Diego Velázquez de Silva y Velázquez, the most admired—perhaps the greatest—European painter who ever lived, possessed a miraculous gift for conveying a sense of truth. He gave the best of his talents to painting portraits, which capture the appearance of reality through the seemingly effortless handling of sensuous paint.
Velázquez was born in 1599 in Seville. Velázquez have started his apprenticeship with Francisco de Herrera the Elder, but a short while later his father put him with Francisco Pacheco, who was a tolerant teacher and a man of society. At this time, Velazquez became familiar with the school of Caravaggio.
In 1617, Velázquez was accepted into the painters'' guild of St. Luke in Seville. The same year Velázquez married Juana. Within less than three years they had two daughters, of whom only one, Francisca, survived. The paintings executed by Velázquez in Seville before 1622 include bodegones, popular genre of kitchen scenes, in which food and drink plays the main part and his first portraits and religious compositions: "Old Woman Frying Eggs", "Three Men at Table", "The Waterseller in Seville", "Mother Jerónima de la Fuente", "The Adoration of the Magi".
In 1622, Velázquez visited Madrid for the first time to see its art treasures and to make useful contacts. Then he went to Toledo to see works by El Greco and other painters, including Pedro de Orrente and Juan Sanchez Cotan. In the spring of 1623, Velázquez was summoned to court by the powerful Prime Minister, Count-Duke of Olivares, and received his first commission for a portrait of Philip IV. The success of this picture brought the artist an appointment as court painter and the privilege of becoming the only artist permitted to paint the king in the future. In 1628, Peter Paul Rubens came to the court in Madrid on diplomatic business. Velázquez often visited him at work.
The portrait of Don Gaspar de Guzmán (52.125) recalls the splendid equestrian portraits of individual members of the royal family that Velázquez painted in the 1630s. At the same time, he painted for the king unforgettable likenesses of court dwarfs and buffoons, capturing their inner suffering with dazzling brushwork and cool detachment.
In 1649–51, Velázquez made a second trip to Italy to collect works of art for the king, and the fresh exposure to classical antiquity resulted in masterworks such as Venus and Cupid ("The Rokeby Venus") (National Gallery, London). The portrait of his assistant, Juan de Pareja (1971.86), caused a sensation when Velázquez exhibited it in Rome. Hanging alongside works by the best artists of the time, the portrait was acclaimed for its extraordinary lifelike quality. Of all the painters then in Rome, he alone was granted permission to paint the pope. Upon seeingInnocent X (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), one observer wrote that Velázquez had come to Italy "not to learn but to teach, for his Innocent X was the amazement of Rome. Every artist copied it and looked upon it as a miracle."
In his final decade, Velázquez''s handling of paint became increasingly free and luminous. This late style can be seen in María Teresa (1638–1683), Infanta of Spain (49.7.43)—a portrait probably made for her future husband, Louis XIV of France—and the breathtakingly beautiful portrayal of the royal family, Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting) (Prado). The artist stands to the left before an enormous canvas on which he is painting the king and queen, who are reflected in the mirror in the background, but the real subject of the picture is the little infanta who has come to watch Velázquez at work. She stands between two ladies-in-waiting, who coax her to behave, and two court dwarfs and a large dog, all rendered with astonishing freedom and truth to nature.
Because most of Velázquez''s work was carried out for the king, it remained in palaces where few people saw it. Not until the upheavals caused by Napoleon''s Peninsular War (1808–14) was some of his work dispersed throughout Northern Europe. In the nineteenth-century, his paintings made an enormous impact upon artists, and to the present day Velázquez is remembered as the painter''s painter.