|Diego Velázquez was born in Seville, Spain in 1599. His early training as a painter came from Francisco Pacheco who was a painter, poet, scholar and writer on art. Though Pacheco was a mediocre painter, he was a capable teacher, sympathetic to the new interest in naturalism. Velázquez, who later became his son-in-law, was one of his most important pupils.
Velázquez was profoundly influenced by Caravaggio, even before he visited Italy. The 'naturalism' which Pacheco was so interested in became absorbed into Velázquez's approach to his subjects. Many of these early works showed him to be a brilliant dispassionate observer of nature, regardless of conventions. He took the every day image and represented what he saw naturally and honestly. In An Old Woman Cooking Eggs we clearly see the scene as it happens. The detail in the implements, the reflected light from the glazed cooking pot in which the eggs are situated, the reflection off the glass in the boy's hand gives us the feeling that we could reach out and touch these items.
In 1623, Velázquez was employed by the then young King Philip IV of Spain (1621-1665). This was the beginning of a lifetime of involvement with the Spanish Court where the painter produced most of his greatest works. This involvement kept him in Spain most of his life apart from two visits to Italy, the first in 1630 due to the encouragement of Rubens who met Velázquez while visiting Spain. The young painter was drawn mostly by the ruins of antiquity rather than by contemporary Roman art and architecture
After returning to Madrid Velázquez remained and grew in stature to become a famous and respected member of the Spanish Court. His main task was to paint portraits of the King and other members of the royal family (Baltasar Carlos as Hunter 1635-6). From the uninviting task of representing men and women who dressed in the stiff, unbecoming style and fashion of the time and insisted on their dignity, Velázquez was able to create magical portraits. He studied the brushwork of Rubens and Titian, though he clearly developed his own style.
As Velázquez matured his style developed a freedom of expression and subtlety. Thus some of his later works, if viewed at close range appear to be blurred blobs of pigment, yet when at the correct distance Velázquez's genius is revealed as all coelesces to render the intended form and atmosphere with astonishing clarity. This ability to rely on the imagination of the viewer to suppliment what has been left out made Velázquez much admired by the founders of Impressionism, above many of the great painters of the past.
In 1656, Velázquez painted an emormous canvas (over 3 metres tall), Las Meninas (maids of honour), that has become his best known work and is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of art. This painting has tantilized art historians and students of art by its complexity and by the artist's ability to create a visual world which seems almost palpable. At first glance one is captivated by the figure of a girl who is, in fact, the king's daughter the Infanta Margarita, and would have been about five years old at the time. She is attended by her two maids of honour and occupies the central position in the picture plain. One might assume that she is the subject of this grand piece, however, it is far from a portrait of the infanta or the group in which she stands.
We see the painter (Velázquez himself) at the easel and the king and queen reflected in the mirror above the infanta's head. It is as if they are the subject of the artist's work and we are all the more a part of the scene as we, the spectator, occupy the apparent space in which the king and queen stand - we see what they see. The artist has captured a moment of time much like we would if we take a picture with a camera. Yet there is nothing brief about the complex threads of suggestion that have been woven through every facet of this piece. It speaks to us of the moment, but also of the relationships between each and all in the scene.
There is respect given to the sovereign, his wife and daughter which is fitting for the royal portrait painter to bestow. But we learn also of the artist and his place in the court as well as his aspirations with regard to his office. We know at this time Velázquez had desires in seeking admission to one of the orders of military knighthood which would have raised him to noble rank. He has portrayed the artist (himself) in an extremely favourable light with regards to his place in the court and his relationship to the King and Queen. This could only but help his cause.
The true genius of Velázquez is best appreciated at the Prado where many of his great works reside. Largely unknown outside of Spain until the Napoleonic Wars, Velázquez's work was a revelation to 19th century progressive artists. It is well accepted that he is one of Spain's greatest ever artists, Manet in fact regarded Velázquez as the greatest painter of all time.