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Velázquez was born in Seville on June 6, 1599, the oldest of six children; both his parents were from the minor nobility. Between 1611 and 1617 the young Velázquez worked as an apprentice to Francisco Pacheco, a Sevillian Mannerist painter who became Velázquez's father-in-law. During his student years Velázquez absorbed the most popular contemporaneous styles of painting, derived, in part, from both Flemish and Italian realism.
Many of his earliest paintings show a strong naturalist bias, as does The Meal, which may have been his first work as an independent master after passing the examination of the Guild of Saint Luke. This painting belongs to the first of three categories—the bodegón, or kitchen piece, along with portraits and religious scenes—into which his youthful works, executed between about 1617 and 1623, may be placed. In his kitchen pieces, a few figures are combined with studied still-life objects, as in Water Seller of Seville. The masterly effects of light and shadow, as well as the direct observation of nature, make inevitable a comparison with the work of the Italian painter Caravaggio. Velázquez's religious paintings, images of simple piety, portray models drawn from the streets of Seville, as Pacheco states in his biography of Velázquez. In Adoration of the Magi, for example, the artist painted his own family in the guise of biblical figures, including a self-portrait as well.
Velázquez was also well acquainted with members of the intellectual circles of Seville. Pacheco was the director of an informal humanist academy; at its meetings the young artist was introduced to such people as the great poet Luis de Góngora y Argote, whose portrait he executed in 1622. Such contact was important for Velázquez's later work on mythological and classical subjects.
In 1622 Velázquez made his first trip to Madrid, to see the royal painting collections, but more likely in an unsuccessful search for a position as court painter. In 1623, however, he returned to the capital and, after executing a portrait of the king, was named official painter to Philip IV. The portrait was the first among many such sober, direct renditions of the king, the royal family, and members of the court. Indeed, throughout the later 1620s, most of his efforts were dedicated to portraiture. Mythological subjects would at times occupy his attention, as in Bacchus or The Drinkers.
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In 1628 Peter Paul Rubens came to the court at Madrid on a diplomatic mission. Among the few painters with whom he associated was Velázquez. Although the great Flemish master did not have a direct impact on the style of the younger painter, their conversations almost certainly inspired Velázquez to visit the art collections in Italy that were so much admired by Rubens. In August 1629 Velázquez departed from Barcelona for Genoa and spent most of the next two years traveling in Italy. From Genoa he proceeded to Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, returning to Spain from Naples in January 1631. In the course of his journey he closely studied both the art of the Renaissance and contemporaneous painting. Several of the works executed during his travels attest to his absorption of these styles; a notable example is Joseph and His Brothers, which combines a Michelangelesque sculptural quality with the chiaroscuro (light-and-shadow techniques) of such Italian masters as Guercino and Giovanni Lanfranco.
On his return to Madrid, Velázquez resumed his duties as court portraitist with the sensitive rendition Prince Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf, an image made poignant by the young prince's death before reaching adulthood. From the 1630s on, relatively few facts are known about the artist's personal life, although his rise to prominence in court circles is well documented. In 1634 Velázquez organized the decoration of the throne room in the new royal palace of Buen Retiro; this scheme consisted of 12 scenes of battles in which Spanish troops had been victorious—painted by the most prestigious artists of the day, including Velázquez himself—and royal equestrian portraits. Velázquez's contribution to the cycle of battle pictures included the Surrender of Breda, portraying a magnanimous Spanish general receiving the leader of defeated Flemish troops after the siege of that northern town in 1624. The delicacy of handling and astonishing range of emotions captured in a single painting make this the most celebrated historical composition of the Spanish baroque.
The second major series of paintings of the 1630s by Velázquez was a group of hunting portraits of the royal family for the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge near Madrid. Dating from the late 1630s and early '40s are the famous depictions of court dwarfs in which, unlike court-jester portraits by earlier artists, the sitters are treated with respect and sympathy. Velázquez painted few religious pictures after entering the king's employ; Saints Anthony and Paul and Immaculate Conception are notable exceptions.
During the last 20 years of his life Velázquez's work as court official and architect assumed prime importance. He was responsible for the decoration of many new rooms in the royal palaces. In 1649 he again went to Italy, this time to buy works of art for the king's collection. During his year's stay in Rome (1649-50) he painted the magnificent portraits Juan de Pareja and Pope Innocent X. At this time he was also admitted into Rome's Academy of Saint Luke. The elegant Venus at Her Toilette probably dates from this time also.
The key works of the painter's last two decades are Fable of Arachne, an image of sophisticated mythological symbolism, and his masterwork, Las meninas, a stunning group portrait of the royal family and Velázquez himself in the act of painting. Velázquez continued to serve Philip IV as painter, courtier, and faithful friend until the artist's death in Madrid on August 6, 1660. His work had a subtle impact a century later on his greatest successor, Francisco de Goya.