Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in 1599 in the city of Seville, one of the most
vibrant cities in Spain at the time, where his father, a native of Portugal, settled and where the painter took on his mother’s last name, Velázquez.
He began his apprenticeship as a painter in the studio of Francisco Herrera, then after a while continued his training with Francisco Pacheco, who would later become his father-in-law.
The first stage of his painting is influenced by the Caravaggio chiaroscuro technique, which
is reflected in his still life paintings such as the Old Woman Frying Eggs or The Waterseller of Seville as well as in works with a religious theme, such as the Adoration of the Magi.
He returned to this technique years later in The Triumph of Bacchus, a painting also known as The Drunkards, where emphasis is placed on the realism of the characters taken from the street and the luminosity focused on the god Bacchus, along with the gleam from the glass and ceramic items. Velázquez became a genius in the depiction of light.
The Count-Duke of Olivares, a favourite of Philip IV, advocated for the participation of Andalusians in the courts, and in 1623 Velázquez was appointed painter to the king at just 24 years of age. In Madrid he met Rubens, with whom he shared a mutual admiration of Titian.
He requested permission from the king to travel to Italy with the aim of broadening his education, where he became acquainted with the works of Michelangelo, Rafael and Bernini.
There, he painted Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, which represents the fable of Apollo telling Vulcan of the adultery committed by his wife Venus with Mars, as well as the painting Joseph’s Tunic. Both works reflect the Italian influence he received. Once back in the courts, he painted a series of royal portraits such as Prince Balthasar Charles, Philip III and Philip IV on horseback; throughout his career, Velázquez gave great importance to this animal. These horses belong to a special breed, a blend of the robustness of the flamenco animals with the speed and elegance of Andalusian horses.
He also created paintings of battles such as The Surrender of Breda, known as The Lances, which depicts the victory of the Spanish tercio units against the Dutch troops in the context of the Eighty Years’ War. During this period, he painted dwarfs or court jesters, as well as the Portrait of Philip IV in Brown and Silver, where he preempted Impressionism using rapid brushstrokes that give a sense of great detail; or mythological paintings such as Aesop, Menippus and Mars Resting; and others of a religious nature, like his Christ Crucified.
He travelled to Italy for a second time by royal mandate in order to acquire works of art. In Rome, he painted two major portraits, that of his servant Juan de Pareja and of Pope Innocent X, who upon seeing the painting exclaimed in astonishment: “Troppo vero” (“Too true” in Italian). He also painted the Rokeby Venus in Italy, where the goddess is naked and outstretched, her back to the viewer, contemplating her face in a mirror.
When he returns to Madrid, he accomplishes his two masterpieces: Las Meninas, which depicts the Infanta Margarita surrounded by her servants and in which Velázquez portrayed himself, while also reflecting the image of the kings in a mirror hung in the background of the painting, and with the gazes of all the characters directed at the viewer.
His other great magnum opus is The Spinners, which represents the fable of Athena and Arachne and in which we can observe the technical innovation of the distaff moving rapidly.