Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was one of the great geniuses of painting. He was a master of the Spanish Baroque style, heir to Tenebrism and an inspiration to the Impressionists.

The Sevillian created between 120 and 130 paintings, of which Las Meninas is the best known worldwide. The majority of his works are in the secular or profane Baroque style, with incredible portraits and mythological works.

* Report by Karla Ingleton Darocas for / (c) 

Los Borrachos of 1629 was his first mythological work and the most outstanding of his early period as the King's painter. It was also called The Feast of Bacchus and the Triumph of Bacchus 

Velázquez was already working under the orders of King Felipe IV, when he made the painting in 1629. His arrival at the palace was not based on his talents but on a series of coincidences. The king, who ascended the crown in 1621, appointed Gaspar de Guzmán (Count-Duke of Olivares) as his right-hand man. Guzmán wanted a court with an Andalusian majority.

This inside information was overheard by Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez's teacher and father-in-law. He saw this information as an opportunity and quickly motivated his contacts to arrange an introduction 

Velázquez travelled to Madrid for the first time in 1622, under the pretext of getting to know the collection of paintings in the great palace of El Escorial. His wish to meet the king was not fulfilled, so he stayed in the city and studied Titian's paintings 

In October 1623, Velázquez produced a sketch of the king and a subsequent equestrian painting, both works now lost. Eventually, the young monarch demanded that Velázquez be transferred to Madrid and begin working for him there, albeit at a low salary, as artists were only employees.

Portrait after portrait, Velázquez achieved fame and aroused the envy of the older court artists, who accused him of only being able to paint heads. To prove it, Velázquez entered a competition in 1627 and won it against the three other royal painters: Vicente Carducho, Eugenio Cajés and Angelo Nardi 

A year later he was the most important chamber painter, commissioned to paint classical portraits of the royal family and other works to decorate the palaces. Velázquez was allowed to carry out private commissions for third parties, a privilege that no other court painter was granted.

Los Borrachos (The Drunks) is a work from this period for which he received 100 ducats from the royal house. The painting shows the god Bacchus together with seven other men at his side.

In Roman literature, Bacchus was the god of wine, the Greek Dionysus, who rewarded people with alcohol to help them get rid of problems temporarily 

This painting, which is in the Prado Museum in Madrid, was painted shortly before the artist's first visit to Italy, barely five years after he had started working for the king and at a time when he had just met Rubens 

Velázquez uses a palette, descriptive methods and human types reminiscent of his earlier years in Seville. 

Here the painter shows his first male nude, a rarity in Spanish art due to strict Catholic rules. The plump Bacchus, who dominates the composition, shines with youthfully luminous skin. Another nude, a satyr, on the left, shows muscles and a lateral torso. Hidden, but clearly visible, is another figure at the front left of the painting, watching the party with his back to us and giving us an insight into mythology.

On the right side of the painting, we enjoy the rough and weather-beaten faces of the everyday people with their dark brown capes and drunken expressions. These are the faces that dominated his still lifes in Seville, but now they are also celebrated by the Baroque literary scene, which had achieved a bestseller among picaresque novels with Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, the author highlights characters who are rough, perhaps dishonest, but appealing in a naturalistic way. 

The painting is typically baroque. The figures in the centre are directly facing each other. The details are clear, and the scene is obvious and close, right in our space for us to explore and marvel at. 

Is it teaching us something moral or is it simply meant to be a fun and humorous entertainment for the king? I suspect both.


The Man and his Mythological Paintings at the Prado