Myths die hard. One of the greatest modern myths is that of the romantic genius whose artwork emerges, ex nihilo, from the fraught inner depths of his psyche. Group portraits by Diego Velázquez and Juan Bautista del Mazo completed in Madrid at the apex of the city’s Baroque splendor under Philip IV (1605-1655) remind us of bourgeois individualism’s more complex origins; in seeking to bend the feudal order to fit the aspirations of the non-aristocratic court arriviste, 17th-century social climbing artist—just like those of today—sought fame, recognition, and selfhood within existing socio-political hierarchies. At the end of the day, individualism is as much a product of creative conformity as individual self-assertion.
Diego Velázquez’s self-portrait in Las Meninas is not an encomium to unbridled individualism, at least not in the way that individualism is understood today as radical autonomy from any obligation which is not ‘freely chosen.’ True, his marvelous work presages the instantaneousness of photography to come, and his pensive gaze draws the viewer’s almost as much to him as to the infanta or the reflection of the king and queen in the mirror, but the painting’s air of nonchalance and informality belies a complex web of interrelationships. His self-depiction within a royal portrait evinces his dependency as much as his ‘independence’ and the fact that he retroactively added a coat of arms to his shirt sleeve to indicate his newly awarded knighthood demonstrate just how convention-bound the painter was, irrespective of the portrait’s innovativeness.
Juan Bautista del Mazo was a painter who became Velázquez’s son-in-law and inherited the more famous’s artist’s post as official royal portraitist. Several of his paintings, including Queen Mariana of Spain in Mourning (1666) at London’s National Gallery and Margaret Theresa of Spain (1665) at the Prado Museum, demonstrate knowledge and emulation of the visual iconography established by his father-in-law: namely, that of a prominent royal portrait entering into dialogue, within the same canvas, with a retinue of royal attendants and other biological and non-biological members of the royal household. In the seventeenth-century, the term ‘family’ included both direct biological relations and the other ‘dependents’ of the household. Thus, Velázquez and Mazo were quite literally part of the ‘royal family’ and garnered much of their social standing and sense of self from membership therein.
More interesting for our purposes here is Mazo’s painting La familia del pintor (“The Painter’s Family,” 1665), the work of Mazo that most deliberately imitates Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas. Through both its differences and similarities, Mazo’s family portrait at once heightens our understanding of Las Meninas and adumbrates the evolving notions of selfhood and subjectivity that are key—indeed, paramount—to any understanding of the Western cultural tradition.
The most striking difference between Las Meninas and Mazo’s Familia del pintor is the juxtaposition of families depicted. In Velázquez’s painting, his own biological family is absent; in Mazo’s, however, the opposite is true: Mazo’s biological heirs are present, while the royal family does not sit to be painted. (However, a late portrait of Philip IV, presumably by Velázquez, hangs in the background, similar to the reflection of the king and queen in the mirror of Las Meninas.)
Most scholars agree that the four figures to the left of the painting, distinguished by their darker color clothing, which is associated with mourning, are Mazo’s children with Francisca Velázquez, Diego’s daughter. The woman clutching the brooch also pats the head of her half-brother, thus bringing together the distinct matriarchal lines. The woman sitting with a toddler on her lap is most likely Mazo’s second wife, Francisca de Vega, whom he married after Francisca had died. The painting at once recognizes the distinct nuclear families of each sitter while also suggesting their cohesion as a united group sitting for a group portrait.
But why did Mazo choose to paint his own biological family, as opposed to the royals or servants of the royal household? An equally interesting question is: Why did Mazo not render his own face visible in the portrait? Instead, a painter is silhouetted in a studio in the background, working on a portrait of the same Infanta Margarita depicted in Las Meninas. Because Mazo and Velázquez both painted her and worked together on portraits of her, there is no way to conclusively identify the artist himself.
Scant archival evidence remains of where Mazo’s portrait originally hung or who (if not Mazo himself) commissioned it, which leaves us only to speculate as to the artist’s motivations. Some conjecture is warranted, however, from the visual cues of the painting itself. Mazo’s own family clearly poses for a portrait in the painting’s foreground. There is no air of ‘surprise’ or sense of instantaneity of the kind that makes Las Meninas so captivating to the eye and led art historian Jonathan Brown to suggest that the work depicts an unannounced visit by king and queen while Diego painted their daughter.
The detail may seem trivial, but it is not. Unlike the Dutch burgher family portrait genre, for instance, Baroque Spain produced hardly any family portraits that were not of royalty, the high nobility, or so-called ‘donor portraits’ in which the sponsors of a religious work of art are depicted within the Christian setting. The fact that Mazo depicted his own heirs in a group portrait suggests the same pretensions to social advancement and status as that of the Protestant dissenters of northern Europe. The latter, ironically, in trying to distinguish itself from the Spanish Catholic occupiers, had come to adapt many of the trappings of the aristocracy it had sought to supplant, including vis-a-vis portraiture—the genre, par excellence, of elite status.
By the very act of depicting his own biological family in a portrait, then, Mazo seeks to elevate the status of his family at the very least to that of the noble-courtier class that had surrounded him in Madrid. Archival research by Raquel Novero Plaza indicates that many of his heirs had secured coveted positions in the royal household and as members of the clergy, indicating that Mazo’s incipient bourgeois aspirations for his descendants were in fact fulfilled. Such a feat deals yet another blow to the facile dichotomy—a vestige of the Black Legend—that southern, Catholic Europe, was inherently static, hierarchical, and concomitantly lacking in the capitalist dynamism of Europe’s North. Mazo’s proud display of his own family, like Velazquez’s self-rendering in Las Meninas or Cervantes’s confrontation, in Don Quijote Part II, of the author of a forged version of the same book, should stand as testimony to the flowering of bourgeois individualism and the rising status of the artist across continental Europe.
When Catholics in Europe and America who invoke Europe’s Christian heritage today are labelled as anti-democratic ‘reactionaries’ by their foes, they should keep such examples in mind. Indeed, Catholic Europe did not contribute uniformly to fundamentalist Christian tyranny any more than Protestantism can be accurately surmised by the sectarian bloodshed of John of Leiden.
Mazo’s august depiction of his own heirs, furthermore, indicates the true origins of bourgeois individualism in an age in desperate need of correction on the subject. In Mazo’s family portrait, as in Velázquez’s, the lines between inter and intra-subjectivity overlap, even if they do not blur entirely. Diego Velázquez’s grandeur is heightened, not diminished, by the presence of the royals; meanwhile, Mazo’s status as a painter and progenitor of a nobility-aspirant courtier family is likewise accentuated by a number of elegantly dressed heirs depicted as true cortesanos in their own right and as part of a courtly group.
Bourgeois individualism, then, is intrinsically connected to the concept of family. Mazo’s portrait goes even further than Velázquez’s in emphasizing the primacy of nuclear family—direct blood relations—as opposed to the broader, clan-like conception of the term that reigned in aristocratic circles at the time and still reigns today in some places. The nuclear family, a product of Christian teaching on the indissolubility of the marital bond, at once protected the individual from the predations of the world and enabled the climate in which true individualism could emerge. Individualism does not spring from the individual alone, but from the mediating institutions through which the individual is formed: family, occupation, religious identity, civic membership, etc.
An equally important lesson emerges from the mediated individualism of Mazo and Velázquez’s family portraits. Nascent elites inevitably seek recognition by assimilation into, not the total destruction of existing social categories. Just as the monarchy and feudalism were replaced by a bourgeois meritocracy, likewise too today’s revolutionary levelers will seek as much to reimagine hierarchy as to abolish it. And all in the name of the supposedly self-fashioning, free and autonomous individual who ostensibly claims no need of external validation.
Kurt Hofer writes from Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Golden Age literature.