There’s no proof that Velazquez and Rubens met, but no one doubts they did. Rubens came to Madrid on a diplomatic mission. He went directly to see the king, who invited him to copy the pictures in the royal collection. He stayed in Madrid for nine months. Who was the official court painter? Diego Velazquez. Who was in charge of the royal collection? Diego Velazquez. Who of all people in Madrid was most interested in meeting Rubens? Velazquez. Who of all people in Madrid was Rubens most interested in meeting? Its best painter, of course: Diego Velazquez.
They surely spent hours and hours together.
[Since writing this I have found the following sentence in the book by Francisco Pacheco, Velazquez’s teacher and father-in-law. This is proof enough that the two artists met and struck up a friendship.
“Con pintores [Rubens] comunicó poco, sólo con mi yerno [Velázquez] (con quien se había antes por cartas correspondido) hizo amistad, y favoreció mucho sus obras por su modestia, y fueron juntos a ver el Escorial.” El Arte de la Pintura, Ediciones Cathedra, 2001, p. 202
“With painters [Rubens] had little contact, only with my son-in-law [Velázquez] did he establish a friendship, and he favored his works by his modesty, and they went to see the Escorial together.”]
And did they watch each other paint? How not? That would have been the high point of their meeting. Rubens was a finished master, accustomed to working with other painters and to teaching them his working method. He was no doubt an excellent teacher and a generous and open mind. Back in Antwerp men like Van Dyke and Jacob Jordaens were working even then in his workshop, painting pictures under his orders. They brought them to such perfection that all Rubens had to do when he returned was to put on a few finishing touches and sign them. To this day such is the quality of these paintings that not even the experts can tell you for certain who painted them. They all look like a Rubens: they all have his stamp. Yet many of them simply couldn’t have been painted by Rubens.
So Velazquez would have watched and listened to the master with very great attention. He would never meet a greater painter, nor one who knew so much about painting.
The day surely came, too, when the two went to Velazquez’s painting rooms to see what HE had been doing. What was on the easel? Possibly, because Velazquez finished it at about this time, the Bacchus painting—the famous Drunks. Rubens must have stood before it in silence for a long time. What did he think?
It may not have been the same as he said. He was a diplomat, after all. He knew how to conceal his thoughts. Look at his pictures and you will assume he was a raving madman: they are filled with restlessness. But then you read that he was a calm, mannerly man who spoke quietly and pointedly—he didn’t babble and his tongue didn’t stutter or jerk like a pressure cooker valve from the force inside him. He had learned fine manners already as a child in an Antwerp palace, where he was a page to a countess. He knew how to behave like a gentleman and how to get along with everyone.
(See Advice from a Genius: Go to Italy)