Velasquez Dreamed of Becoming Somebody

Nobody is ever happy. Take Diego Velasquez.

He could paint better than anyone. All the painters in Spain envied him.
Here is one of his early works, a boy and an old woman in the kitchen cooking eggs.

Woman Cooking Eggs (public domain photo)

Before he was even twenty-five he beat all the masters in a contest and became the king’s painter. He and his family moved into an apartment next to the royal palace in Madrid and received a royal salary.  Diego hurried out to buy a carriage and hire some servants.
That, when most of the country, including many painters, were living well below the poverty level.

Here is a boy delousing himself  in Velasquez’s hometown, Seville. The painting is by his contemporary Murillo.

The Young Beggar (public domain photo)

And his good fortune didn’t stop there.  He became the very king’s friend. They used to sit and chat. Not even many of the highest nobles could brag about a privilege like that. Palace servants and great nobles alike would watch Velasquez walk right through the palace and into the private quarters of King Philip, the most powerful man in Europe. Or they would see the king make his way to Velasquez’s studio, to watch him paint.

Velasquez made this portrait of his friend, King Philip IV

King Philip IV  (public domain photo)

Yet Diego got used to being gifted and lucky.  He wasn’t satisfied.   He wanted to be a gentleman too. It didn’t matter that he was a world-famous painter and an intelligent and cultivated man. In the Spain of his time you had to be a nobleman to be respected.   He climbed ranks in the palace service. First he became one kind of servant and then another. But that was merely rising in the “firm”.

What he really needed was a title. How do you get a title? You have to show that one of your ancestors was a nobleman. Diego spent a lot of money over many years digging up old papers and getting reports from friends and relatives but he couldn’t find a single aristocrat in his family tree.  When his nobility application stalled, he went to the king.  “Could you help me, Majesty? I’d like to become a  Knight of St. James.”

Though the king was the king and the highest-ranking nobleman, even his good word was barely enough to make the bureaucrats waive the noble ancestor requirement for Diego. And it was only in the last year of his life that he became a Knight.

One of his last paintings was this one, called Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor). He shows himself painting a big portrait of the king and queen (standing where we viewers stand, outside the picture) and surrounded by members of the royal household.

Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) 1656-1657  (318 × 276 cm (125.2 × 108.7 in) (public domain photo)

It is his biggest and maybe his only self-portrait.  He stands full-length. Perhaps now he was finally proud enough to put himself in a picture.
After he died, someone (his son-in-law?) painted the cross of St. James on Velasquez’s doublet.  The great painter was at last a certified gentleman.

Self-portrait of Velasquez in Las Meninas (public domain photo)

This is a  statue of Velasquez at the entrance to the Prado Museum, Madrid:




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31 Responses to Velasquez Dreamed of Becoming Somebody

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Fascinating Swallows! You’d think with all his successes he wouldn’t have worried about nobility. But it seems that it’s very easy to be unhappy with your lot in life, and always want just a bit more than you have, if you let yourself. I did not know that about Velazquez.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: At the time Spain was obsessed with purity of blood (no Moorish, no Jewish blood). It wasn’t anything peculiar to Velazquez to want to be among the elect. The Inquisition was instituted to find and punish false converts–Jews and Muslims who said they had renounced their faith but secretly kept it up. The gentry all had to be above suspicion. Certainly dealing constantly with the most important people of the realm made Velazquez feel his relative “lowness”; and palace life, with all its envious people elbowing each other to rise in rank, must have made his status a constant preoccupation for him. Becoming a knight would also benefit his family.

      • Ken Januski says:

        Thanks for that explanation Swallows. I’d of course forgotten all about the Inquisition and what I did know did not include such pertinent details. Now Velazquez’s concern makes a lot more sense.

        As always you bring history to life, whether it’s art history or just plain history!

  2. christopher says:

    WOW! THAT I never learned! How long after the painting (or his death) was that cross added?

    • 100swallows says:

      Christopher: I remember reading in more than one study that it was doubtful that Velazquez himself painted that cross over his doublet. But now I couldn’t find any of those sources and the one I did find, P.M. Bardi in La obra píctorica completa de Velazquez (Clásicos del arte, Noguer-Rizzoli, ed.) says this: “Recent x-ray examinations have revealed numerous pentimenti in the postures of the subjects, besides the one related with the cross of St. James, [which was] added to his own figure by the master [Velazquez] when in 1659, three years after the painting was delivered, he was decorated with that order.” He died in 1660.

  3. ivdanu says:

    Great story and I almost wanted to add the Ecclesiast<s word Vanitatis vanitate (or something to that effect)… But, it seems, there exist some happy people, 100Swallows! At least if you believe Marci Schimoff, who(whom?) did interview 100 people happy for no reason! Velasquez is just another case of (justifiably) inflated ego and all the stress and suffering that occurs…

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Danu. Velazquez is a mystery. The critic P. M. Bardi wrote this: “It seems that for Velazquez painting was, in a way, a hobby, a pretext to consolidate his position in the court.”
      The surviving documents about and by him are complaints, petitions, receipts, small palace notes and the many other papers having to do with his search for (non- existent) certificates of nobility among his ancestors while he tried over years to qualify as a Knight of St. James.
      Other biographers suggest that, as there are so few paintings by him, he was “lazy”. This is a memorable caricature but after considering (and admiring) his works I now try to forget it. Why?

      The little palace documents, though they are the facts scholars can uncover, might well give a false impression. Judging only from the few documents signed by Shakespeare, too, you might think of him as an ornery type who spent his free time and energy suing and being sued.

      Other facts about Velazquez show him as a man with bigger concerns than his rank in the palace. For example, he had a very large library. It was filled with the great works of history, geography, and science, as well as treatises on art and painting (Vasari, Plutarch, Vitruvius, etc.). He learned Italian, or tried to.

      There were quite a few more paintings than those that have survived. Many were lost in a palace fire a few years after his death.
      The surviving ones, few as they are, are all too good to be the product of a bored man or of someone who had other priorities. Each is a new and ambitious experiment. And almost all of them show corrections. The usual explanation is that as they were hung in the palace and he passed by them every day, he kept reconsidering them. But a lazy man doesn’t go back and correct his old work when there is no need to do so. I think it wasn’t vanity that bothered him but, as the Spaniard’s call it, the artist’s “little worm”.

      • ivdanu says:

        You are right, no doubt! To judge Velasquez after the official or personal papers still existing is stupid and unfair. The is an Italian painter – starting with C I think – who noted in his journal (the only one left behind) about what he ate, how was his stomach troubles and the money received and still owed to him…but his paintings were quite remarkable (I have a lapsus concerning his name which kind of starts to annoy me!) Anyway, the quality of Velasquez paintings is exceptional, no matter what!

  4. danu says:

    Thank YOU! I found out so many great things reading your blog! I also consider Velasquez one of the best… and Michelangelo, whom you know much better than myself is another example to how misleading correspondence left by some artists could be…

    Velasquez has a quality I often see in Spanish painters: what I would call, for lack of a better word, picturality… An exquisite quality of the texture and color of the painting… Must have something to do with the spanish ligh, maybe? Murillo, zurbaran are other possible samples to that…

    It could be still true that the ego, the ambition, plagued him – as it did for Goya, another great Spaniard…

  5. I nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger Award (somebody nominated me so I pass the flame…) Yours is a great blog and you deserve much more than I do…

    • 100swallows says:

      Danu: Thanks for the nomination. You know I’m a regular reader of your blog and an admirer of much of your work; so you shouldn’t feel offended if I decline the invitation to participate and pass the honor on to any of the fine bloggers on my blogroll. Now at this time of year I have barely enough time to maintain my blogs and I’m sorry. I’m glad you took the time to tell us about yourself, however.

      • No problem, 100swallows! I know about lack of time (even if I am kind of semi-retired!). I never heard before about the KBA and yes, It takes some time to “pass the flame”… Best wishes.

  6. Pingback: The Best Painting in the World? | The Best Artists

  7. Ken Januski says:

    Just dropping in for another comment Swallows. I’ve not mentioned it in the past because it goes against the gist of your post. Or at least distracts from it. But don’t you think that top painting includes the best portrayal of eggs in western art?! I can’t help but being struck by them every time I see them.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken. I haven’t seen all the portrayals of eggs in Western art but I agree this one is good. I too have stopped at the eggs more than once or twice while admiring the painting and wondered what made them so real. You must have seen the comment on whether they are being pouched in water or deep-fried in olive oil. Whatever the liquid, it is nice how you can see them submerged. There are so many other good details to stop at too, like everyone’s hands, the way the woman is caught speaking, the naturalness in the way the kid holds the pumpkin and the flask. See anything else you especially like?

      • Ken Januski says:

        Do I see anything else I like? I looked again and I’m still struck most by the eggs. After that it’s hard not to be impressed by all the whites as Rich says, especially in combination with all of the various subdued tones. Then finally the shape of that one egg. You’d think it would be hard to use such a simple, clearly defined shape in a painting so full of inexact tones and shapes. I would think it would clash. But it seems to fit in perfectly. I have to say this is really one of my favorite Velasquez paintings though I’ve never really studied it. Every time I see it though I’m taken with it I guess I like the thought too that you can make the most exquisite and rich art from the very simplest subject.

        It would be interesting to have Dali weigh in with his take on this painting..

  8. Rich says:

    If I may chime in here: Don’t know about water-pouched eggs; but deep-fried in olive oil the portrayed eggs here look like exactly 45 seconds have passed since they were thrown into the cooker. The egg-portrayal looks as faithful to me as Constable’s cloud-portrayals with their meteorologic precision, where one might infer the season and time of a day in Great Britain.

    Yes the hands are marvellous – the one holding the white egg. I also love the distribution and accents of white – on the glass bottle for instance, and of course the textures of all those vessels are so beautiful.

  9. cantueso says:

    I can’t understand the emphasis on those eggs and “the distribution of white”. These must be painterly ways of looking at a picture. What about the two faces? In my way of seeing things the painting is about the woman’s face. That is its subject. The painting could have been called “Portrait of a woman”, but since there are one too many of those, let’s call it Cooking.
    However, I don’t think that eggs in water would stay on the surface like that, and isn’t the kid holding an oil bottle?
    Now I just remember that in English “to cook” means both to boil and to fry. So maybe if we knew the Spanish title of the painting, we would know whether she is poaching or frying…..thereboy resolving another most painterly issue.

    • 100swallows says:

      Cantueso: Velazquez didn’t give titles to these paintings. This one is just a description. The Spanish books on Velazquez that I have seen say “Boy and Woman (or Old Woman) Who Fries Eggs”. They don’t doubt that she is frying them, that is, cooking them in olive oil, the way everyone still does.
      (Did you see all the comments about this in my old post Velasquez in the Kitchen?)

      As to painterly criticism and the distribution of lights, Cantueso, you ain’t seen nothin’. You ought to read an old critic like Cirici-Pellicer who calls this work a “prodigy of calculation” because of the “rigorous diagonal that separates the two figures.” Another critic, P. M. Bardi, however, thinks Velazquez did not successfully juggle with all the pots and pans around the woman: “A somewhat confused effort to compose the many elements of the bodegón (the Spanish word for still-life) leads one to think that it was a youthful work.” In 1953 a cleaning job uncovered a date (which may not be by Velasquez): 1618. If he did it then he was only nineteen!

      Actually, Velasquez was at least as interested in the pots as in the people and he would surely have been disappointed if you set your eyes only on the woman and ignored his spectacular pots. Many of his first works have a row or group of pots and vases and food (bodegones) in the foreground. They are done with such care that you wonder if he didn’t paint them before figuring out how to incorporate the people. This is his most successful painting in part because the two portraits are finally as good (and as important in the picture) as the kitchenware.

      He tried that again in “Christ at Martha’s House”, with maybe the same old lady for a model.

      This time he didn’t tie all the elements together so well, though each of them (portraits and still-life) is about as good as you can get. Another diagonal. Here it looks like he couldn’t decide what to do with that big space that was left above the food (a shelf with more pans?). It is very hard for the viewer to understand that what he is seeing in the square is going on in another room, because there is no good indication of distance, no middle ground. The Bible scene looks more like a picture on the wall.

  10. Rich says:

    Probably “Portrait of a Woman” would be the most obvious title.
    Looking at the picture “in a painterly way” may be just looking at it under another aspect. Besides the portraits, we have got a wonderful still life of carefully placed and marvellously rendered objects as well here for instance, well, among those perfect eggs in different states. (Didn’t we deal with Brancusi’s egg in another one of Swallow’s entries?;-)

    Van Gogh in a letter pointed out Velasquez’ grey tones which he very much admired in a painterly way it seems: Pearl grey, silver grey, or the grey of concrete, the grey of ashes – from the worthless to the most valuable. Velasquez got the problem solved, according to Van Gogh.

    As to another painter looking at Velasquez – let me quote Cezanne, another fervent admirer: He worshipped him and looked at him as the early painter working in the recess of his atelier:
    “He would have bestowed upon us the Triumphs of Bacchus and given us the for Forges of Vulcan!” Cezanne says, “enough to fill all the palaces of Spain with these marvels:
    But someone stupid recommended him to the king. Velasquez was dragged in there. Photography had not yet been invented in those times:
    ” Paint me this dwarf, my portrait on foot, me riding a horse, paint my wife, my daughter, this senor, this beggar, this one, that one!” Velasquez became the king’s photographer, the toy of a wretched man, an artist imprisoned!”

    That’s what Cezanne said, hinting at a big loss. I find that very interesting.


    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I’d never read Cezanne so that quote was nice to see.

      It’s true that Velasquez’s court job was like one with “golden handcuffs” in a modern company. He kept rising and getting better and better pay and other incentives but he had to sign over his talent and energies in return.
      Yet Cezanne should be reminded that the “free” artist didn’t exist in those days. A painter was a craftsman and glad to get work, like a cobbler. Diego set himself up in Seville even before he went to Madrid to be the King’s painter, and he was doing just fine. But, judging by the paintings of Murillo and Zurbarán, commissions in Seville mostly came from convents and churches and were about Virgins and saints—not exactly Velasquez’s forte.(There’s his great Crucifixion–but we got that too.) Madrid and his court contacts opened up his mind and his possibilities (like those two trips to Italy).
      What would have become of him if “someone stupid” (the Conde-duque de Olivares, the guy who effectively ruled Spain) hadn’t recommended him to the king? Who can say. This way, as it turned out, he gave us both halves of the world—rich and poor. We could have done with a few more Old Woman Frying Eggs but it is nice to see the king and the nobles and buffoons too.

    • Ken Januski says:

      Interesting thoughts Rich, especially the part about looking at it in a painterly way as being just equivalent of just looking at it under another aspect. I think the best art is always like that: liked by various generations and audiences but for different reasons. I think we can never really get around our upbringing and prejudices and mine are definitely formed by painterliness. But I think it’s much more than just that in my liking for the painting.. I also see a love of the physical beauty and presence of objects, like the eggs and pots and pans. I don’t know how to describe it other than a love for the physical world and the desire to paint it. To me there is painterliness in someone like Frans Hals but it seems somewhat superficial, more concerned with surface than of rendering the beauty of the objects portrayed.

      It’s been a very long time since I read Cezanne’s letters. But one thing I that struck me then is how he always said he was striving to paint what he saw. Not an abstraction, not the precursor to modernism, but what he saw. At least that’s the way I recall it. If so it makes sense to me he should appreciate Velasquez’s seeming love of the physical.

      Conicidentally I ran across a Winslow Homer egg watercolor today, but his eggs are nowhere near as sentral to the painting.

  11. cantueso says:

    Well, Rich and also Swallows, I would have thought that this evident interest in the technicalities of a painting showed a less evident embarrassment about the meaning of it all.
    Of course I found myself speculating this way while trying to read some modern art critique.

  12. Rich says:

    I’d wish I had a time machine to travel to the Spanish court of yonder and see Velasquez at work; the “golden handcuffed” one – that was a good comparison. True, one has to take in account the confinements and restrictions in which artists of those times worked.

    As to Cezanne’s point of view: Let me add a further passage which I had omitted in my last comment. The quotations are actually not from any letter, but from a recorded talk with the master, which might explain some possible exaggerations or even distortions.
    About the handcuffed Velasquez Cezanne is quoted to have said that “…he had swallowed it all, all his previous work, his great soul. He was imprisoned, there was no way of escape. And for that he took cruel revenge and painted them with all their slags, their defects, their decay. The way Flaubert depicted his Homais and his Bournisien he painted the king and his fools.”
    Well, now I have to go find out who Homais and Bournisien were…we live and learn…

    I agree Ken, having a calendar in front of me with a daily painting, ranging from the most ancient to the ultra-modern. The comments on the backside of each picture must be from some art historians or experts and academics. They see it from their own angle, but the superficiality and boredom of many of those keep on surprising me. Swallows would certainly do a much better job. And competent artists commenting on other artists still belong to my favorite reads.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I can’t see any cruel revenge in Velasquez’s king, family, and fools. They look no less happy or intelligent than humans in general, do they? Probably Cezanne means that showing them “as they really were” was cruel enough, was enough of an indictment. Maybe Cezanne was like Sir Walter Raleigh who wrote
      I wish I loved the human race;
      I wish I loved its silly face;
      I wish I liked the way it walks;
      I wish I liked the way it talks;
      And when I’m introduced to one
      I wish I thought What jolly fun!

      They say the same of Goya and his royal family portraits. Museum guides tell their little group as they stand before “The Family of Charles IV”: “Look: Goya showed how vapid they were, how decadent.” And there stands Goya in the shadows watching, as with a wink at the viewer. But Goya surely did not intend to show them in a negative way. Imagine insulting the king like that! Both Charles and his wife were pleased with the painting.
      I had to go look up Homais and Bournisien too. So–Madame Bovary! I’m afraid Flaubert is no priority for me right now.

  13. Ken Januski says:

    I have to agree that Swallows would do a much better job!! So much art history and criticism seems to get lost in academic back alleys that most people don’t see and don’t have much interest in. It doesn’t seem worth the time to try to figure out why so much, but certainly not all, art writing just seems unrelated to the work. Swallows on the other hand always gives you that direct connection to the painting itself, a way into the painting rather than away from it.

    It’s sometimes easy to forget what a unique and valuable site this is for those who love art!

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Thanks, thanks, really. That’s good about the “academic back alleys”. Often they wander into those back alleys while looking for a good idea. Their enthusiasm is gone. They are tired of talking about art. Most of them don’t believe language is anything but a pose. They aren’t looking for truth. University manner can hide that lack of interest and university-speak can hide emptiness. In any case, scholars in all fields are trained to merely compare the ideas of their predecessors, not to see with their own eyes.

  14. Rich says:

    I have landed at Madame Bovary as well in my quest. Interesting story, they say it’s a piece of world-literature. But priority? No.
    While you mention Goya: The Cezanne talk exactly carries on with Goya; I try to translate:

    “…and there is another precursor, Goya. See his Maja vestida and his Maja desnuda…That is Love! Nothing else could have brought about this wonder…He (Goya) was so repugnant, so ugly. You must have seen him in his own portrait, with hís giant top-hat. When he had this duchess in his arms, this slender aristocrat…there was nothing he had to invent. He was in love. He has painted the woman. A woman…and thereafter she can be found everywhere. One minute of grace did not last. All this consuming imagination drove him on. The duchess of Alba reappears in each one of his paintings, be it as angel, as a courtesan, be it as a working woman. She has become a mold that would fit every purpose. Like Helene Fourment for Rubens or old Tintoretto’s daughter. They all are artists of unmeasurable imagination, like Shakespeare, like Beethoven…”

    Love that Sir Raleigh quote of yours.

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