, which was evidently sharp, though Brown tells us that Velázquez rejected Correggio’s Education of Cupid (1520/1524, now in the National Gallery, London). Brown sees this as a flaw in Velázquez’s judgment. However, the painting, once in the Gonzaga collection, and bought by Charles I of England in 1628, was cut down on all four sides before 1639, when it was recorded at Whitehall with measurements almost identical to its present ones. Velázquez’s acute eye probably saw that there was something not quite right about it.

In discussing Velázquez’s royal portraits, Brown makes the interesting suggestion that there was a distinctive Hapsburg style of portraiture, beginning with Titian’s 1548 portrait of Emperor Charles V (in the Alte Pinacothek, Munich), in which he finds “consistent preference for what might be called resounding understatement.” He sees Velázquez’s equestrian portraits of Philip IV as “images of power and prestige” that “rejected allegory in favor of straightforward representation of the king, thus turning fact into symbol”—which is, I think, true, and in line with Titian’s “understated” portrait of the emperor. The problem of royal portraiture, as I see it, had more to do with likeness. Should a royal face be painted as it is or as it ought to be? This Aristotelian question had an answer in antiquity: Augustus Octavianus did not want his actual appearance to be sculpted (he was rather ugly), and preferred dissemblance to resemblance: an ideal head, an “image of power.” Philip IV, however, did not hide his face, at least not his right profile (his left profile was rarely painted by Velázquez).

Philip IV was among the greatest collectors of painting of the seventeenth century. Between 1623, when Velázquez became the King’s painter, and 1660, the date of Velázquez’s death, their relationship grew into a kind of friendship within the limits of Court etiquette. It is clear that the King was fond of his painter, that he admired his work and trusted his taste, and gave him every honor he could, culminating with the knighthood of the military Order of Santiago, which was immensely hard to obtain for him.

Velázquez’s ambition to be knighted followed the examples of Titian (knighted by the Emperor Charles V), Rubens (knighted by Charles I of England and Philip IV), and Anthony van Dyck (knighted by Charles I). But he had to struggle hard to obtain his knighthood. Pope Innocent X, whom Velázquez painted in 1650, and Philip IV demanded that Velázquez be knighted because he was a great artist—not because he was of noble descent, which he was. He was finally accepted into the order (after a second intervention by the Pope) on November 28, 1659, eight and a half months before his premature death. His entry into the oldest and most exclusive military order of Spain was taken as a victory for all artists—Zurbarán, Alonso Cano, Juan Carreno de Miranda, among others, had testified for Velázquez. The order’s rules excluded “those who themselves, or whose parents or grandparents, have practiced any of the manual or base occupations here described…. By manual or base occupation is meant silversmith or painter, if he paints for a living….” Velázquez’s colleagues testified that Velázquez did not practice painting for a living. To demonstrate that art was a “noble” occupation remained for Velázquez as for other artists a central issue.

Brown notes that this episode of pride and prejudice may help to explain the iconography of Velázquez’s two greatest paintings, the Fable of Arachne (“The Spinners“) and Las Meninas (in the Prado), in both of which Brown sees an homage to painting as a noble art. In the Fable of Arachne, Velázquez depicts the last moments of the competition to which Arachne had presumptuously challenged Minerva to show that she, Arachne, could weave like a goddess, and thus demonstrate that gods and mortals were equals. He ignores the conclusion of Ovid’s text, the transformation of Arachne, who won the competition, into a spider by the jealous Minerva.

The subject of Velázquez’s painting has a double meaning: not only does he show the competition between common mortals and the gods, but the actual weaving of a tapestry based on Titian’s Rape of Europa, a painting then in the royal palace.

Arachne’s tapestry, which is in fact Titian’s painting, has equaled the creation of Minerva. By inserting a quotation of this famous work into the composition, Velázquez implies his beliefs in the nobility and transcendental value of the art of painting. Titian is equated with Arachne, and Arachne would “paint” like a god.

Brown adds that Velázquez’s homage to Titian had another connotation: Titian was Charles V’s and Philip II’s favorite painter, and as knight of the Golden Spur he was “an artistic and social paradigm for the elevated status of painting at the court of Spain.” Brown’s account of the painting is eloquent and he convincingly analyzes the details, thematic and formal, of this masterpiece in which “no touch of the brush is wasted or misdirected; every stroke and daub goes instinctively to the right place.”

This description also fits Las Meninas, “the largest oil sketch ever made,” yet “as carefully structured as a mythological or religious painting by Poussin.” This is indeed so: speed and logic fuse in this rapidly executed painting. Brown sees in it “the painter’s ambitions as an artist and courtier displayed side-by-side” so as to create a monument to painting as a noble art. Palomino compared it to Titian’s self-portrait holding in his hands the portrait of Philip II, or to Phidias, the ancient Greek sculptor and painter who placed his own portrait on the shield of the statue he made of the goddess Minerva. Palomino regarded the infanta Margarita (later empress of Austria), as the “protagonist” of the painting. He thought that as long as her fame lasted Velázquez would be valued too—he did not imagine that three centuries later, the infanta Margarita would be remembered only because of Velázquez.

Las Meninas is no doubt Velázquez’s most remarkable and most haunting masterpiece. In his long discussion of the picture Brown abandons some of his views published in 1977 in “The Meaning of ‘Las Meninas,’ ” among them his emphasis on use of perspective (he called the picture the “most brilliant perspective composition ever conceived”). Here he takes a much subtler, deeper, and less deterministic approach. “Velázquez tempered geometry with intuition,” Brown now writes, “by creating numerous focal points within the composition.” Thanks to this multifocal perspective, Brown thinks, “Velázquez sought to imitate the restless movement of the eye as it scans a large space.” He does not note that bifocal or multifocal perspective constructions were used in studio practice before the laws of perspective were first described by Brunelleschi and Alberti. Besides, Poussin often used bifocal perspective in his compositions (as I noted in Nicolas Poussin: The Rape of the Sabines, published in 1982).

To my mind, the sensation we have of being pulled beyond the figures of the infanta and the maids of honor comes from the tension between the two rectangles at the center, the open door blocked by the figure of José de Nieto, and the mirror in which the half figures of the king and queen are reflected. The positive-negative relations of light on dark (in the mirror) and dark on light (the open door), between reflection (the mirror) and deflection (the door), interlock as if by a magnetic force into which our eyes are drawn. The multifocal perspective actually abolishes the illusion of depth, and brings the perspective lines back onto the plane.

Velázquez seems not to have bothered much about perspective—Brown suggests that he actually mastered it quite late, in Italy; (in the Forge of Vulcan, which he painted there, perspective is dominant). He tended to avoid perspective although he must have studied it with Pacheco, and probably read the essential treatises on the subject, such as the ones by Vitellio, Alberti, Daniele Barbaro—all in his library. In my view he largely did without conventional perspective, but he is not the only painter of the seventeenth century to have replaced the perspective pyramid by a bifocal or multifocal perspective which transforms depth into rhythm, bringing all the perspective lines back to the flat plane. Putting visual emphasis on the piano, the plane of the canvas, was not invented by modernism.

Looking closely at his canvases, I think we can see that Velázquez painted directly, without making a preparatory drawing, without “calculating”; it seems clear that he started his painting directly with the brush, sketching with burnt umber, going from dark to light often a la prima (“wet-into-wet”), finishing in one session when possible—as in the portrait of the Duke of Modena Francesco d’Este (1638) or in the Portrait of a Man (presumably of José de Nieto) now in the Wellington Museum. In most cases he did not finish a painting in one session, but often, even in Las Meninas, he completed most of the figures a la prima and later retouched here and there (as in the shadow under the dress of the infanta and her right arm). He retouched, changed, overpainted. The traces are visible to the naked eye—as in the splendid portrait of Philip IV in Brown and Silver (London, National Gallery), where the shimmering silvery quality is obtained by overpainting white strokes on the already dry gray and brown.

Velázquez’s technique of painting underwent a change in the early 1620s under the spell of Titian’s royal portraits, as the first portraits of Philip IV demonstrate. But the most important event before his trip to Italy was his encounter with Rubens, who arrived at the Spanish court in September 1628 and stayed there until April 1629. Rubens painted a number of royal portraits in Madrid and copied many of the Titians in the royal collection—such as Diana and Acteon as well as Diana and Callisto (Edinburgh, National Gallery)—which were intended to be given as a wedding gift to Charles I, then Prince of Wales, had he married the infanta. When he didn’t, the paintings remained in Madrid.

Rubens’s copies of Titian must have had an important effect on the young Velázquez. The softening of form, freer handling of color, and a certain change in the use of pigments, especially in the treatment of flesh, may well have been the result of seeing Titian by way of Rubens. Brown himself, however, minimizes Rubens’s impact on Velázquez. Velázquez’s first trip to Italy, just after Rubens’s visit to the court, had an even greater effect in extending Velázquez’s compositional range, as is demonstrated in the Forge of Vulcan (Madrid, Prado), and the astonishing Joseph’s Bloodied Coat Presented to Jacob (in the El Escorial). But his particular approach of capturing life directly by brush and pigment and leaving the stroke evident, still trembling with life, he learned from no one. It was his own language.

Brown describes the paintings perceptively, sometimes movingly—as in this description of the portrait of the jester Calabazas (Prado):

Velázquez’s vision of this misbegotten man is subtle, haunting, and strangely moving, uncompromisingly realistic but tinged with feeling. Calabazas’s eyes are crossed, his head lolls to one side, the fingers of one hand grind into the palm of the other while he smiles a vacant smile. On either side are the gourds which have given him a mocking name. The composition is unusually complex for a single-figure portrait. The jester is seated on a low wooden stool, one leg tucked under the other. Thus, we are required to look down upon his curiously bent figure. Behind him, the ground rises up at the right, meeting what may be a door or window, while at the left, the space dissolves into formlessness. As a result, Calabazas seems almost trapped in a narrow, confining room which crowds in upon him. The laws of nature, which have played a cruel trick on this mindless fool, have also ceased to function normally in the world around him.

Still, alongside his enormous erudition and feeling for form, Brown shares with modern art historians a certain unfamiliarity with painting technique and pigments. What is “salmon-pink?” What is “forest-green”? Why should art historians not know the proper names of pigments and be able to recognize them? This is a pity, because Professor Brown emerges from the pages of this book as a distinguished art historian.

As I see it, Velázquez’s use of color is based on his perception of the differences between cold and warm colors, and the possibilities of modifying hues by contrast. He rarely used primary colors: instead of using a brilliant red, he preferred to create an optical illusion of it. A good example is the red ribbons in the dress of the infanta Margarita in Las Meninas. The pigment used by Velázquez is not vermilion, as one may think, but red ochre; the redness we perceive derives only from the contrast; the cold gray surrounding it and the points of yellow in it enhance the redness, and so transform the red ochre into something redder than it is. On the other hand, vermilion was used in the infanta’s face, mixed with white, which produces the cool light pink of the cheeks. The chromatic modulation which is so masterly in Velázquez’s mature and late paintings is, as in musical modulation, based on juxtapositions and reversals.

His pictorial idiom, essentially concerned with expressing the visible by means of the brush, is in fact anti-illusionistic insofar as the painting is reduced to a limited pictorial language of brush strokes. This language of brush strokes is unusual in the seventeenth century, and Brown is right to say that even Titian did not use it. But I differ with Brown’s view that the strokes were premeditated and not spontaneous. They are undoubtedly spontaneous and swift, although they may baffle because of their impeccable precision: A precise shot obtained through absolute freedom, as if the brush went its own way. It brings to mind the “artless art” of Zen in the Art of Archery. Brown does not see it this way, and believes that Velázquez painted stroke by stroke with deliberate intentions. But what is unique in his painting cannot, in my view, have been premeditated or willed. Velázquez let himself be carried along by his inner voice, which he may have perceived as his source of truth. The wonder is that a king could have perceived its greatness.

Few others had a chance to do so. Only a handful of artists and connoisseurs who had access to the Spanish royal court and to the king’s quarters could see Las Meninas. Luca Giordano, who saw it there upon his arrival at the court in 1692, said to Charles II, “esta es la teologia de la pintura” (“this is the theology of painting”). But the public did not see this or other works by Velázquez in the royal collection until the opening of the Prado Museum in Madrid, in 1819. Since then, and throughout the nineteenth century, Velázquez’s work was finally revealed and had an enormous impact—not only on Manet, for whom Velázquez was “le peintre des peintres.” Through the enthusiasm of the Impressionists for his work, however, Velázquez became increasingly identified with the painterly loose brush stroke, done with bravura, that was held to be the mark of “great painting” by such artists as Boldini and Sargent. This association reflected unfavorably on Velázquez for a time, and perhaps explains why Matisse preferred Goya and Murillo. But Picasso venerated him and so did other modernists.

This Issue

November 6, 1986