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The Baroque in Spain: Diego Velázquez

The Baroque in Spain: Diego Velázquez

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will go over the impact of Baroque art in Spain.
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An introduction to Baroque painting in Spain, focusing on Diego Velázquez.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about the Baroque in Spain, focusing on Diego Velazquez. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of this lesson, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain the work of Velazquez as court painter for Philip IV of Spain, and explain the narrative complexity of Las Meninas-- The Maids of Honor-- and the relationship that this work establishes with the person viewing the painting.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Habsburg, one of the most important ruling families in Europe originally from the Holy Roman Empire. And the big idea for today is that Diego Velazquez was the most important Baroque painter of 17th century Spain.

So the artwork that we're looking at today comes from the 17th century between 1623 and 1657, but we will also be referring to the 16th century in Spain as well. Both centuries are commonly referred to as the golden age in Spain. And today, we'll be traveling to Madrid, Spain.

So as I mentioned before, the 16th and 17th centuries in Spain are commonly referred to as the golden age in Spain. And 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 span of time also marked by the gradual loss of its prominent position due to fighting with other countries in Europe and unrest within its colonies. So in a sense, Spain had globally spread itself a bit too thin.

The artist Diego Velazquez emerged and grew up in Seville, Spain, or in the English pronunciation Seville, Spain, during the early part of the 17th century. And 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 the most important Spanish Baroque painter of the 17th century.

Now The Water Carrier of Seville is one of his earliest works of renown. It was completed around the age of 20, and it shows his remarkable talent already as a painter as well as the influence of Italian Baroque artists like Caravaggio and his application of contrasting light and dark elements and use of a single light source.

His ability to capture detail was also notable. The realistic appearance of the clay jars, for example, are incredibly realistic in their appearance. Velazquez clearly has a developed understanding of the effects of light, even at an early age. Now notice how the muted reflection on the jars creates the illusion of a matte finish to the clay. Velazquez also includes wonderful little details like the streaks water and droplets on the jars that add a sense of realism to this painting.

Now Velazquez' skill came to the attention of King Philip IV of Spain. And Velazquez was hired to work for the court as a painter and portraitist. Now one of Velazquez' most notable skills was in creating masterful and memorable works of art from his many assignments.

Now this in particular was commissioned by the King during an on site visit during a Spanish military campaign. Now Velazquez makes the very best of what he has to work with. The figure of Philip IV wasn't very imposing, and his large lower jaw, which is courtesy of Habsburg genetics, made for a rather unimpressive figure.

So Velazquez compensates for these physical limitations by focusing on the clothing of the King. His clothes are magnificently rendered down to the incredible detail or kept incredibly detailed silver stitching that runs throughout the outfit. Now the attention of material textures is something we've become accustomed to from Northern European painters. And Velazquez shows his ability is at the very least on par with the Northern European masters.

Perhaps even more impressive is that this was an outfit the King actually wore while reviewing his troops. Artists were often given elaborate articles of clothing that they would superimpose on their subjects. Velazquez' use of clothing that would have been familiar creates a more visceral image.

Velazquez' masterpiece, Las Meninas, or The Maids of Honor, is a monumental painting in terms of Velazquez' vision for it as well as the overall size. It's quite enormous. It's about 11x9 feet. Now he completed this after a visit to Italy, one of the few times he left his homeland of Spain. The painting is considered Velazquez' attempt to elevate his own stature as an artist as well as his craft.

He's gone all out in this painting, creating a visually complex painting that can be appreciated on a number of different levels. Now 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 appears to sort of look like a nun, is actually wearing widow's cloves 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. Velazquez himself is a part of this painting, standing on the very left, painting an unseen image on a large canvas.

Now this has led to an enormous amount of discussion as to the content of the painting. Is it of the princess and the scene that we are seeing before us? Is it of the King and Queen in the mirror at the very back of the room? Is the viewer?

His depiction reminds me 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 their eyes. It's as if we're a part of the work.

And his use of light is also notable in this. There is the influence of Caravaggio present, but the extremes in contrast are much more subdued and instead replaced with a more natural variation in 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.

And 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. There's also a nod to northern masters with his inclusion of copies of two of Peter Paul Rubens' paintings on the wall, and they're very difficult to see in this image. But this implies a great appreciation and respect for his northern European contemporary in Peter Paul Rubens.

Regardless of the truth behind what is occurring in Las Meninas, Velazquez' attempt to elevate his stature as an artist and his craft of art is a 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.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objective again to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain the work of Velazquez as Court Painter for Philip IV of Spain? And can you explain the narrative complexity of Las Meninas, The Maids of Honor, and the relationship that this work establishes with the person viewing the painting.

And our big idea once again is that Diego Velazquez was the most important Baroque painter of 17th century Spain. And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "The Baroque in Spain: Diego Velázquez"


(0:00-1:18) Introduction, Key Terms, BIG IDEA

(1:19-2:19) 16th-century Spain

(2:20-2:44) Diego Velazquez

(2:45-3:39) The Water Carrier of Seville

(3:40-4:59) Portrait of Philip IV

(5:00-7:46) Las Meninas

(7:47-8:25) Review, Wrap-up, Ending

Key Terms


One of the most important ruling families in Europe, originally from the Holy Roman Empire.


Image of Velazquez Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez_Autorretrato_45_x_38_cm_-_Colecci%C3%B3n_Real_Academia_de_Bellas_Artes_de_San_Carlos_-_Museo_de_Bellas_Artes_de_Valencia.jpg; Image of Water Carrier Public Domain http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/diego-velazquez/the-waterseller-of-seville-1623; Image of Philip IV Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Philippe_IV_espagne.jpg; Image of Las Meninas Public Domain http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/diego-velazquez/las-meninas-detail-of-the-lower-half-depicting-the-family-of-philip-iv-of-spain-1656