Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Portrait of King Philip IV, c. 1623–24

Bust of man dressed in all black clothing with a large, stiff, white collar

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez

(Seville, Spain, 1599–1660, Madrid, Spain)

Portrait of King Philip IV

c. 1623–24

Oil on canvas

24 3/8 x 19 1/4 in. (61.9 x 48.9 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.67.23

Listen to Dr. Julia Vázquez, 2016–2017 Samuel H. Kress Meadows/ Prado Curatorial Fellow at the Meadows Museum discuss this work (2:02 minutes)

Audio Transcript

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)

Portrait of King Philip IV, c. 1623–24

by Dr. Julia Vázquez, 2016–2017 Samuel H. Kress Meadows/ Prado Curatorial Fellow at the Meadows Museum

Although Diego Velázquez is now most famous for paintings like Las Meninas and the Rokeby Venus, Velázquez was esteemed in his lifetime for his role as the official portrait painter to King Philip IV of Spain. Around the time that this portrait was made, Velázquez was promoted to the coveted position of pintor de cámara (chamber painter). The importance of this role of the court cannot be overstated for one simple reason, it gave Velázquez the exclusive privilege of generating images of his king and patron. 

The demand was high for portraits of the Spanish royal family all across Europe, and as pintor de cámara, it was Velázquez’s job to provide them. A painting with this portrait head was almost certainly used as the starting point for full-length portraits, examples of which survive in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

The making of such a portrait always began with a head study, of which this is one of the finest surviving examples of Velázquez’s oeuvre. With the help of calcos, or tracing papers, Velázquez’s workshop assistants then copied the head study and expanded it into the royal portraits that determined how the Spanish monarch was viewed across the European continent. One especially competitive contemporary of Velázquez’s, the Italian history painter Vicente Carducho, is thought to have derided this practice by calling Velázquez a “mere painter of heads.” Those heads, however, were none other than the image of Habsburg power. The force of this portrait derives from the extraordinary naturalism with which Velázquez has rendered Philip’s head and costume. The modeling of the king’s features gives his face the plasticity of a polychrome sculpture, not unlike those Velázquez could have seen while a student in his hometown of Seville. The style is especially well suited to the seriousness of Philip’s governance, reflected in the dark clothing that he wears in early portraits like this one. The crisp edges of the golilla, or collar, around Philip’s neck are especially striking. Philip introduced this fashion as a counterpoint to the much fluffier collars previously worn around the Spanish court. Philip’s legislation was austere right down to the detail.

Listen to Meadows Museum docent Janet Lumpkin discuss this work (3:00 minutes)

Audio Transcript

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660)

Portrait of King Philip IV, c. 1623–24

by Janet Lumpkin, Meadows Museum docent


Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was just twenty-four years old when he created this portrait of Philip IV and it was quite radical for the time. Take a moment to look. You might expect the young king to wear grand military uniform or sit on a powerful horse. Instead, Philip sits quietly in front of an indeterminate space. There’s very little color here, except for the spotlighted face. The young man locks eyes with us yet remains aloof. He inherited from his father both the Habsburg throne and the Habsburg jaw and full lower lip. The tight, precise brushwork gives us a convincing sense of reality—this is what Philip must really have looked like.

This is a sober, serious monarch presented clearly and with dignity.

Philip liked this portrait very much and named Velázquez court painter. In this role, Velázquez painted portraits of the royal family and their entourage—for example, he painted Philip almost three dozen times. We think of Velázquez principally as a painter but he had other talents and the king depended on him for many projects. When he collected art, Velázquez was his curator and then advised him on how to display the art. When Philip wanted to re-decorate the Hall of Mirrors at the Royal Alcazar, he called on Velázquez. When his daughter married Louis XIV, Velázquez designed and decorated the wedding pavilions. Velázquez even designed the wig for Philip’s wife, Mariana, whose portrait is in the Meadows’s holdings.

Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’s father-in-law, wrote that the artist “has a workshop in his gallery and His Majesty has a key to it and a chair in order to watch him paint at leisure, nearly every day.” The king was both his patron and friend. The friendship lasted the rest of their lives.

Though Philip presided over the Golden Age of Spanish art and literature, these were tumultuous times. High taxation was required to pay for Spain’s many wars, and epidemics, crop failures, and reduced industrial production contributed to Spain’s eventual decline as a foreign power. Mentally and physically exhausted, Philip died when just sixty years old, five years after Velázquez. He left his four-year-old son Charles a dynasty in decline. This child would be the last of the Habsburgs.

But what exists right now in this portrait is the promise of the lives of two men—both so young.