Velázquez: art and history in 17th Century Spain

One of my favourite things to do when visiting places in Europe is to spend some time looking around the museums and art galleries. In Spain, one of the most famous galleries is the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where you can see many major works of Spanish art history under one roof.

The man himself, jus’ hangin’ outside the Prado

In the case of one of the most famous Spanish artists, Diego Velázquez, the term ‘art history’ is entirely appropriate, because many of his paintings depict people or events which were of pivotal importance in the history of Spain and its territories. The paintings are amazing to look at up close, incredibly skilfully executed, lifelike, full of character and quite unusual in many ways. Velázquez is considered one of the fathers of Spanish art and there’s a magnificent statue of him brandishing his paintbrushes and pallet which dominates the main entrance to the Prado gallery. Unfortunately, fewer people tend to see it nowadays, as the working entrance is now at the side of the building rather than the front.

Velázquez studied and came to prominence in his native Seville in the 1620s and was soon called to the court of King Philip IV to paint, amongst other things, a portrait of the monarch. Philip liked the style of the portrait so much that he employed Velázquez permanently, a post which the artist was to hold until his death in 1660. The painter was also a highly privileged and trusted artistic and cultural advisor to the king, and was therefore responsible for things like arranging the decorations to the palace and adding pieces to the King’s private art collection, some of which can also be seen in the Prado. Given his important position in the royal court, Velázquez was able to create many works which act as a commentary on events concerning the nation of Spain and the internal machinations of the monarchical dynasties competing for control in Europe at that time.

The Surrender of Breda (1635)

One such painting is La Rendición de Breda (The Surrender of Breda), which depicts the conquest of the Dutch city by Spain in 1625. This was a surprising victory achieved during Spain’s expansion into lands which would form what was known as The Spanish Netherlands,* and it was the subject of great national pride at the time. Velázquez’s painting shows a compassionate scene of the handover of the key to the city. The magnanimous General Spinola (who actually died before the painting was even begun) kindly and mercifully commiserates the Dutch commander in what is, by many accounts, a very accurate depiction of the real event.

Prince Philip Prospero (1659)

Another revealing work is Velázquez’s painting of the young Prince Philip Prospero. Far from being a simple portrait, it has many allusions to the grave state of the prince’s health, which was extremely worrisome at the time as he was the only extant male heir to the Spanish throne. The young child is wreathed in lucky charms, and his small companion dog gazes at the viewer with an expression somewhere between concern and resignation. The constant problem of lineage and ensuring control of Spain’s lands, and in doing so preventing the usurpation of France, dogged the Spanish monarchy for centuries. This painting is a powerful embodiment of that fear and desperation, which Velázquez would have been very familiar with as an intimate member of the court.**

One of the things that fascinates me about Velázquez’s work is some of the apparently unusual aspects of his compositions. In The Surrender of Breda, for example, the arrangement of the lances immediately draws the eye (in fact, this painting is sometimes titled as The Lances***). I’m unsure whether it’s supposed to be a random pattern or if it has another meaning, perhaps even containing some kind of code. I also think that the position of the horse in the foreground is interesting, since it’s an unusual choice in a historical painting to have a huge section filled by a horse’s bottom! Again, I don’t know the reasoning behind (no pun intended) this choice, but Velázquez was well versed in perspective and composition, so we can only assume it must have been deliberate.

Las Meninas (1656)

His most famous work, Las Meninas, is another painting that has an unusual composition, with much of the canvas taken up by a blank, dark ceiling. Again, I don’t know the reasoning behind this and it seems a strange choice of angle. At first glance, it appears to be simply a group portrait of the Infanta Margaret Theresa with her maids in waiting, yet on closer inspection we find that it’s very self-reflexive, as Velázquez himself appears in the work, apparently painting on a canvas. The small mirror at the back of the room reflects (perhaps) what he is painting, and it’s thought to be the king and queen. Adding to the strangeness, a small figure lurks at the back of the room, apparently just about to exit through a curtain. There have been many studies made of this painting, with many interpretations, but it remains quite enigmatic to this day.

The effect of seeing the original works in the Prado is mesmerising, and it’s amazing that a painting can speak to you through the centuries and tell you so much about what was happening then. They are truly like doors to distant worlds, preserved (and catalogued!) in the museums and galleries.


*Incidentally, many British people are surprised to hear that the Spanish Netherlands actually existed. In fact, the Spanish Empire is only very vaguely alluded to in history education here, and the fact that Spain’s territories also included parts of northern Europe is not generally taught at all.

**This whole area of history is really interesting and expansive. Philip IV’s first son, Balthasar Charles, succumbed to smallpox as a teenager, and Philip Prospero died when he was barely three years old. The king’s third son, Charles II, was severely handicapped due to inbreeding, but he did live long enough to accede to the throne. His eventual death sparked the War of Spanish Succession, which is a fascinating topic that really deserves a post of its own…

***To crowbar a bit of metadata into this subject, under Dublin Core this painting would require a separate element/value pair for each of its possible titles!


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