Discover the life and art of the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez


After the Renaissance, art continued to flourish in almost all of Europe. Seventeenth-century Spain was marked by a period of creative revival known as the Spanish Golden Age, which coincided with the drama and opulence of the Baroque era. Of the many influential artists who emerged during this period, one is best known for his honest and exquisite portraits of kings: the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez.

Employed by Philip IV of Spain, Velázquez was commissioned to make over 30 portraits of the king during his lifetime. His position as court painter gave the artist an opportunity to tour Europe, see the art of the old masters, and capture some of the most distinguished figures of the time. His portraits are considered to be the best ever made and have had a lasting impact on future artists such as Manet and Picasso.

Here we explore the life and art of Velázquez.

Who Was Diego Velázquez?

Diego Velazquez self-portrait

Diego Velázquez, “Self-Portrait”, c. 1640 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) was a prominent Spanish painter during the Baroque movement, and a main character of the Spanish Golden Age– a period of artistic rebirth in Spain. Originally from Seville, he showed a talent for art at a young age and did an apprenticeship with a local painter in the city. 1622, King Philip IV‘s favorite court painter died, and Velázquez – who was already known – was ordered to present his foot and submit a portrait. Later, in 1624, the young artist moved to Madrid and became one official court painter, the first milestone in a long career with the Habsburg royal family and many other rulers.

Court painter

Portrait of Philip IV by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Philip IV in Brown and Silver”, c. 1631–32 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Philip IV of Spain (1605–1665), also called “Planet King” by his contemporaries, was famous for his Patronage of the arts. When Velázquez first entered royal service, he was the same age as the king and the two developed a friendly relationship. Most of Velázquez’s first commissions were portraits of the king, intended to show the subject’s wealth and stately demeanor. These images were distributed to other courts in Europe.

Portrait of Prince Charles by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Prince Balthasar Karl with a dwarf”, 1632 (photo via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Later, when Philip IV’s son Prince Balthasar Karl was born, Velázquez documented the heir in a series of realistic portraits until his death in 1646. The Spanish painter also captured the king’s first and second wives and his other children. All of these works show the artist’s mastery in Tenebrism– a contrast of light and dark – and attention to detail. Velázquez wanted to portray his subjects as he saw them.

Portrait of the Infanta Maria by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Portrait of the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain”, c. 1656 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Portrait painting

Portrait of Juan Pareja by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Portrait of Juan de Pareja”, c. 1650 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

In addition to his numerous portraits of the Spanish royal family, Velázquez also made Paintings of other characters, both at Philip’s court and abroad. His other subjects included fools, dwarves, soldiers, and poets.

During one of his trips to Italy he was commissioned to paint a portrait of. to draw Pope Innocent X. Velázquez prepared for the occasion by painting a portrait of his assistant Juan de Pareja– a Spaniard born into slavery. This piece shows that Brush strokes in impressionist style which Velázquez would use in the Pope’s portrait, as well as a limited color palette. A few years later, Velázquez liberated Pareja and he became an independent artist.

Velázquez was known for that Reality of his subjects without much flattery. When the Pope saw the finished picture, he even shouted: “It is too true! It’s too true! ” Even so, he accepted it, and the portrait is considered by many historians to be one of the greatest portraits of all time.

Francis Bacon made his own version of this painting called Study after Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, 1650 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Late Art & Las Meninas

Las Meninas painting by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas”, 1656 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

After 30 years as a royal painter, Velázquez was a fixture in the Spanish court, who painted portraits of the entire royal family. After Philip IV remarried to Mariana of Austria, Velázquez was commissioned to do a huge portrait of her daughter, who Infanta Margaret Theresato exhibit in the king’s private office.

Justified Las Meninas, this massive and very complex painting shows the young, 5-year-old princess in an opulent white dress, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting. On the right are two dwarfs and a sleeping Spanish mastiff. On the left is Velázquez himself looking at the viewer as he paints his portrait. In addition, other characters can be seen in the background, including Margaret Theresa’s chaperone, Marcela de Ulloa, who is discussing with a shadowed bodyguard, and the Queen’s Chamberlain, José Nieto standing in the doorway. The mirror hanging on the back wall shows another hidden portrait of King Philip IV and the Queen.

Las Meninas is by far the most complex painting Velázquez had created at the time, and shows his incredible painting skills and affinity for capturing his subjects in ever new and appealing ways.


Las Hilanderas by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Las Hilanderas”, c. 1656 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Although Velázquez was a significant figure during the Baroque movement, he maintained a very individualistic style based on expressive brushstrokes, a limited color palette, and beautiful lighting. He succeeded in capturing the inner and outer reality of his many different motifs and thus earned the praise of art lovers across Europe.

Velázquez had a great influence on the course of art history, especially in the work of Édouard Manet (who was between Realism and Impressionism), Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. His masterpiece Las Meninas is considered to be one of the greatest paintings of all time.

Related articles:

Learn about Peter Paul Rubens, the influential Baroque painter who pioneered the style

Explore the meaning of Édouard Manet’s painting “A Bar in the Folies-Bergère”

The history and mystery of ‘Las Meninas’ by Diego Velázquez

20 Famous Paintings From Western Art History That Every Art Lover Should Know About


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