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Royal Portraits and Velázquez


Royal portraits were like the Tinder of 1st century court life in Europe. Painters were paid to make royals look more capable and more divine than they were. Velázquez painted the royals capably in his Las Meninas but he clearly had an affinity for the common man too.

Complete Video Script

[81, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris] As Europe's nations grew bigger, many centralized around an old reliable institution — the monarchy. This was the era of Europe's great kings and queens. They claimed their authority came directly from God — by "divine right" — and that their power was "absolute."

[82, Prince Balthasar Carlos on Horseback, 1635, Velàzquez, Prado Museum, Madrid] Through the ages, portraits had been one of the ways royals showed off their power and their divine right to rule. They hired Europe's best artists to paint them in all their glory from the powerful Renaissance royals and rulers of France… Spain…Venice…to England. Baroque artists captured the over-the-top style of the age. By then, Europe was ruled by a handful of powerful families who used such portraits to stay in touch and, like Baroque dating apps, to arrange marriages. And court painters pulled out all the stops: from making young princes look impossibly good on a horse to making a mere mortal look as divine as can be.

[83, Diego Velázquez, 1599–1660] Diego Velázquez was one of the greatest portrait artists. A virtual court photographer, he was the Spanish master of realism. As well as standard portraits of the Spanish king and queen, Velázquez loved to keep it real with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the rest of the court — their cute kids…even the court jester.

[84, Las Meninas, 1656, Velázquez] In this masterpiece, the artist paints himself at work on a portrait as a princess and her servants look on. The unique perspective — notice how they're all looking out — is ambiguous. Perhaps they're looking toward the king and queen as they pose — who'd be standing right where we are as viewers. The royal couple can actually be seen reflected in the mirror at the back of the room. With his mastery of realism, Velázquez created a wonderfully 3-D world where Spain's royal court comes to life — as if you could step right through the canvas and into their lives.

[85] Beyond royal portraits, Velázquez gave life to everything he touched: dramatic bible stories…astonishingly realistic classical scenes…graceful nudes…and great moments in history…all infused with his affinity for the common man.

[86, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629, Velázquez, Prado Museum, Madrid] With his mastery of unvarnished realism, he could turn a Greek myth into a candid group-selfie in a blue-collar bar. Bacchus, the god of wine, joins a bunch of tipsy Spanish peasants. The radiant god sits on the left, gritty peasants to the right, and uniting the two halves is the kneeling man being crowned by the ultimate hedonist. The center of the composition? The cup of wine, of course.