Velazquez, Diego

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

King, pope, peasant, and fool—their noble and special qualities were captured by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Because he wanted to show life as he saw it, Velázquez painted people in the settings in which they lived. His skillful use of light, shadow, color, and space heightened the realism of his work.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born into a prominent family of Seville, Spain, and baptized on June 6, 1599 (the exact date of his birth is unknown). As a boy, Velázquez studied painting in the studio of the popular artist Francisco Pacheco. Fortunately, Velázquez was allowed to develop his own style. Instead of copying only from prints as apprentices usually did, he preferred to draw lively young peasants. Later he married Pacheco's daughter Juana.

In 1621, a few years after Velázquez finished his apprenticeship, Philip IV became king of Spain. In 1623, Velázquez went to Madrid and painted a portrait of a member of the king's court, Juan de Fonseca. When Philip saw the painting, he asked the artist to paint his portrait. The king was so pleased with his own likeness that he made Velázquez court painter.

Velázquez worked and lived in the palace for the rest of his life, painting many portraits of the king and royal family. One of these, Las Meninas ("The Maids of Honor"; 1656), is considered one of his masterpieces. It depicts the king's daughter attended by her servants while Velázquez himself works on a portrait of the king and queen, who are visible only in a background mirror and appear to be standing where a viewer of the painting would be.

In 1629-31, Velázquez went to see the works of the great Italian masters. During his second trip to Italy in 1649-51, he bought outstanding paintings and sculptures for Philip, which are the pride of the Prado Museum today. While in Rome, he painted his famous portrait of Pope Innocent X.

In 1660, Velázquez was put in charge of the decorations for the wedding of Philip's daughter to the king of France. Overworked, Velázquez became ill and died on August 6.

Reviewed by Priscilla E. Muller
Hispanic Society of America

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