Diego De Silva Velazquez was born in Seville in 1599. When he turned twelve he was apprenticed to the painter Francisco Pacheco. After finishing his apprenticeship in 1617 he was married. With his wife, Juana, he had two daughters, Francisca, and Ignacia. Diego became a well known painter while living in Seville. The turning point in Velazquez’s life occurred when he was appointed to paint the King, Philip IV. There was a sitting on 30 August 1623, and the portrait when finished received the greatest praise. The Count-Duke ordered Velazquez to remain at Court, and from then onwards his life was that of a courtier (Salas 5).
While in the palace he was given positions such as Assistant of the Wardrobe, Supervisor of the Works of the Palace, and Aposentador Mayor. Velazquez did not have any nobility in his genealogy but he was still granted Knighthood by the King. He was given many things by the king and it became well known that they were good friends. Velazquez became recognized as one of the greatest painters of his time. He was able to imitate nature and landscapes with great precision. Diego was also able to disguise the ugliness of the lantern jawed Spanish Habsburgs by decorating his subjects with beautiful clothing and backgrounds.
In March 1660 the King left Madrid for Irun, accompanying the Infanta Maria Teresa, and in his retinue was Velazquez. In Fuenterrabia the Infanta joined her bridegroom, the King of France, Velazquez being responsible for all the arrangements of the journey and the ceremonies. On June 8th the King started his return journey and Velazquez was with him, exhausted by his arduous duties. A few days after their return, on the last day of July, Velazquez was taken ill while on duty at the Palace. On August 6th 1660 he died at home (Salas 12). The subject of my paper will on Velazquez’s most famous piece, Las Meninas.
In 1656 Velazquez painted what the world recognizes as his masterpiece, perhaps the masterpiece of all paintings: Las Meninas as it has been called since the last century, or The Royal Family, as it was known in its time. This work represents the culmination of Velazquez’s two principal characteristics: an immediate physical truth of vision and a complex intellectuality. Here seemingly straightforward scene, which appears to have been happened on at a chance moment is sustained by a complex mental underpinning, which makes it necessary, upon more careful examination, to regard the painting as an unsolved enigma (Sanchez 52).
All the characters in this picture are real people of the court. Every thing about Las Meninas is real. All but one of the people in it are known by name: the two at right are the dwarfs Mari-Barbola and Nicolas Pertusato. The canvases on the walls are replicas of Flemish works by the artist’s son-in-law, Mazo. The room is Velazquez’ studio in Alcazar. (Brown 179). The image portrays the Infanta Margarita, the King’s daughter, with two of her meninas (ladies in the service of the Queen or of the Infantas; from the Portuguese ‘meninha’, young girl) and the dwarfs with a large dog.
This group is bathed in light coming from a side window. Behind them, in the half-light, are a lady-in-waiting and a Guarda damas (gentleman-in-waiting). The child and her retinue are portrayed looking at the King and Queen, her parents, who are posing for the painter; they must be imagined to be standing outside the picture, where we stand when we look at it; the royal pair is reflected in the mirror at the far end of the room. The painter himself, in the second plane, stands before his easel, brush in hand, as if looking at the royal couple – that is at us standing in their place.
At the back, a door opens on to a brightly lit staircase and there appears Jose Nieto, the Queen’s Aposentador, a silhouette-like figure against the strong light (Salsa 11) This is much more than just a painting. Las Meninas has a symbolic message in it and one of the many hints given in this painting is the questioning look in that of the painter. Another key is found in a mirror with a heavy ebony frame hanging on the wall in the middle background. Reflected in its silvered surface are the blurred figures of the king and queen.
It is they, certainly, whom Velazquez is painting with such a respectful attitude. It is they who are the true protagonists of the composition, they who give it meaning, for probably there is a symbolic intent to the painting: to present the infanta-at that moment heir to the crown, in the absence of a brother and because of the forced renunciation of her older sister, promised to the King of France-in a kind of reverent homage and anticipatory allegiance owed to the successor to the throne. All these things are insinuated in the silver penumbra, a resonant ambiance rendered as never before (Sanchez 52).
In another way this painting almost seems to be Velazquez’s personal view into the future of the Spanish Monarchy. Velazquez blurred the Habsburg features of King Philip IV and his wife when he painted their double portrait as a mirror reflection. What we see are the mere shadows of majesty. It is as though Velazquez had in mind a line about the court written by the poet Quevedo: “There are many things here that seem to exist and have their being, and yet they are nothing more than a name and an appearance. ” The tide of Spanish power, apparently supreme on three continents at the beginning of Philip’s reign, was fast ebbing.
Portugal was lost, and with it Brazil; other overseas lands were threatened by the Protestant Dutch and English, who plundered the Silver Fleets that propped Spain’s tottering economy. Less than ten years after Las Meninas was painted, the King died, leaving a half-witted four-year-old heir to the Crown. The boy, Carlos II, was the last of the Habsburg line in Spain. His sister, the golden-haired Margarita, fared hardly better; although she became empress of Austria at 15, she died at 22. But, thanks to her father’s painter, her youth and beauty survived her, in Las Meninas (Brown 185).
Velazquez had succeeded in formulating what would perhaps be the absolute definition of pure painting: to replace reality with a reflection that would retain the spiritual quality and the physical properties of image and appearance and would be, in fact, more “real” than reality itself. In these last years of his life, burdened by palace duties, Velazquez substantially reduced his artistic production, entrusting to his son-in-law Mazo the copying of minor official portraits. He was nonetheless able to paint a number of portraits that rank among his greatest works (Sanchez 52).
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