Musement takes a look at eight of Velázquez’s most emblematic paintings.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez (1599–1660) was a crucial artist of the Spanish Golden Age of art, which lasted from 1580 to 1680. The Seville native earned a place in art history as one of the most exemplary baroque artists. With his mastery of light, Velázquez’s style evolved from tenebrism, a technique typical of Caravaggio that he employed in his early years to a style involving great luminosity which rendered him a master of pictorial art.
At the age of 24, Velázquez moved to Madrid and was named the official artist of the court of King Phillip IV. During this period, he created the works for which he became internationally renowned. Of amongst 120 artworks that he produced, below is a look at eight of his most emblematic pieces.
1. “Las Meninas”, 1656
As the most famous of Diego Velázquez’s pieces, “Las Meninas” is a painting that is full of mystery and whose interpretation has produced multiple theories. Yet Velázquez’s expertise with regard to composition, perspective, and lighting is indisputable. The subject is the Infanta Margarita and her ladies-in-waiting, María Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco, though a score of other people appear in the painting as well, including Velázquez himself.
2. “The Triumph of Bacchus” (or The Drunkards), 1628–1629
One of the themes Velázquez explored in his paintings was mythology, and the “Triumph of Bacchus” was the first piece he painted based on the genre. The painting consists of a naturalist scene, exemplified by a bottle and pitcher on the ground, with the god of wine as the main subject crowning a soldier among a group of drunk men. Through shading, Velázquez adds texture to the painting, practically creating a still life. The artist wanted to exalt the ability of wine to console man.
3. “Rokeby Venus”, 1647–1651
Rokeby Venus was painted while Diego Velázquez was staying in Italy, and it created significant controversy throughout history for some of the meanings attributed to the piece—the only one in which a naked woman appears. Some experts maintain that the woman represented in the painting is Velázquez’s Italian lover, while others claim that she is the lover of Count-Duke of Olivares’ nephew. Whoever she is, we see the goddess Venus reclining on a bed looking at herself in a mirror held up by Cupid, the god of love. It is a mythological theme to which Velázquez provided realism through representing the woman as a person instead of a goddess.
4. “Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares”, 1636
This oil on canvas is an exception for the painter when it comes to his style. We see a use of color and design that is atypical of Velázquez—he uses more colors, and the style is more pompous than in his other portraits. With Gaspar de Guzmán, known as the Count-Duke of Olivares, as the subject, this portrait of the equestrian conveys vitality while also paying homage to an individual with great power, as corroborated by the armor, hat, and general officer sash.
5. ”Christ Crucified”, 1632
The impact of Christ Crucified was such that Miguel de Unamuno dedicated a poem (The Velázquez Christ) to it. The mystery that it inspires does not leave room for indifference. This painting is a frontal view of a naked Christ nailed to the cross on a black background. It is painted with great mastery, which we can observe in the body’s proportions and the way in which the artist is able to communicate serenity and dignity.
6. “The Waterseller of Seville”, 1619–1620
The Waterseller of Seville is a piece based on realism dominated by ocher and brown tones and characterized by the use of the chiaroscuro technique typical of Caravaggio. The painting supposes an allegory of the three ages of man, depicting old man, a waterseller who is offering a cup of water to a young boy (representing the transmission of knowledge), while another man in the background contemplates the scene.
Where: Apsley House Collection, London
7. “Self Portrait”, 1640
Despite its poor condition of preservation, this self portrait is the only one catalogued as such (aside from the appearance he makes in Las Meninas). With a range of dark colors and rough brushstrokes, the painter looks toward the viewer in the work. It is believed that when this piece was painted, Velázquez was about 50 years old and that it was created during his second stay in Italy.
Where: The Museum of Fine Arts of Valencia
8. “The Spinners” (or The Fable of Arachne), 1655–1660
In “The Spinners”, Velázquez returns to mythology (which is where the other name of the painting, The Fable of Arachne, originates). Although at first glance the painting seems to represent women working in a tapestry workshop, its iconography suggests the fable in which Minerva punished Arachne after a weaving competition by turning her into a spider, condemning her to weave for the rest of her days. Athena is depicted as an elderly woman and Arachne appears to her right.