The artwork that you will be looking at today dates from the 17th century between 1623 and 1657, but the lesson will be referring to the 16th century in Spain as well. Both centuries are commonly referred to as the Golden Age in Spain. Today’s artwork focuses geographically on Madrid, Spain.
The 16th and 17th centuries in Spain are commonly referred to as the Golden Age in Spain. The spread of Spanish influence throughout Europe, and its colonization of the New World, reached its zenith during this 200-year span. It was a time also marked by the gradual loss of its prominent position due to fighting with other countries in Europe and unrest within its colonies. In a sense, Spain had globally spread itself a bit too thin. The chart below outlines some of the major events affecting Spain during this period.
Diego Velázquez, shown below in his self-portrait, grew up and emerged as an artist in Seville, Spain, during the early part of the 17th century. Although he learned his craft in Seville, he lived out the majority of his life in Madrid as royal court painter and curator for Philip IV. He’s universally considered to be the most important Spanish Baroque painter of the 17th century, known particularly for his portrait painting.
4a. “The Water Carrier of Seville”
“The Water Carrier of Seville” is one of his earliest works of renown. He completed it around the age of 20, and it shows his remarkable talent already as a painter as well as the influence of Italian Baroque artists, such as Caravaggio with his application of contrasting light and dark elements and use of a single light source.
His ability to capture detail was also notable. The appearance of the clay jars, for example, is incredibly realistic. Velázquez clearly had a developed understanding of the effects of light, even at an early age. Notice how the muted reflection on the jars creates the illusion of a matte finish to the clay. Velázquez also includes wonderful little details, such as the streaks of water and droplets on the jars, that add a sense of realism to this painting.
4b. “King Philip IV of Spain”
Velázquez’ skill came to the attention of King Philip IV of Spain who hired him to work for the court as a painter and portraitist. One of Velázquez’ most notable skills was in creating masterful and memorable works of art from his many assignments. This next piece was commissioned by the King during an onsite visit during a Spanish military campaign.
Velázquez makes the very best of what he has to work with, as the figure of Philip IV wasn’t very imposing. His large lower jaw, which is courtesy of Habsburg genetics, made for a rather unimpressive figure. Therefore, Velázquez compensates for these physical limitations by focusing on the clothing of the King. His clothes are magnificently rendered down to the incredibly detailed silver stitching that runs throughout the outfit.
4c. “Las Meninas”
Velázquez’ masterpiece, “Las Meninas,” or “The Maids of Honor,” is a monumental painting in terms of Velázquez’ vision for it, as well as the overall size. It’s enormous, with dimensions of approximately 11 x 9 feet. He completed this after a visit to Italy—one of the few times he left his homeland of Spain. The painting is considered to be Velázquez’ attempt to elevate his own stature as an artist as well as his craft.
In this piece, he created a visually complex painting that can be appreciated on a number of different levels. At the center, illuminated, is the image of the little Princess Margarita being attended to by her maids-in-waiting. On the far right are her two favorite dwarfs, directly in front of the dog relaxing on the floor. The woman in the back, in the middle ground, who resembles a nun, is actually wearing widow’s clothes, and is standing next to a younger man.
The painting is a very realistic depiction of actual people. Everyone in the painting is identifiable as an actual person. Velázquez himself is a part of this painting, standing on the very left, painting an unseen image on a large canvas.
His depiction is reminiscent of Northern Baroque paintings of this time, such as the group portraits of Rembrandt that showed the subjects of the painting interacting with a viewer, catching the viewer’s eye as if he or she is a part of the work. Velázquez’ use of light is also notable in this. The influence of Caravaggio is present, but the extremes in contrast are much more subdued, and instead replaced with a more natural variation of how the light dissipates throughout the room. Even his depiction of the mirror is realistic as he clearly distinguishes the mirror from the canvases around it. The use of the mirror recalls the use of a mirror by Jan van Eyck to extend beyond the frame of the canvas in his Arnolfini portrait.
Regardless of the truth behind what is occurring in “Las Meninas,” Velázquez’ attempt to elevate his stature as an artist and his craft of art is superbly executed. In the same spirit as Vermeer’s “Allegory of the Art of Painting,” it’s a celebration of the art and craft of painting itself.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Ian McConnell.
One of the most important ruling families in Europe, originally from the Holy Roman Empire.