The unusual splendour of the King's dress suggests that this work records a particular occasion, since he is usually depicted in more sombre clothes. He wears the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece on a gold chain.
This work was probably painted soon after Velázquez's return from Italy in 1631. It is one of the few signed paintings by the artist and the principal portrait of the King of that period.
Miranda Hinkley:It was 350 years ago this month, on the 6th August 1660, that the great Spanish painter Diego Velázquez died at the age of 61. Velázquez came from relatively humble stock. But by the end of his life he'd become such an influential figure at court that his funeral was a grand and solemn affair. His rise was largely due to his unique relationship with his life-long patron, King Philip IV of Spain. To find out more, Leah Kharibian met curator Xavier Bray in front of one of Velázquez's greatest portraits of the King.
Xavier Bray: He arrived at the age of 24, so he’s very young. But at the same time you have to remember the king also was very young. If I recall he was just one year older, so they were pretty much the same age. And Velazquez was given for his contacts that he had in Madrid, a sitting to paint a portrait of the King. And he just painted the head - unfortunately that’s lost – but what we can imagine, it was incredibly focused, but very realistic. And everybody at the court was just amazed at the technique that he had and Velazquez got the job pretty much straight away.
Leah Kharibian: Now Velazquez rapidly rose through the ranks to become painter to the king and his job was essentially to paint portraits of the king and the royal family. If you could take us through this astonishing portrait here.
Xavier Bray: Well, here we have a portrait that he paints a bit later, sort of ten years into his career as court portrait painter. And it shows Philip the IV wearing his favourite suit, which is made out of brown and silver, silver thread, so it’s an incredibly decorative costume that he’s wearing. And you see this figure standing, looking out at you with his left hand on his sword, and then holding a piece of paper.
And it’s a very rigid posture – this is how the King wanted to be portrayed, earlier portraits show him in exactly the same pose, and later portraits also show him in exactly the same pose, so this was the format that Velazquez had to paint.
Leah Kharibian: Was this a foible of his own, or was this something to do with Spanish court behaviour?
Xavier Bray: It was very much part of Spanish etiquette. There’s a very strict system at the court of who has access to the King and it was incredibly rigid. I mean the only people who sort of broke the rules were the dwarves and in a way the painters, because the painters had that sort of creativity that allowed them to be different to the rest of the household.
Leah Kharibian: Well, the National Gallery has many fantastic masterpieces by Velazquez but the one picture I’d like us to go and have a look at next is the King, but at a much later stage in his life.
So we’re now standing in front of a portrait of King Philip the IV which is just bust height, not a full length portrait, painted in about 1656. Can you describe it for us?
Xavier Bray: Well, for me this portrait it’s as if you were actually witnessing the sitting between Philip the IV and Velazquez because it’s so informal and this is Philip the IV, you know, he’s old, his skin is sagging almost, he’s still pretty much blond, but you can see the wispiness of white hair. But we know from Philip the IV when he wrote to his confessor, this nun, saying that ‘I’ve got to sit for Velazquez again and I’m almost dreading it – every time he paints me he shows me getting older’. And it’s true that Velazquez almost can’t resist to paint what he sees before him and indeed a good friend of his when he saw this portrait said ‘it’s so life-like’, and he added ‘you can feel the spirit of the man in the portrait’.
So this is what made Velazquez unique was in his ability to capture not only the sitter’s physiognomy but the spirit of the person sitting for him.
Leah Kharibian: Now by this date Velazquez had become Chamberlain to the Royal Household, a very very elevated position that left him in charge of extraordinary things, not only re-hanging the court paintings but also in charge of things like the sheets...
Xavier Bray: Yeah, Velazquez had almost become a curator, like us lot here at the National Gallery, looking after the collection. But he really wanted to be recognised for his incredible talent as a painter. And painters in Spain were generally regarded as craftsmen and he was trying to break those shackles and make painting a liberal art, like poetry or music. And the only way he really could pull that off was finally by getting a knighthood and one of the most prestigious knighthoods he could get was the knight of Santiago. So the way to do it was to petition the king to help him out.
The problem is that Velazquez had no noble blood in him and actually going against him was the fact that he probably had Jewish blood and that was totally against the rules. You had to be a pure blood to become a knight. So he spent a long time trying to pull out papers to prove that he had some kind of noble connection through his mother. But eventually it was thanks to the King and the Pope, Innocent the Tenth, whom he’d painted earlier on, who basically intervened and said ‘this man should get the knight of Santiago for his skills as a painter’. And in 1658 he finally gets it.
Leah Kharibian: So do you think it’s because of this very particular relationship with Philip the IVth that Velazquez is able to achieve this glory at the end of his career?
Xavier Bray: I think it is. Because they grew up together, they developed together, I think they taught each other quite a lot of things. Velazquez discovered the Royal Collection. Philip the IV trusted him with buying pictures and sculptures for the collection. They must have just loved the whole dilettante connoisseurship aspects of collecting. And at the same time, Philip gave him incredible opportunities. And he gave basically Velazquez freedom to discover himself and for me that’s one of the greatest things that a patron could do – let him be.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Xavier Bray.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Six, August 2010