Imagine being appointed court painter to the King, any King –at just 24 years of age. Imagine leading this life until your death at 61.Imagine too, this is the 1600’s and your king is the most powerful ruler on the planet with arguably the largest territory of influence the world has seen –some gig, huh?
The painter in question in this scenario was Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez and the ruler King Philip IV of Spain, who as part of the Habsburg monarch, ascended the throne in 1621 and reigned in Portugal until 1640, and in Spain until his death in 1665 . Philip is remembered for his vision filled patronage of the arts, and his rule over Spain during the Thirty Years’ War.
The Habsburgs were a deeply fascinating power broker family, and are definitely worth an exploration in their own right for history enthusiasts. Now these Habsburgs were known for many things, not least of which was as the most powerful dynasty in the history of the modern world-truly. The two branches of the Habsburg rule –the Austrian House of Habsburg and the Spanish Habsburgs believed that keeping their familial blood-lines close would enhance their overall power, and so , inbreeding between the two houses was commonplace; resulting, most significantly, in what is known today as the protruding ‘Habsburg Chin’.
This inbreeding policy was reflected in the marriage of Mariana of Austria to her uncle King Philip IV. As part of his employ, Velazquez painted a series of portraits of King Philip and Mariana amongst others .Interestingly, the below portrait of Mariana of Austria from 1652 showed a fascinating secret that Velazquez would never image be revealed when it underwent infra-red analysis.
Under x-ray examination the painting revealed that the image of Mariana was actually created by painting over an unfinished image of Philip IV. Fabric panels were added to the canvas to allow for Mariana’s wide costume as Velazquez lined Mariana up to align her face directly over Philip’s. In the x-ray image below you can clearly see Philip IV’s moustache and facial features of eyes, eyebrow arches, nose and lips. The facial features of Mariana were so similar to Philip in broad structure that image was easily refashioned.
Now, Velazquez would never have suspected that one day ,we would discover this interesting fact.Imagine what was running through Velazquez’ mind when he changed one portrait for another? How much of his decision to over-paint was based on being economical with resources? Was this even a consideration working for a King? Perhaps Velazquez was simply saving time? We will never know, but how fascinating to imagine the moment when he put paint to canvas on the Philip IV piece with his end goal in mind.
You can see a little more clearly these features in the below close up of Mariana from the 1652 portrait when she was around age 18, and a portrait of Philip IV from somewhere around 1624-27 when he was of similar age (somewhere between age 19-22 years). We can clearly see the similarities or features.
There is a fantastic book that talks more on Velazquez, his technique and also looks at this particular example of x-ray study of the 1652 Mariana portrait. The book is Velazquez: Technique of Genius and it is written by the incredible Spanish art expert Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido, Head of Technical Services at Prado , Madrid.
One of the other examples of infra-red examination of Velazquez work is the portrait of King Philip IV from a recent Dallas Meadows Museum show on Velazquez’ work.
In these photo’s below courtesy of the Meadows Museum, we see two Velazquez’s portraits of King Philip IV; the Prado’s full-length portrait of him dressed all in black that was painted in the 1620’s, and the Meadow’s bust-length portrait. The Prado and the Meadows began a three-year partnership in 2009 that has included an exchange of scholars, research, works of art and exhibitions.Research completed between the Prado and the Meadows Museum for this exhibition has raised evidence that the bust portrait may just be the first one Velazquez painted of King Philip IV.
In anticipation of this exhibition, both portraits underwent analysis at the Prado. X-rays showed experimentation on the bust portrait through sketchy brush strokes in the outline of the neck and shoulders of the King,and some variation of colour and composition indicating Velazquez may have been working out how to paint the King and supporting the theory that it could have been his initial attempt.”Now we think more than ever that it was the first portrait,” said Mark Roglan, director of the Meadows.
By contrast, it is clear that the King’s form was fully devised when Velázquez began painting the full length portrait now in the Prado’s collection. Through analysis of the work, an outline beneath the surface of the Prado’s full length portrait was also discovered that replicates the contours seen in the Meadows painting. This evidence points to the bust portrait probably acting as a prototype of the later full length work.
“What you’ll see…. is the beginning of one of the most extraordinary relationships in the history of art — that’s the relationship between young Velazquez and Philip IV,” said Gabriele Finaldi, the Prado’s deputy director for collections.
Now we know that on August 16, 1623, Philip IV sat for Velázquez. He completed in one day a portrait which we hypothesize may have been the ‘first draft’of a piece , a sketch or first layer of paint. From that first sitting Velázquez was not only invited to move to Madrid, but invited on the promise that he alone would be the only artist ever to paint King Philip’s portrait. Is the bust painting above the completed version of the that first sitting? Or is it his first formal , post appointment painting? Either way it would have been an extraordinary experience to have been in the shoes of a 23 -24 year old, completing a one sitting portrait of the King, one of the most powerful men in the world at that time. What would have gone through Velazquez’ mind as he started that first portrait? At securing the royal appointment Velazquez received with a salary of 20 ducats per month as well as being paid for the paintings he produced ,and of course food and lodgings were included .His court position enabled him to paint portraits of other incredible people including Antonio Mor, the Dutch portrait painter, the Prince of Wales , Charles I and even Peter Paul Rubens at the height of his fame. Velazquez would have been lauded socially by a King who was an open and passionate supporter of the Arts. An extraordinary life indeed.