Behind the famous painting by Diego Velázquez lies a rich story of the artist's life in art
What began as propaganda art to celebrate a rare Spanish victory in the Eighty Years' War with Holland, The Surrender at Breda is today recognized as Velázquez's narrative masterpiece.
Breda is packed with vivid military detail—whole armies are suggested on the huge canvas, twelve feet high and eleven feet wide. Unlike typical surrender scenes, there is neither a heroic victor on horseback nor a vanquished commander on his knees. Instead the rivals appear on foot almost as equals. The loser bends forward to offer the key and receives a chivalrous pat on his shoulder, as if to say: "Fortune has favored me, but our roles might have been reversed."
Anthony Bailey examines the paintings from which the artist arose, coaxing stories from them that flesh out a complete portrait of one of the world's major artists whose personal life has remained largely unknown.
Through Velazquez's career as a courtier and painter is fairly well documented, letters describing how he thought, felt, and lived are scarce. Abundant information about the artist can be coaxed from his paintings, says New Yorker writer Bailey (Vermeer). He explains that early kitchen scenes and religious paintings testify that the artist was concerned with detail and alive to food, water, and other vital basics of daily domestic existence. He was also highly conscious of art in Flanders and Italy, particularly Caravaggio's heightened realism. Bailey uses one of Velazquez's greatest paintings, The Surrender of Breda, which is a frequent means of entry into Velazquez's later work and world. It was inspired by Velazquez's first visit to Italy, with Ambrogio Spinola, who a few years earlier had conquered the Dutch city of Breda; the painting depicts a transfer of the key to the city from the Dutch to the victorious Spanish. For example, Bailey speculates that the act of surrender may have aroused a personal response in an artist who, instead of following his own muse, had painted endless portraits of Philip IV and family as he climbed the court ladder. This highly provocative, rich, and savory feast challenges readers to see great art with fresh eyes and in context. Illus.