Velazquez – Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver




Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver: Diego Velázquez: about 1631-2

This splendid figure, resplendent in a formal costume embroidered with silver thread, is Philip IV of Spain – ruler of an empire that, even though it was in decline, spanned the globe; it was the first empire of which it was said the sun never set.

Hanging on a chain around his neck we can see the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece, one of Catholic Europe’s highest orders of chivalry. His hands are gloved, and one is on his sword, the other holding a letter of some sort. The stiff collar he wears is called a golilla, which was invented by Philip himself and, not surprisingly, it became the height of fashion in the Spanish court.

Velazquez has captured a king sure of his power – an absolute monarch for whom image and formality were immensely important. He was said to be so impassive that he resembled a statue, and that he was only ever seen to laugh three times in his public life.

The most distinguishing feature though is his chin. Philip was a member of the royal house of Habsburg and this was known as the ‘Habsburg Jaw’ – a congenital deformity caused by generations of inbreeding within the royal families of Spain and beyond, with cousins marrying cousins, uncles nieces and so on. It reached its tragic conclusion with Philip’s son Charles, who seems to have had numerous physical and mental handicaps and was the last of the Spanish Hapsburg rulers.

Despite the empire’s decline, the 1600s are known as Spain’s Golden Age for art and literature – as well as Velázquez paintings, it gives us Cervantes and ‘Don Quixote’ as well as the plays of Lope de Vega.

Velazquez has signed the portrait on that letter in Philip’s hand, and for nearly 40 years he was the only person who painted the king. He did the first portrait of Philip when he was 23 and the king was just 17, and Philip was so delighted with it that he was immediately made one of the official court painters, and from then on, until Velazquez’s death, the king allowed no one else to paint his portrait.

In fact, Velazquez only left the court twice, the first time just before this painting was done when he travelled to Italy for a year and a half. And this portrait shows the influence of Venetian art; there is a softer and more colourful palette than in his earlier works, and if you look closely at the silver embroidery you can see the brushwork. This is known as a ‘painterly’ style – up close it looks like squiggles of paint, but stand back and you get the full power of the work.

The relationship with the King did very well for Velazquez as he rose through the court until he eventually became a Knight of Santiago, one of Spain’s oldest and most noble chivalric honours.

Philip’s exact contemporary was another king who believed in absolute rule, but he was less successful at maintaining it – Charles I of England, and he’s the subject of our next painting.