A fascinating look at the paintings and history of 17th-century Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez, through the prism of one of his greatest masterpieces.
Longtime New Yorker writer Bailey (John Constable: A Kingdom of His Own, 2007, etc.) uses Velázquez’s painting of the 1625 surrender of the Dutch town of Breda to Spanish forces as an entry point into a richly detailed portrait of the court of King Philip IV as Spain’s Hapsburg empire crumbled around him. Though the basic details of Velázquez’s life are known and some 125 of his paintings survive, as Bailey apologetically reminds us throughout, when it comes to his inner thoughts and feelings, there is little to go on. The only description of the painter’s personality, given by several sources, is that he was phlegmatic—“in modern parlance, Velázquez was cool.” There is, however, much documentation about Philip IV’s court, and Bailey brings it vividly to life, as he simultaneously traces the artist’s rise from humble beginnings to eventual nobility. The author also thoroughly examines the military victory at Breda, a high point on the downward slope, along with other important events and many of Velázquez’s most famous works. Bailey does not resist the temptation to speculate about the painter’s inner life based on his work, with mixed results. Ultimately, Velázquez remains a cipher, a man whose ambition seems to have been focused on advancing at court rather than on becoming a great artist. That he did become one is confirmed by the paintings he left behind, and his influence, covered by Bailey in the penultimate chapter, on those who followed.
An impressive work of history that gives the reader a greater appreciation for the art, if not an understanding of the mind, of one of the world’s master painters.