“C’est le peintre des peintres.” Such was Édouard Manet’s homage after seeing Diego Velázquez’s work in the Prado in 1865. It was the era of France’s craze for all things Spanish, but Romantic enthusiasm for the Spain of opera and passionate adventure was not what interested the painter of Olympia. The murkiness of Jusepe de Ribera and the melodrama of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo were foreign to Manet’s nature. But in Velázquez he discovered an artist who refrained from all sentimentality—from all empathy, in fact—an artist who was neither garrulous nor allegorical, who did nothing but depict. It is one of the most productive paradoxes in the history of painting: Manet, the painter of modern life, who recorded the fashions and mute dramas of liberal, urban society recognizes an older brother in the court painter of Habsburg Spain. Returning to Paris, he modeled a portrait of the actor Rouvière as Hamlet on one of Velázquez’s portraits of jesters. Velázquez, whose work had been largely unknown outside of Spain until then, joined the pantheon of European painters.
Thus a tribute to “the painter’s painter” Velázquez on the 350th anniversary of his death does well to begin with the words of that other painter, who discovered the Spanish master with the intelligence of his eyes.
There are hardly any stories to tell about him. He was born in Seville in 1599, and from his twenty-fourth year on, he was a cog in the court machinery of Madrid. The court was not a place to foster anecdotes or legends about artists. We hear of his rise to increasingly lofty offices with more and more generous salaries to match. His career began in 1623 when he was named pintor del rey, and culminated in 1652 in his appointment as aposentador mayor de palacio—chamberlain of the palace. The higher he rose, the more time and energy his court duties required. As aposentador he was responsible for distributing the immense royal collections of paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. José Ortega y Gasset remarked ironically, “Velázquez is the painter whose peculiarity is that he doesn’t paint.” He pursued painting as a court office. At court, where all personal emotion is subjugated to ceremony, the artist too must avoid any expressive extravagance.
That’s why Velázquez’s pictures elude subjective empathy. You cannot get on familiar terms with them, but only admire their colorful polish from afar. They stand before the observer like a sovereign granting an audience. I recall talking with the great and judicious art historian Walter Friedländer about our visits to the Prado. We spoke with warm enthusiasm about the Titians and the Rubenses. His only comment on Velázquez was “I didn’t come close.”
Before he arrived at court, Velázquez spent his apprenticeship and early working years in Seville. The Andalusian city was a…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.