Velazquez changed clothes and sprinkled himself with cologne. He was always worried about a smell of linseed oil that followed him around. When he met the big nobles, he didn’t want to remind them that he was a mere painter. He didn’t feel inferior to any of those great lords but he knew they saw him as a kind of servant or commoner pretending to be somebody. At official gatherings the great ladies smiled at him a lot but never took him seriously. When they passed him in the halls they sometimes didn’t greet him at all: he was sure they never even saw him.
He put on his black cape and, for a moment at the mirror, twisted the points of his mustache. Then he walked through the palace to the king’s quarters and greeted each of the court servants one at a time by name as he passed them. Showing them respect was part of getting along in that icy court world. “Is his Majesty occupied?” he asked the Chief Concierge.
“Go right in, Mr. Velazquez.” The Chief Concierge was jealous. He didn’t know why a painter should have such easy access to the king. Not even nobles could just walk in on him like that.
Philip Domingo, the king of Spain and ruler of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and much of America, was at work. As part of his schooling he had begun a translation of Guicciardini’s Histories. He sat at his desk, dressed in a simple black shirt, his blonde hair curling on his head as his hairdresser had arranged it that morning. He was twenty-three now, a young man but not a handsome one. As his Hapsburg inheritance he had received, along with a big chunk of the world, a great jaw and protruding lip.
He kept working at his desk when Velazquez was announced. Velazquez stood with his head slightly bowed and waited. Finally, without looking up from his translation, the king spoke.
“I have some very good news for you, Sr. Velazquez.”
Velazquez knew the news, of course. The whole palace had been talking about Rubens’ visit for weeks. But you didn’t let on that you knew or the king might ask who had told you; in a palace you are careful not to compromise anyone.
“You remember the work of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, don’t you? I have two of his paintings in my collection—I think you’ve even copied the portrait of Lerma.”
“Well, he is coming here next week. You will have a chance to meet him and talk all you want about your craft.”
“That’s exciting news, Majesty,” said Velazquez. “I very much look forward to making his acquaintance.”
“Oh, I know you don’t care much for his style—we’ve talked about that. But he’s a very gifted man. You know he was here several years ago on a mission from the Duke of Mantua and brought my father some excellent copies of works by Rafael and Correggio—you know which ones I mean, I think.”
“The Noli Me Tangere and the Holy Family,” said Velazquez. “Very pretty works, especially the Correggio.”
“You don’t like Rafael,” said the king. “But my father loved that Holy Family picture. And you must admit that the portrait of the cardinal is brilliant.”
“I do, Majesty, very readily. It is one of my favorites by Rafael. I think he was a first-rate painter but I’m sorry he turned everything into circles, pyramids, and triangles. Did he think those were more important than his subjects? I’m particularly sorry he put everybody’s face into an oval. But a few of his portraits are excellent. Really.”
(See Rubens Comes to Madrid III)