Royalty elevates art and artists
Money has always influenced art. It would be foolish for an artist to paint still life when they were paid for a portrait. The artist must adapt their creative expression to fit the criteria provided by the patron who commissioned the piece. It wasn’t just money that shaped royalty’s influence on the arts. Royalty elevated artists from craftsmen to artisans. By recognizing and rewarding an artist’s talent, royalty added intrinsic value to art by prestige and high social status based on the artist’s merit rather than the social status of their birth.
The fourteenth century was a defining time for the influence of royalty in the arts. Starting in the late Middle Ages and extending through the Early Modern period, European monarchs selected a Court Artist to join their royal household. It was a high status position because the artist was considered a member of the royal family and had a personal relationship with the Monarch. Artists including Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, and Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez’s were celebrated Court Artists. These crème de la crème of the elite artists had only one job duty—paint flattering but still realistic portraits of the royal family.
Originating in Rome during the 17th century, Baroque art spread throughout northern Europe. Just like during the Renaissance, religious paintings dominated the period. But as Baroque became infused with local traditions and culture, paintings began to include still life, landscapes, royal portraits and other pieces depicting private and court life as well as historic events. No longer restrained by the High Renaissance, Baroque overpowered with dramatic intensity and embellished pageantry. This artistic style quickly became a sensation among royal courts because it illustrated power and wealth.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
The first of seven children born to working-class parents in Seville, Velázquez’s talent was recognized early. He began an art apprenticeship with master painter Francisco Pacheco at age 11 and by 18 was certified as a master painter by the Seville Painters Guild. By 24, Velázquez was selected by King Felipe as Spain’s Court Artist, a position that he held for the rest of his life. During the Baroque era, portraits continued as a coveted status symbol among royalty, aristocrats and others of immense wealth. For King Felipe and his family, these portraits flaunted their affluence and immortalized them wearing their finest clothes and jewelry. For Velázquez, these treasured status symbols earned his place in history as one of Europe’s most influential artists and elevated him to nobility. Although artists were held back from ascending to nobility because they worked with their hands, Velázquez received the Knighthood of Santiago, one year before his death as a reward for the nobility of his art.
Acclaimed as an artistic treasure, Velázquez’s, Las Meninas, is a stunning painting that now hangs in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. The title translates into “maids of honor” and it is described by art historians and critics as Velázquez’s magnum opus. Las Menina’s greatness is attributed to the artist’s brilliant use of focal point, lighting and size. The painting is considered genius because of Velázquez’s clever idea of painting through a mirror.
The reflection of the King and Queen of Spain in the mirror in Las Meninas was directly influenced by Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece, The Arnolfini Portrait, which was painted in 1434. This Netherlandish Renaissance painting is a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami. One of the most notable things about this remarkable piece is the mirror on the center of the rear wall. The ornate mirror is decorated with medallions from the Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion. The reflection details different view of the room, two visitors standing in the doorway and a rear view of the Arnolfinis.
Velázquez would have been familiar with The Arnolfini Portrait because the painting was part of Spain’s royal family art collection from the mid-sixteenth through the early nineteenth century. The Arnolfini Portrait and Las Meninas both include a black mirror that reveals another perspective to the room’s details and has two people standing in the doorway. In Velázquez’s painting, the reflection is the King and Queen of Spain. Scholars and art aficionados have debated for centuries whether the King and Queen are visiting the studio or posing for a portrait.
While Las Meninas is clearly influenced by royalty, it stands out from other court paintings because the piece was painted to hang in King Philip IV’s private office rather than displayed publicly. Las Meninas seems spontaneous and comfortable, especially compared to other commissioned paintings. The painting’s focal point, Infanta Marguerita, is dressed elegantly, but casually rather than in a regal gown and crown. This is a stark contrast with official royal deliberately posed and almost stiff portraits. Las Meninas still has all the hallmarks of lavish, royally-influenced paintings.
Painted in oils on canvas in 1656, Las Meninas measures more than 10 feet tall and 9 feet wide, because for royalty, size matters. The frivolity of being able to commission such an opulent painting is a distinct status symbol because it’s something that only royalty could afford. Another indicator of royal wealth is the servants—two maids and dwarves— and two ladies in waiting who are also present in the painting. The presence of these servants is another element that makes Las Meninas so different from royal portraits, because portraits were usually reserved for the top 1 percent of society. Velázquez’s reputation as Spain’s preeminent artist adds another echelon of royal privilege to the painting because of the prestige of commissioning a portrait that is intended for a small and personal audience.
From the Baroque art that we learned about in this lesson, I liked Las Meninas the best, because it was so different from the other pieces. It’s a painting of a painting in a painting. It also shows Velázquez had “brass balls.” How many other artists would have the confidence to paint themselves into a royal portrait? By adding himself into the portrait, Velázquez is essentially portraying himself as part of the royal household and certainly someone worthy of nobility. It’s impossible for me not to respect a man with that much chutzpah. Las Meninas is so different from royal portraits in that it’s a casual snapshot of life in the Spanish palace, yet it encapsulates the spirit of royal portraits in that it flaunts the royal family’s wealth. Well done, Velázquez.
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