John on the Island of Patmos
St John is a self-portrait. He is writing the book of Revelations, the last book of the Bible. He sees a vision of a woman, Mary, (the sitter thought to be Juana, Velázquez wife), who is soon to give birth. Waiting is a dragon, the devil, readied to kill the new born. This was a painting commissioned by the convent of Nuestra Senora Del Carmen, a Carmelite monastery in Seville.
The Count-Duke Olivares
The object of the work was to depict Gaspar de Guzman, Count-Duke of Olivares legal power, Spanish nobility and political dominance. Being portrayed on horseback, an honour usually reserved for monarchs, reflects the power that he enjoyed as valido or right hand of the king. This canvas was possibly painted after the battle of military success that was credited to Olivares, although he was not personally involved. Velázquez had to paint with care, as Olivares was not a person who suffered fools gladly and he had supported the young artist in his early days as court painter.
Bacchus and His Companions
This was a commission by King Phelipe IV. Bacchus, the god of drunkenness, is painted with Spanish constraint, as drunkenness was regarded an intolerable vice and to be called a drunkard was an insult. Yet in the Palace and in theatre a form of humour was derived from peasants indulging in such behaviour; therefore, it is not surprising that this Bacchus is in bodegone, or tavern genre.
Carlos with Dwarf
Prince Balthasar Carlos of Austurias, King Phelipe IV first son, was the long-awaited heir to the throne. Velázquez was in Rome when he was born and attended one of the elaborate parties held to celebrate his birth. On his return to Madrid he was commissioned to paint the prince, now sixteen months old. The king would have no other artist commissioned. A bit of a risk considering most of his progeny died in infancy. He stands beside a dwarf, probably a girl. Such human toys were popular at many European courts of the time.
The Surrender of Breda
This canvas was part of a huge decoration project commissioned by the Count-Duke of Olivares for the new summer palace, the Buen Retiro. Velázquez’s composition was a departure from the classical victor scene and is not a faithful reproduction of events - Ambrogio Spinola is not portrayed sitting high on his horse lording over the defeated. He is taking the keys of the city with humility and civil respect. This painting is not just about glorying a Spanish victory, but also a tribute to Spinola, a friend of Velázquez who had died a few years before the painting started. Spinola would have been younger than this painting suggests when defeating Breda.