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The painter Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), commonly known as Velázquez, was an immensely talented painter who achieved great prominence during Spain’s Golden Age of art and literature. Las Meninas (1656), his most well-known painting, is a complex portrait of the daughter of the king and has inspired countless artists, including Goya and Picasso.

In this episode, paintings curator Anne Woollett discusses two biographies of Velazquez written by his contemporaries Francisco Pacheco and Antonio Palomino.

Book cover showing portrait of Velázquez

Lives of Velázquez by Francisco Pacheco and Antonio Palomino

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Lives of Velázquez publication

Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLETT: Velázquez really developed quite a particular personal manner very early. It must’ve been very clear that this was an innate talent.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with Getty museum curator Anne Woollett about the work and early biographies of 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.
Velázquez was the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th century. Of all the paintings in the Prado, Spain’s principal national art museum, Velázquez’s Las Meninas is the most memorable of his paintings, unless you prefer his Triumph of Bacchus, or his Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, or The Surrender of Breda, or The Spinners, or even the strange and wonderful Mars, God of War.
Then if you’re in the National Gallery London, you might think Velázquez’s Rockeby Venus to be his greatest painting; or if in the National Galleries of Scotland his An Old Woman Cooking Eggs; or if in Apsley House London, his Waterseller of Seville; or if in the United States, the Metropolitan Museum’s Juan de Pareja, the powerful image of a grand and confident black man, the enslaved assistant to Velázquez, whom the painter released from bondage four years later.
Such is the quality of Velázquez’s paintings, that we can’t agree of which is the most important.
On this podcast episode, I’ll be discussing Velázquez’s life and work with Getty Curator of Paintings’ Anne Woolett. The occasion is the recent publication by the Getty of The Lives of Velázquez as written by Francisco Pacheco in 1649 and Antonio Palomino in 1724. These two biographical accounts form the basis of our understanding of Velazquez’s life and are published here together for the first time.
Anne, thank you very much for joining me on this podcast.
ANNE WOOLLETT: It’s a pleasure.
CUNO: Now, we last spoke about a similar Getty publication of the three lives of Rembrandt, with Velázquez and Rubens, and perhaps Poussin, the greatest painter of the seventeenth century. Which of the two painters do you think—Rembrandt and Velázquez—was the most important in his day and is so now?
WOOLLETT: Well, Jim, this is a fascinating question, and I think we must consider their individual contexts. I imagine that Velázquez, who achieved fame and the warm patronage of his sovereign, Philip IV of Spain, was the preeminent painter of his day in Spain. Rembrandt, of course, marvelous painter, widely regarded; certainly by mid-career, very well-received in the Netherlands, but perhaps not as eminent. Did not have the noble status or the association with the court that Velázquez did.
CUNO: Would they have known of each other at this time?
WOOLLETT: I think it’s possible that Velázquez may have known Rembrandt through his prints. Velázquez was extremely interested in other painters of his own time and preceding generations, so I can imagine that he would’ve been aware of Rembrandt, but perhaps not to have known any of his works firsthand.
CUNO: Pacheco’s life of the artist was published as part of a treatise on the art of painting, which appeared in 1649, five years after Pacheco died and eleven years before Velázquez died. It wasn’t the first such Spanish treatise, I gather. The court artist Vincente Carducho published his Dialogs on Painting in 1633. What was the court culture like, that these two men would involved in it and be writing the lives of the artists, and how international was it?
WOOLLETT: Well, the court in Spain is a remarkable institution at this moment. It’s politically not having a very easy time at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It’s losing control over its holding in the New World somewhat. It’s fighting various skirmishes to settle the sovereignty between the north and south Netherlands. There are quite severe counter-Reformation and political events going on in Spain.
But at the court, in terms of a cultural center, there’s an incredibly vivid, lively atmosphere, because of the interests of Philip IV, who becomes king in 1621, at the age of sixteen. And he is the heir to a Hapsburg legacy of collecting that means he’s surrounded, and has been since birth, essentially, by an extraordinary collection of works of art—tapestries, and remarkable paintings; Italian paintings of the Renaissance, Flemish paintings by Rubens and his contemporaries. And there’s a great love of poetry and theater. So in Madrid, there is a real center for learning and for the visual arts. So for artists who are in Spain and making their careers, this is a natural center to gravitate to.
But there’s also a very strong sense of humanist learning in Spain. And so Velázquez’s teacher and first biographer, Pacheco, is a remarkably learned man. And it’s at his studio in Seville that Velázquez is introduced to a great range of theoretical texts, the associated arts, philosophy, and mathematics and geometry and things. All of these are important components to painting.
But you know, Pacheco was perceived already by the time he’s writing, as a great intellect, as someone who was an important theoretician. So he undertakes a treatise to, in a sense, promote the nobility of the art of painting. He wants to take what is, in Spain at that time, really perceived as a manual art, if you will. Really, a craft. Wants to follow the route that’s already been taken by theoreticians in Italy in particular, and associate painting with poetry, with the mind.
And so in his treatise, he focuses primarily on three painters, one of whom is Peter Paul Rubens; and then the third painter is his disciple, Velázquez, who’s already shown unbelievable kind of promise, and goes to have an extraordinary career, by the time that Pacheco dies and the treatise is published in 1649.
CUNO: Tell us about Velázquez’s early life. That is, before he comes to the court.
WOOLLETT: So Velázquez’s career begins in Seville. This is a very large city, a very wealthy city, a city that has benefitted from the connections with Spain’s trade with the New World, particularly silver from Mexico and from Peru. So it’s a diverse place. It’s an active artistic center. And Velázquez apparently starts with another master, in fact, Herrera, who has a drier style, shall we say, a very restricted, constrained style, that really is in keeping with the most orthodox views of Catholicism and its relationship to the visual arts.Sort of doctrinal style.
But this master seems to have a difficult personality, and Velázquez moves to the more amenable and the presumably much warmer and more exciting atelier of Pacheco.
CUNO: How does one, at a young age, leave the hometown and make his way to the capital city, and then make a way into the atelier of an important artist?
WOOLLETT: Well, you know, Velázquez has his main training in Seville. And so it’s after he’s completed his six years, I believe, apprenticeship with Pacheco that he makes his way to Madrid. And it’s on Pacheco’s recommendation, it seems, that he’s able to be introduced. So it’s a bit like having a passport or, you know, letters of recommendation, to figures there at court that Pacheco was familiar with.
CUNO: Yeah.
WOOLLETT: And by the time that he goes to Madrid, in 1622, ’23, he is already an independent master. He has the license to practice painting and he has married his mater’s daughter. So he’s well on his way to being an independent painter in his own right. But he begins with trying to enter this more exalted sphere, if you will, of the court.
CUNO: And then quite quickly, Pacheco recognizes that he’s a better painter than Pacheco himself is. And he believes his life, well, and his account of Velázquez with a kind of an apology. He says, “I do not consider it a disgrace that the pupil,” by which he meant Velázquez, “surpasses the master,” by which he meant himself, “this being the truth, which is greater. What was it like, I wonder, for him to see this young rising star eclipse him as he makes his way through the court process?
WOOLLETT: It must’ve been very thrilling, in a sense that Pacheco genuinely appears to have been not just an admirer of Velázquez’s talent, but you know, close to him as a person. And so in a sense, Velázquez is representing all that Pacheco embodied—his learning and his belief in the proper foundations of artistic training. Which were, of course, to be observant, to represent life, but also to have been diligent in studying the work of previous artists and the work of antiquity.
So he felt that he had given his student a remarkable basis for his success. And then to have that manifest itself would’ve been immensely gratifying.
And he enjoyed moderate success as a painter, but his student Velázquez really developed quite a particular personal manner very early. And this basis of observing life around him and painting what one sees, this remarkable sense of reality, was something that he seems to have devised himself. His early art is not particularly influenced by Pacheco’s manner in any way. So this is very fascinating. And it must’ve been very clear to Pacheco and to others around him that this was an innate talent, someone who was so rare, that essentially begins to paint in an entirely new manner. Although one, of course, it’s related to things that Velázquez had been exposed to. But nonetheless, represented a really specific and remarkable way of painting.
CUNO: Yeah. But what is it like when you come to the court? Are you just painting away and given a kind of license to mature as a young painter; and then you’d maybe be given a certain assignment, and you’re sort of tested by that assignment, to see if you can then take on the next assignment, which might be a better assignment? And how many other artists like him would there have been in the court?
WOOLLETT: Well, so Velázquez’s trajectory, as told by Pacheco, for example, is fascinating because it seems to hinge on very specific moments of approbation and excitement. So there are the tales of Pacheco asking Velázquez to paint Fonseca, the poet at the court. And this is not a painting that exists anymore, but nonetheless was a remarkable likeness, by all accounts, and very striking. And then it led to another portrait, in fact, that was shown more widely to members of the court, allegedly also to the king and queen, who then immediately said, apparently, “We want this artist to work for us and we want him to paint our children.” And that was a step that was going to a bit further down the road. It was more appropriate for Velázquez to start with the king himself. And this followed shortly thereafter.
So at least as told in these sources, it’s a very short, direct trajectory to the top for Velázquez, once he is able to demonstrate this extraordinary presence and psychological insight that he brings to his portraiture.
And from that position and from the honor he acquires from those early successes, shall we say, he progresses up the ladder. And Pacheco, and after him, Palomino, are very clear in narrating that steady climb. Each office, each honor that he’s given by the king allows him greater proximity to the sovereign, greater intimacy, if you will, to the functions of the court, to its collections. Greater responsibilities, surely. But it becomes clear that, you know, Velázquez demonstrates through his personality and his art that he’s compatible with the desires of the king and his enthusiasm for painting.
CUNO: As he climbed the ladder, was given more complex assignments as a painter, would he then take on assistants himself, and therefore, his studio would become larger than just a studio for a single artist? Or how quickly does he become part of a larger scheme of painting in the court?
WOOLLETT: So Velázquez did maintain a studio. He certainly engaged some assistants to work with him. The Spanish court didn’t have a single court artist. There were a number of other artists at the court. And it’s very interesting; at the beginning of Velázquez’s time there, there’s some envy, I think, at his immediate success and preferment, if you will. And there were some unpleasant rumors spread and there was a tale told by biographers, of a competition that was held between the court painters, as to who was really, you know, superior in certain ways. And Velázquez was the clear winner of the four.
But you know, it speaks to a rather closed environment, if you were working for the court; an environment that really sustained competition sometimes within itself. But that was a sort of a necessary process, in order to establish oneself and to achieve these new levels of status, which were so important for painters. Velázquez seems to have sought with great vigor and persistence, greater status for himself and his family, something that would confirm the noble status that he felt was due to him and to his lineage.
CUNO: Yeah. So he makes his way to the court in 1623, by which time he’s twenty-four years old or so. And then he’s given an opportunity to go to Italy six years later, 1629; so he’s thirty years old. No doubt he’s got a family, no doubt he has children, and he certainly has a wife. What does it mean for him to, I suppose, leave them behind, and then go off in the company of some other court members, to Italy, with the simple instruction, I think, to sort of learn from the great Italian masters? Was that an extraordinary thing?
WOOLLETT: It seems to be a singular mark of favor by the king, Philip IV, in his wish to advance Velázquez’s understanding of the wider, you know, realm of European painting, to give him the opportunity to experience additional examples of the artists that he had already grown to know through the royal collections in Spain—Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, other painters in Rome—Raphael. And so to be told, really, “You’re going to Italy and here is your stipend.” And he had some responsibilities, some diplomatic responsibilities, so to speak. But really, he was representing the King of Spain. But he was also there in that capacity to advance his familiarity with these important precursors and ultimately, to advise the king, through his greater knowledge of antiquity, and of the Italian Renaissance, in particular.
CUNO: Advise the king on building his collection?
WOOLLETT: Advise the king on building the collection, ultimately. After the King of England, Charles I, is beheaded, his collection comes up at auction years later, and Philip IV buys a larger number of works. And in fact, Velázquez produces a report, a very learned and detailed report, on the works of art that had been acquired in that group, for example.
So the king, Philip IV is expanding his collection all the time. He’s coming to a greater understanding of what is already there. The great number of courtiers who are, in some sense, trying to keep up with the monarch, they’re amassing important collections of their own. So Velázquez is able to, in a way, position himself as an expert painter.
CUNO: So when he gets to Italy, he goes first to Venice, where he sees, among other things, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, as you say. Then to Ferrara, and then on to Rome. And in Rome, he meets the cardinal and the great connoisseur, Francesco Barberini, great patron of Bernini, a nephew to the pope. After that, he goes to Naples. And so what is the sequence, and why would he choose those particular cities? Why did he not go to Florence, for example?
WOOLLETT: It’s fascinating. He didn’t go to Florence on this trip, and he rectifies that on his second journey to Italy. But I think that, you know, he’s aided by contacts given to him by the court. He also has particular artistic interests. He had always admired Titian’s manner of painting. Veronese, this looser, visible brushstroke, which is an aspect of painting that he himself followed. And so these were areas where he spent the most time. Bologna, of course, a great academy of painting. Rome, very important for artists for decades, not only its holdings of Renaissance paintings, but the extraordinary collections of antiquities that any artist worth his salt needed to be intimately familiar with.
So Velázquez is there, as many artists had done before him, to draw after these works, to know them, to visit the private collections and the Vatican collections, and see these things firsthand.
CUNO: Would he have met other artists that he could’ve had conversation with and might’ve learned something from, with regard to the painting that he was developing?
WOOLLETT: Seems very likely that he would’ve been in a very good company of highly specialized elite artists, people he would’ve met through the auspices of the Spanish agents that were with him, and his hosts at the Vatican, the clergymen who assisted him, nephews to the pope, this sort of thing. These are the sources for contacts like this.
CUNO: So this trip to Italy is about a year long? Is it a brief trip?
WOOLLETT: It’s a brief trip, very intensive. Apparently, the king begins to miss him and asks him to return over and over. And Velázquez takes a little bit of time coming home, but he does come home.
CUNO: So we learn that he comes home, by way of Pacheco’s account of Velázquez’s career. But the account itself ends rather abruptly, with just a few remarks about still life painting, even rather modestly praising his own—that is Pacheco’s—still life painting. What do you make of the ending, the kind of abrupt ending of this?
WOOLLETT: It’s a fascinating ending. It’s very poetic, at a certain point, where there’s sort of a eulogy, almost, for Velázquez. And the trope is brought up again of Alexander the Great and Apelles. This is a kind of recurring theme of this painter, prototype from antiquity. And then following that, the kind of musing on still life, a very important aspect of painting in Seville, in a way that, I think, brings us back to Velázquez’s roots and his origins, and links him once again to this hometown, and also, I think in a way, to Pacheco’s studio.
It’s unclear, I think, precisely why Pacheco’s account appears when it does, because it appears during Velázquez’s second Italian trip. So it’s possible that the mechanisms for its publishing were such that this is the state of the manuscript that it was in.
CUNO: Yeah. It appears in 1649, and Velázquez himself dies in 1660, so eleven years later. And then the second life that we have in this Getty-published book is by Antonio Palomino. And he wrote his account of Velázquez’s life much later, in 1724, sixty-four years after the painter died.
Tell us about Palomino and why it was that he was moved to write this life of Velázquez, so long after the painter died.
WOOLLETT: Well, Palomino is a painter himself. Fairly distinguished career, in fact, working for then king, Charles II. He has achieved some renown as a fresco painter particularly for the court, but he painted canvas paintings and things. So he’s very involved already with representing the noble status of painting at the highest levels. And he wanted, also, much as Pacheco had, to shed light on this profession and the proximity it held to the great liberal arts.
At this point in Spain, this is well-established theoretical basis. But Palomino had access to various sources, lives of other artists. And so he writes Parnassus, as he calls it, which essentially celebrates this great legacy of painting in Spain. And by far, its greatest proponents, in his eyes, is Diego Velázquez. And the biography is really detailed. It’s extraordinarily long for an artist biography. In that way, very charming, because it leaves no stone unturned, one feels, and tells everything, as much as possible, in great detail.
Much of his account relying on Pacheco’s original treatise. But also it appears that there were some other biographies of Velázquez in process, perhaps, that had never been published. One by Juan de Alfaro, who was Velázquez’s student and someone that Palomino knew and met, and perhaps even saw some kind of document that sort of detailed other aspects of Velázquez’s life.
CUNO: Yeah. Palomino talks about Velázquez and sort of compares him to earlier masters with whom Velázquez was quite impressed, Raphael, for example. And he quotes Velázquez saying that Velázquez himself preferred to be first in that sort of coarseness, than second in delicacy.
And this was a reference to Velázquez’s coarse subject matter, paintings of rustic subjects which he was described as having painted them with great. And then Palomino compares him to Caravaggio. Was that a common comparison at the time?
WOOLLETT: Well, yes, because you know, Velázquez represented this big shift, essentially, in his emphasis on subjects taken from life, painted with great immediacy, and also this incredible command of light, which is very direct and merciless, if you will, on certain objects, and then more subtle sometimes over the features of his figures. This was seen to be a parallel to Caravaggio. Although not necessarily really, we would say today, a direct influence of Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s works would maybe have been known to Velázquez, through versions of things that were in Spain. And then once, of course, he was in Italy, he would have seen paintings there. But by that time, he was a developed and advanced artist.
But for biographers, that’s a high compliment. It represented not only an ability to portray the world, but also a certain type of personality, a personality that steps outside the expected paths, the doctrinal path. And that was not necessarily a good thing for some of Velázquez’s critics earlier in his own lifetime.
There is a Carduccio[sp?], I believe, is the theoretician and painter who, during Velázquez’s lifetime, was very critical and thought that, you know, Caravaggio represented a sort of un-Christian artist and was a very coarse figure. And so by comparing Velázquez to him, that was meant as a great criticism. But decades later, for painters, you know, that mastery of light, of emotion, of immediacy that Caravaggio represented could be pointed to in Velázquez’s work.
CUNO: And probably it was characteristic of the taste of the court, or at least of the king. I mean, the king wouldn’t have encouraged Velázquez to paint pictures he wasn’t pleased with. So is there a kind of court taste that one can identify as this kind of Velázquez taste or even a neo-Caravaggesque taste?
WOOLLETT: The taste of the court, which is represented in their patronage of Velázquez, really was a tremendous appreciation for the technical facility that he exhibited in his paintings. This brushwork that’s both descriptive, but loose. It’s an evocative type of brushwork that represented kind of an extension of taste that existed in the Hapsburg house, if you will, for a long time, going back to their patronage of great artists like Titian.
So continuity, for the Hapsburgs and for Philip IV was very important, even in artistic taste, linking his ability to find an artist the equivalent of Titian in his own time would have been significant, and he was fortunate that Velázquez was there. He’s able to generate a level of Spanish painting that transcended sort of national boundaries, in a way, that sort of linked it to a larger continuum.
And the manner of painting that was increasingly broken brushwork, a remarkable palette, vivid colors, and yet capturing both the presence and the personality of the sitters, which was so important in portraiture, of course, was something that really was central to the needs of the Hapsburg court.
CUNO: Yeah, Palomino gives us a lotta details about Velázquez’s life as a court painter, including the portraits he painted, of the king and his court, and what we was paid for those portraits. And he briefly described the visit to the court by the painter and diplomat Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens. What role did Rubens play in the Spanish court at the time? And would he have met Velázquez at that time?
WOOLLETT: Peter Paul Rubens was the court painter to the archdukes Albert and Isabella Clara Eugenia, in the southern Netherlands, which was governed by Spain at that point, a part of Spanish territory, Hapsburg territory. And he was one of the preeminent artists in Europe, known not only for his ingenuity as a painter, but also his intellect. And he was an extremely pious man. He had tremendous standing in Europe and at the court in Brussels.
And he’s sent as a diplomat emissary, to help bring peace in the war between England and Spain. And he returns to Spain. He makes a first visit in the early 1600s, as a young artist. But once he’s in the court at Brussels, he’s sent again at the end of the second decade, 1627, ’29. And he does meet Velázquez. And we know that this was a kind of a great meeting of the minds, if you will. I think they were delighted with each other’s company. And they were both very kind of austere men, in certain ways. They had a great deal of gravitas, but immense knowledge of their art and other related subjects.
So they must have had many enjoyable conversations. And it appears that while Rubens is in Spain, he is painting a number of portraits for his patrons in the southern Netherlands. But he’s painting them in Velázquez’s studio.
CUNO: Ah.
WOOLLETT: And together, they discussed their appreciation for artists in the collection, they explored monuments. They went to the Monastery of El Escorial, which is north of Madrid. This is a spectacular large monastery, built by Philip II in the late sixteenth century, where many of the Spanish collections were.
So they viewed paintings there together. There are stories of them riding in the landscape around El Escorial, which is a mountainous area. So it makes for a wonderful picture of these two great, great artists, Rubens a little bit older than Velázquez, but still, you know, both working in the prime of their careers.
CUNO: Yeah. Do I remember this, that Rubens was encouraging Velázquez to go to Italy and the first trip to Italy?
WOOLLETT: It does seem that Rubens’ visit to Madrid must have given additional impetus, perhaps, to his desire to travel to Italy.
CUNO: Now, Palomino tells us more about this trip than Pacheco did. He gives some great detail about it. He talks about Velázquez’s love of Tintoretto, his visit to the Accademia, where he saw paintings by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Giovanni Bellini, and where he made a copy of a painting by Tintoretto, which is now lost. Palomino writes similarly of Velázquez’s visit to Rome, where he saw Raphael’s Stanza and Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, after which he made a number of drawings.
How important is this kind of information for our understanding of Velázquez’s development as an artist?
WOOLLETT: It surely had a great impact on Velázquez to see these essential masterpieces that he had studied and heard about for so long. To spend time in the Stanza at the Vatican and to see Raphael’s work, to experience it firsthand, would have been profoundly important for him. Artistically, it offered these concrete examples of large decorations, these large fresco cycles and history scenes on a grand scale. These more sculptural forms of narration.
It also spoke to Velázquez’s status. He was given apartments in the Vatican that were frescoed, we’re told, by Palomino, by Federico Zuccaro—you know, very important artists working in Rome—a theoretician himself.
CUNO: Now, Palomino compares Velázquez on his return, his relations with the Spanish court, by comparing them to the likes of Alexander the Great’s relations with the painter Apelles, and Charles V’s relation with Titian. So he sort of rhetorically sets him up to be [an] extremely important painter.
WOOLLETT: Velázquez seems to have enjoyed a very remarkable, and perhaps even personal relationship, on some level, with his sovereign, Philip IV. Philip had a deep passion for painting. He was interested in the process of painting, we’re told, if these biographical accounts can be relied on—and there’s no reason to dispute them, particularly—that Philip IV came to Velázquez’s studio to watch him paint. And there are precedents for this in the lives of other artists, but it speaks to the proximity that Philip liked to keep his painter in, with him, and to the ease with which they came to know each other over many years.
This probably was, in truth, the beginning of Velázquez’s time in the court. But over time, there was a trust and a sort of recognition there, and a fluidity, if you will, between kind of creation and the patron’s input. So although our biographers, Pacheco and Palomino, are in fact using a well-known construct—this idea of the great painter of Classical antiquity, Apelles, painting with his patron Alexander the Great standing beside him—it’s a wonderful relationship that may actually have been enacted in the Spanish court.
CUNO: Yeah. Palomino goes on to describe particular paintings by Velázquez in quite some detail. And they’re significant, I think, because they help us see through the eyes of an eighteenth-century person, what they valued in the work of the early seventeenth century Velázquez. And I’ll just read a little bit of this, because it’s such a moving description, and detailed and accurate description of this painting.
It’s of a Count of Olivares, Gaspar de Guzmán. He says, “Don Diego Velázquez painted another portrait of his great protector and mesinas,” meaning a patron, “Don Gaspar de Guzmán, third Count of Oliveras, mounted on a fiery Andalusian horse that had drunk from the Betas[sp?], not only the swiftness of the course of its waters, but also the majesty of their flow, covering the silver, the gold of the bridle with the froth of his mouth, a thing that the ancient and eminent Protogenus[sp?] found difficult to imitate. The count is dressed in armor, inlaid in gold. He wears a hat and splendid plumes. And his hand is a general’s baton. He seems to sweat from the weight of his armor and the labors of combat, as he raced during the battle. Farther back can be described the troops of both armies, where one can admire the fury of the horses and the fearlessness of the combatants. It seems that one can see the dust, look at the smoke, hear the clangor, and fear the carnage. This portrait is life-size and one of the largest paintings done by Velázquez.”
So that here’s the sense of Velázquez as an accurate painter of observed reality. And not only just the look and appearance of it—the sweaty leather and that kind of clash of the silver and the gold, but also the kind of intent of the figure that is gonna be leading this charge into battle.
That kind of eighteenth-century response to Velázquez makes us understand some of the value that this man saw in the work of Velázquez and how Velázquez distinguished himself as a painter at that time.
WOOLLETT: Well, Palomino describes a truly vivid, visceral kind of equestrian portrait that Velázquez was a true master of generating for the court. This is one of a series of equestrian portraits. And so each one had to have a kind of character. And in this case, the equestrian portrait embodies the fierceness of one of the king’s most important courtiers. You know, the man who’s leading his armies into battle. So it does speak to a really Baroque sensibility, doesn’t it, that it’s a robust, vigorous, energetic, in-motion kind of painting. A portrait that is both portrait and history painting. And somehow it sounds like, also, almost an observation of daily life, it’s so vivid, down to these details that were so marvelous.
CUNO: You get the feeling that Palomino, as an author, and one who’s probably classically trained in the rhetorics of the day and so forth, is moved to a kind of ekphrasis or poetic challenge, to match the visual appearance with this literary description. And I wondered how much that was a device that he was challenged there, because one wants from Palomino other observations, other descriptions of paintings by Velázquez, which one doesn’t get, as one gets such detail in this one.
WOOLLETT: This is certainly a case where Palomino took the opportunity to breathe life into a description of a painting for his readers, in a way taking one of the most dynamic of the equestrian portraits in the group to convey sort of Velázquez’s mastery. It’s interesting that Palomino was criticized later for not being perhaps the most silver-tongued author, and compared with other artistic biographers like Vasari, who was always full of anecdotes and things that sketched the personality of an artist, even if they were small, personal details.
But in certain cases, as in this one, it’s a very detailed, invigorating engagement with Velázquez. And it certainly does make one wish that there were deeper analyses sometimes of other paintings. But it’s notable for the way it stands out and for the way it brings us almost immediately into that court atmosphere.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, Palomino does describe in some detail, Velázquez’s second trip to Italy in 1648, where he goes to buy paintings and Antique sculptures and make casts of some of the more famous sculptures. This, I suppose, was a charge given him by the court.
WOOLLETT: So essentially, it provides a great kind of compendium. These works from the past were being discovered, you know, more and more. So to own them and to possess them soon[?] was to bring this kind of higher level of erudition to the court.
CUNO: Yeah. I don’t think that it was written in here, which works Velázquez acquired and brought back, for us to sort of document their provenance.
WOOLLETT: I think it’s difficult to know for sure sometimes, from the descriptions, exactly which pieces he brought back and where they are, whether they correspond to something now. But there are some lists and descriptions, I think, for us to look at, some inventory descriptions.
CUNO: Now, Palomino does describe the trip itself in some more detail, so that we know more we know about the second trip at all, but we also know more detail about the trip. We know that he went to Milan and he saw Leonardo’s Last Supper. Then again he went to Venice, where he bought paintings said to be by Tintoretto. I suppose proved not to be by Tintoretto later; but nevertheless, he was ambitious. And the court instructed him to be so ambitious. Then he went to Bologna, Modena, Florence, Parma, Rome, where he painted the pope, which picture is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Palomino also noted the Antique sculptures that Velázquez bought, and including a Laocoön and Farnese Hercules, the Ariadne, Niobid, and many more. How important is this information in helping us understand the development of Velázquez’s own paintings, and more generally, about the sort of Spanish court taste at the time?
WOOLLETT: Well, in this capacity as really the most important painter in Spain, and working on the direction of the sovereign, Velázquez is obtaining for the court, but also for the larger realm, if you will, some of the key foundational pieces that are important for the theoretical understanding of drawing, sculpture, and painting. So he’s obtaining important pieces that represent the commitment of the court to the arts and to the Classical past and to erudite preparation of the visual arts.
He’s, in a sense, acting as an agent, an artistic agent for the Spanish court, for the most part in this case, I think, building the collections, acquiring things that had been difficult to obtain in the past, using his stature and his knowledge and his interest, to find the best pieces. So in this way, he’s an artistic diplomat, in the way that many artists had been, like Rubens.
CUNO: Right, right, right. One gets a sense that there’s at least one example of a work that he would’ve seen, many even acquired in another form, and then painted a picture after it. And that’s the Hermaphrodite reclining on a couch. And one thinks of that in relationship to his Rokeby Venus.
WOOLLETT: Well, The Rokeby Venus is such a complex work of art that relates to many things that Velázquez is interested in at the time. And the relationship to an Antique sculpture that absolutely fascinated artists, who found it incredibly beautiful and intriguing, a figure that you see from the front and the back, and that is meaningful, you know, for the fact that you can see both sides. And then to have Velázquez paint a painting where we, the viewer, have access to one side of this incredibly beautiful figure and are, in some ways, sort of denied the full view because the mirror that Cupid holds up just gives us a view of her beautiful face.
So there was a real interest in the command of the figure in space, of course. But when Velázquez is painting Venus at Her Toilet, The Rokeby Venus, you know, he has many ideas that he’s bringing together. So he’s, in fact, referring to the wonderful tradition of the nude, as it existed in the collections of the monarchs—nudes painted by Rubens, by Titian, that were held by the king, in many cases in a particular area of the palace that was amongst the most private rooms for the king to rest in after eating, for example.
There was a real complexity to painting nudes in Spain, still. So despite this artistic heritage and interest, there were restrictions on doing this. This is the only surviving female nude by Velázquez. There are references to others that he painted. But this, the fact that this survives, this spectacular, remarkable painting, really speaks volumes to his engagement with the significance of the subject.
The relationship to the Hermaphrodite is interesting, in a sense, too, because apparently, The Rokeby Venus was first owned not by Philip IV, but the Marquisate El Carpio, his first minister. Great collector, great Rubens aficionado, amongst other things. And the painting was in a gallery where it shared a wall with a sixteenth century Venetian painter which shows a Venus from the front.
So there was a viewing experience that was achieved by The Rokeby Venus being seen in combination with an earlier work of art. So the front and back views were achieved, actually, in the collection itself.
CUNO: In two paintings. Yeah. You know, we, after reading Palomino’s account and description of paintings, and knowing how accurate they were and how compelling they were, one wants as one reads the text, to come across Las Meninas, because that’s the great painting by Velázquez, and one thinks that this is gonna be a time in which we can reap the rewards of Palomino’s rhetorical style and descriptive capacity.
So we get to this painting and he writes about it. And the painting, of course, is one that shows the artist pausing in the act of painting the portrait of the queen’s maids of honor. And he identifies the figures in the painting, includes the king and the queen—and as you said, the king is known to have stopped into the studio to see Velázquez work—the king and the queen, who are visible in the mirror in the back of the room. And then we see Velázquez himself, who is shown having stepped back from the painting, looking at what he’d finished to that point. And he compares Velázquez’s self-portrait to the work of the great ancient Greek sculptor Phidias.
]And he compares Velázquez’s self-portrait to the work of the ancient Greek sculptor Phidias, who, in the words of Palomino, “placed his portrait on the shield of a statue of the goddess Minerva that he had made, crafting it with such cunning that if it were removed from its place, the whole statue would come apart. Velázquez will endure from century to century.”
So this kind of, again, rhetorical linking of Velázquez back to ancient times. This kind of intelligence of the painter becoming manifest in the complexity of the painting itself. And this idea that now, Velázquez will endure from century to century. This promotion of Velázquez in this time.
WOOLLETT: Well, Palomino recognized, of course, the extraordinary achievement in this painting. And you know, he chose to provide a very useful and close reading of the painting as a portrait, essentially, a group portrait. And a dynamic portrait, one that speaks across space, which is an extremely fascinating artistic invention by Velázquez. So a very specific rendering of his studio, into which has entered the family. Sort of infiltrated, if you will. And then also, despite that great honor, there is a little bit of ambiguity, because we do see the king and the queen reflected in a mirror at the back of the room.
Where does that mean they are, in relationship to us or we, them? That wouldn’t be appropriate. And yet it seems we are there, as well. So Palomino, in a sense, that’s Las Meninas in a very direct way, in a celebration of Velázquez’s ability to paint reality, so to speak. But it’s an artistic reality, one that’s highly intellectual, also very elevated, and represents his immense skill and his intellect, as he was able to convey it in something as important as a royal portrait.
Of course, it’s essentially a portrait of the Infanta.
CUNO: Yeah, the child of the king and the queen, who’s there in the foreground in the picture.
WOOLLETT: Yes.
CUNO: Looking at us, as it were.
WOOLLETT: Yes.
CUNO: Which is, of course, looking at the painter, ’cause the painter’s painting her. It’s one of these extraordinary paintings that’s been of interest to people for centuries. And these people included some of the greatest minds working at the time. One thinks of Picasso as a painter inspired by this painting; but also one thinks of art historians like Leo Steinberg, who could write a whole book about this painting, and others. What is the hold that painting has on us in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
WOOLLETT: Well, really it’s a painting about looking, and a viewing experience. And because Velázquez was able to achieve this remarkable intersection of a realistic interior and of tremendously beautiful, compelling portraits, a kind of dialog between the sitters as we see them, and then between those portrayed and those who are viewing, it’s an endless cycle, it seems, of interaction between the work of art and the viewer.
And I think that it’s the type of painting that transcends its age, because we are able to bring our own context of viewing, our own structures and strategies for understanding the artist’s process to it. And it sustains our inspection.
CUNO: So is that an indication that you think that’s the great, greatest Velázquez painting, and one of the greatest paintings of the seventeenth century, maybe even one of the greatest paintings of the modern era?
WOOLLETT: Las Meninas really just a towering achievement of artistry. It stands, still today, as a great testament to a long career, by an artist who brought tremendous powers of personal observation to great intellectual thought. And the painting was intended, I think, to represent, in a sense, this long career, in which he engaged with the key questions and pursuit of painting as a noble art, as an intellectual activity, as a noble profession. And it also, I think, speaks to an artistic personality in Velázquez, that he had reached a level of acceptance within the court, and proximity to the sovereign, and a deep understanding of his patron’s love of art that he was able to create an incredibly complex visual statement about not only his own status in the court, but his contribution to painting in Spain.
CUNO: And that he was able to do that by bringing the king and the queen into the picture itself, and the kinda confidence that he had that the king and the queen would appreciate that and understand that.
WOOLLETT: He was able to discern the correct boundaries. Velázquez seemed to have mastered the art of appropriate behavior and appropriate decorum. Very crucial in Baroque courts was the appropriate behavior by those serving the sovereign. So he enjoyed an understanding of his patron’s passions for art and maybe other aspects of his personality. But he also knew when to remain clearly in his position as a subordinate.
CUNO: Now, Velázquez dies four years later. And Palomino described the painter’s funeral in great detail, noting the presence of the king at that funeral, and the burial of the painter’s body in the vault of the royal secretary, his friend. And he cites the long and detailed epitaph on Velázquez’s tomb, the many offices he held in the royal household and the list of honors that were conferred upon him by the king, Philip IV.
The Getty publication of the lives of Velázquez is introduced by a writer, the guy who compiles it, Michael Jacobs, a noted author and art historian whose book on Velázquez’s Las Meninas, about which we’ve just been speaking, was left unfinished at his death, and has been well reviewed as a creative meditation on the painting’s many still-unresolved mysteries of meaning. We get a sense of this in the closing of Jacob’s introduction to the Getty book, when he writes, “Cut off increasingly in Madrid from public life, surrounded by one of Europe’s most spectacular private art collections, and devising canvases in which the real and the other worldly are effortlessly interwoven, Velázquez must’ve spent much of his later years escaping into a world which only a writer of fiction could ever attempt to record, that of his own fantasies.”
Tell us about Michael Jacobs himself, the writer who just wrote the words I read.
WOOLLETT: Well, Michael Jacobs is a highly regarded travel writer, in particular; but a trained art historian at the Courtauld Institute. Jacobs, I think, was very passionate about Spain. He lived in Spain; some of his earliest books are about the Golden Age in Spain. He wrote more widely on other topics, as well. But he really returned frequently to the core values of Spanish life, of the life of artists such as Velázquez, which represented a complexity and deserved a deeper reading. And Las Meninas, I think, was a topic for Jacobs that was enormously intriguing, and spoke to his own area of interest.
It’s very tragic, in fact, that Jacobs’ book on Las Meninas was left incomplete at his sudden and unexpected death. But it’s published as a testimony to his deep thinking and his deep passion for Spain and for the Golden Age of Spanish art.
CUNO: And no doubt for the complexity of the painting Las Meninas.
So we have this book with two texts—one of the seventeenth century, one of the time of the life of the artist, and one then years later, in the eighteenth century—and the introduction that we just talked about with Michael Jacobs. Tell us what your sense of the Getty book and its contribution to the literature on Velázquez. That is, how important is it to bring Pacheco and Palomino back into the picture?
WOOLLETT: It’s a wonderful capsule of the two most important biographies of this outstanding, preeminent artist. And of course, it’s very useful to have them together. Pacheco’s shorter, pithier account, next to a more detailed, longer account done the following century, by Palomino. Both of these authors placing Velázquez in a pantheon.
To read them side by side is a great pleasure. They both, I think, capture a sense of this remarkable painter and his career and his career achievements. But I think as Jacobs rightly points out in his introduction, there is this insistent backbeat of the artist’s search for status, and for his biographers, in fact, to record his achievements in that realm, as well.
So the real sense that it’s still important and something of a struggle for a painter, despite his extraordinary talent, to be recognized and permanently entered into the culture and status of nobility in Spain.
CUNO: Well, Anne, thank you very much for this podcast interview. You know, it’s always great fun to talk to you about the pictures and books. So thank you very much.
WOOLLETT: Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLETT: Velázquez really developed quite a particular personal manner very early. It must...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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