VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)

The Surrender of Breda (Las Lanzas)

Oil on canvas, 307 x 367 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

In 1630 the count-duke of Olivares decided to initiate a lavish program of artistic display by the construction of a new pleasure palace on the eastern border of Madrid which came to be known as the Buen Retiro. Here theatrical plays and spectacles would be staged, tournaments and jousts would be organized, and painting, sculpture, and tapestry would be displayed. Beginning in 1630 with a modest renovation of the royal apartment in San Jerónimo, the project was expanded in 1632 and again in 1633, culminating in a sizable complex of buildings surrounded by enormous gardens adorned by fountains, alleys and hermitage chapels. Once the structure was finished, Olivares faced with the mammoth problem of decorating the new palace, a problem that was solved by hundreds of pictures from Italy and Flanders and by commissioning as many works from local artists as they could paint. As for the works by royal artists and their disciples, the decoration of the Retiro was the major event of the 1630s and thus is a microcosm of court painting during the decade.

The Hall of Realms was the principal ceremonial room in the Buen Retiro Palace. Spanish palace decoration during the reign of Philip IV tended to be loosely programmed in comparison with Italian examples. However, the paintings in the Hall of realms, executed in 1634-35, offer an exception to the rule, for her the count-duke Olivares and his advisers invented a coherent, if straightforward program designed to magnify the power of the Spanish monarchy.

The principal element are twelve paintings of important military victories of Philip IV's reign, which demonstrate the invincibility of Spanish arms. These are complemented by ten scenes of the life of Hercules, who was claimed by the Spanish Habsburgs (and virtually every other ruling house of Europe) as the founding ancestor of the dynasty. The final component is a group of equestrian portraits of Philip III and Margaret of Austria, Philip IV and Isabella of Bourbon, and the heir to the throne, Baltasar Carlos, which embodies the idea of dynastic legitimacy and succession. From the 27 paintings the largest share went to Francisco de Zurbarán, who painted the Hercules scenes and the Defence of Cadiz. Velázquez obtained all five equestrian portraits and the Surrender of Breda. Vicente Carducho obtained the commission for three battle painting, while his pupil Félix Castelo was awarded one. Eugenio Cajés and his assistants and followers were given four subjects. The two remaining works fell into the hands of Juan Bautista Maino and Antonio de Pereda.

It was in 1625, ten years before this picture was painted, that Justin von Nassau, the commanding officer of Breda, surrendered the city to the Genoese Ambrosio Spinola, commander of the Spanish forces. Breda was one of the border fortresses of the Netherlands, a military base which had long been a bone of contention, alternately seized by the Spaniards or returned to the Princes of Orange. After a long siege Spinola learned from an intercepted letter that the defendants were in desperate straits, short of both equipment and food, and he therefore proposed that von Nassau should freely surrender rather than continue the bloodshed. The proposal was accepted and the army withdrew in good order, keeping their goods and some of their arms. The citizens did not suffer any harm at all. This victory was one of the last triumphs achieved by Spain in the period when she was accounted a great world power, and it was also one of the fine instances when humanism prevailed even in times of war.

The main problem of a history painting featuring a large number of figures is the question of how to handle the crowd scenes. Velázquez initially tackles this difficulty by dividing the picture plane into two levels - a higher area of action on which the main event is acted out as on a stage, and an area below it in which we see the city and harbour of Breda and the sea. The stage-like situation is further emphasized by various foreground elements. The two military leaders - the defeated commandant of Breda handing over the keys of the fortress to the Spanish commander Spinola - are immediately recognizable as the protagonists because the view opens up behind them towards the otherwise hidden background, whereas to the right and left the respective military entourage is grouped like stage extras. Yet Velázquez does not portray them as anonymous soldiers. Amongst the group of Spanish victors brandishing their lances, we can make out just as many individual expressions of exhaustion as we can amongst the resigned group of defeated Dutch soldiers.

It is thought that the composition of the picture derives from a contemporary book-illustration of the Bible; this is certainly true of the two central figures of the commanders. In its colouring - the brown masses of the horses, the blue and red garments of the soldiers - we see the influence of Venetian painting, particularly that of Tintoretto.

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