The greatest master of Spanish painting and one of the greatest painters of the Baroque was Diego Velazquez. Inspired by the simple, realistic paintings of Caravaggio, his approach to art would fly in the face of the flamboyant trends in his day and go even further in the direction of “naturalism.” Surprisingly, when he was twenty-four, the honest realist was appointed the court painter to the king. More surprisingly, Velazquez succeeded in his new role without changing his approach. Even though he never flattered the royal family, he was made a court chamberlain and given the rate honor of a home attached to the place with its own studio. For thirty years he painted King Philip IV, his family and member of the court.
Las Meninas (13-16) is Velazquez’s great masterpiece, a huge work, 101/2 x 9, feet tall. It demonstrates a mastery of realism that has seldom been surpassed. Here he shows a moment in the life of the court. As Velazquez himself is an important member of that court, he shows himself painting a picture. But what is he painting? There are two possible answers. It is a portrait of the princess, who is in the center of the picture (and therefore the painting we are looking at), or it is the king and queen, whose reflections we can see in the mirror at the back of the room. In either case, it is a life-size portrait of the royal family and their attendants. At the center are the Infanta Margarita (detail, 13-17) with her maids of honor, a dog, a dwarf, and a midget. The Spanish royal family had a tradition of keeping dwarves and midgets around them, almost as toys, for entertainment. Velazquez always portrayed them with sympathy and respect, rather than as victims or clowns. Perhaps he felt that his situation was not so different from their own. In the background, a court official pauses to glance back through the doorway. Notice how the painter honors the viewer by giving us the same viewpoint as the king and queen.
Velazquez, unlike the northern Renaissance artist van Eyck and Holbein, did not attain realism by observing and copying minute details. Instead, he captures the impression of realism through suggestive brush strokes, a method that would influence not only other Baroque painters but also the Impressionists of the nineteenth century. His dog looks much more real than a dog in van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, even though he has not it hair by hair. He paints what he sees rather than what he know intellectually is there (we do not see every hair on a dog from across the room). In this way, he can create an illusion of reality actually more vivid than an enormously detailed work
THE BAROQUE PERIOD IN THE NETHERLANDS
The fortunes of Spain and its territory, the Netherlands, were linked during the Baroque period. The Netherlands was particularly important to the Spanish Empire because it had many important centers of trade. But the Protestant cities of the Netherlands longed for political independence and religious freedom from their devout Catholic rulers. In the 1620s, the Netherlands was plunged into civil war. The rebellion ultimately succeeded in driving the Spanish from the northern half of the Netherlands, which became the Dutch Republic, an independent Protestant state. The south, Flanders, whose people were predominantly Roman Catholic, remained a territory of Spain. The division of the Netherlands is approximately the division of Holland and Belgium of today (see map).
During this period, an artist from Flanders, Peter Paul Rubens, spent months in the Spanish court as a diplomat and befriended the younger painter Velazquez. They studied the Spanish royal art collection together. Velazquez felt honoured to accompany the man he thought of as the model of a learned painter. Besides being the most learned, Rubens was also the most popular, most successful, and most internationally famous artist of the Baroque age....