What We’re Reading: Amy Sackville’s “Painter to the King”

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

Portraits can be boring. Even I, someone who will stop and look at every painting in a museum if possible, can acknowledge that. Imagine walking through a gallery of countless historical portraits—the ladies in intricate gowns, the men maybe in military garb, dramatically curtained backgrounds, maybe a landscape in the background. They can get old and monotonous pretty fast, right? Portraits like these are formulaic, meant to demonstrate the wealth, youth, wisdom, and power of their royal sitters (or at least those painters who wanted to keep their jobs). There are a few bold artists though, whose creative and technical skill sets them apart from the crowd of expressionless visages. The most exceptional, in many opinions including mine, is Diego Velázquez, painter to King Philip IV of Spain. At age 23, Velázquez was summoned from Seville to Madrid by the King’s powerful advisor, the Count-Duke Olivares. The King sat for a single portrait and the rest is, literally, history. Velázquez became the leading court painter, the only artist allowed to paint the King’s likeness, and would spend the rest of his life in service to the court. The relationship between painter and his royal subject over 35 plus years forms the basis for Amy Sackville’s Painter to the King, published last year.

Amy Sackville’s Painter to the King. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

It took me a while to get going when I first started reading Painter to the King. It’s written entirely in present tense, which at first made it seem to me like very little was happening, but became more immersive as I continued to read. The entire thing is almost like an extended daydream. The author visits Madrid to study Velázquez and wonders, what was it like when he was here? What did he think and say and do? We, the reader, are taken through his years at court as they happened to him and the surrounding cast of characters. Paintings are described in intricate detail, but never named, as they wouldn’t have necessarily been known by their titles at that time. The characters too are not always named, which led me down many Google rabbit holes. One name I didn’t have to look up was a certain famous Flemish painter and diplomat who makes a visit to court, Peter Paul Rubens! Next to the King himself, Rubens was probably the most influential of Velázquez’s relationships. He convinced Velázquez of the importance of visiting Rome to study and paint, which he would do twice.

The core relationship in the book, of course, is painter and King. Velázquez’s main job was portraiture of the royal family and other important people at court, but the longer he spent there, the more his other responsibilities grew. He designed entire decorative schemes in the royal palaces, including not just his own paintings but those he curated and purchased on behalf of the Crown. Philip frequented the painter’s studio, not just to sit for portraits, but to quietly watch him work. Over the course of their 37-year professional relationship of painter and subject, subject and king, they became friends as much as anyone could be friends with the melancholy, duty-bound monarch. The King finally had the honor of knighting his favorite painter in 1659, a year before Velázquez’s death. In his masterpiece Las Meninas Velázquez wears the red cross associated with that standing, although the painting was completed years before it was officially awarded. It’s said that Philip himself painted the insignia.

A portrait of the Spanish princess and her ladies-in-waiting. The left side of the composition shows a large scale canvas and Velazquez, the painter, behind it, standing back as if admiring his work. A dog lays at the feet of the Infanta, or Spanish princess. In the background, a mirror or portrait of her parents hangs on the wall.
Diego Velazquez, Spanish, 1599-1660. Las Meninas. Oil on canvas, 1656. Pubic Domain. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the book, Velázquez is mostly referred to as simply “the painter,” because at court, he was the painter. Although he would take on many other roles in service to the Crown, his identity as painter, not artist, and observer was most important. It also speaks to his later art historical relevance. Edouard Manet called him the “painter of painters” and would emulate him early in his career. Countless others, from Picasso and his 58 versions of Las Meninas to Francis Bacon’s screaming popes and studies of Portrait of Innocent X have paid homage to the painter. Would we even know his work had he not responded to that call to court? I’m not sure that we would, and his position actually afforded him more creative freedom than he would have otherwise had under the Spanish Inquisition. His Rokeby Venus is the first known female nude by a Spanish artist and probably would have been destroyed if not in the royal collection; though it was of course not proper to display publicly. For someone whose job was essentially to propagandize the reign of a king, he was not keen on flattery—he was a painter of truth and he was darn good at it, while still retaining a sumptuous, painterly quality and finding ways to innovate on the accepted themes of his era.

A portrait of Pope Innocent X, seated in a chair with an envelope in his hand.
Diego Velazquez, Spanish, 1599-1660. Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Oil on canvas, 1650. Public domain. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where can you see a Velázquez? Not here. He was not prolific (I’m not sure he had time to be), but many of his paintings are now housed at the Prado Museum in Madrid, while others remain where they were commissioned, like the Portrait of Innocent X in Rome. A certain famous Flemish friend of his was prolific, however; FWMoA owns a Peter Paul Rubens self-portrait. Much more restrained than Rubens’ typical work, it appears to be a copy of this one [link: https://www.rct.uk/collection/400156/a-self-portrait] (one of many apparently [link: https://www.skinnerinc.com/news/blog/seeing-triple-the-mystery-of-three-identical-rubens-paintings/)]. It was common practice for an artist’s studio to crank out copies of their work for wider distribution; the book notes multiple occasions when portraits of the royal family were reproduced, such as the princess Maria Infanta to help find her a suitor.

A self-portrait of painter Peter Paul Rubens. Against a dark, muddy background, Rubens wears a black cloak and large black hat. At three-quarters view, his eye looks out at the viewers.
Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577-1640. Self Portrait. Oil on canvas, 19th century. Gift of Mr. Larry Eberback and Mrs. John H. Cooper, Jr, 1981.14. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Death is also a major character in Painter to the King, personified as a patient, bony old woman who lurks in the dark corners of the Alcázar. She claims many of the King’s children, his first wife, and, finally, the painter himself when the book abruptly ends as it began with a look at his likeness in Las Meninas. Though no stranger to death, after Velázquez died and it came time to choose his successor (his son-in-law) Philip wrote in the margins of the memo doing so, “I am crushed.”

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