Individualizing the Objectified:
Diego Velázquez’s Court Dwarf and Jester Portraits of Philip IV's Court
Daniel Heberle, Monroe Community College
Abstract: Diego Velázquez was a portraitist unrivaled at the Spanish court from 1623 until his death in 1660. In fact, King Philip IV appointed Velázquez pintor de cámara (“painter of the bedchamber”) after seeing the artist’s first portrait of him, and would thereafter only sit for him. Although Velázquez remained a favorite of the court, his artistic freedom was limited since any visual depictions of His Majesty were regulated by strict protocols. However, unlike stately works that hung in the palace, the more informal paintings of the hombres de placer (“men of pleasure”) included court dwarfs and jesters, which hold a paradoxical place in Velázquez’s oeuvre – ultimately, he attempted to humanize these members of the court who were otherwise exploited for their physical and mental conditions. Through this series of portraits in the 1630s and 40s, Velázquez experimented by depicting these subjects with abstracted brushwork and techniques officially forbidden in state portraiture. During a time in the Spanish Kingdom when the mentally disabled were taken from asylums to entertain the King and his courtiers, and dwarfs were considered curiosities of God’s creation, Diego Velázquez approaches his subjects with remarkable sensitivity, painting them as human beings with vulnerabilities and emotions.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is probably best known for the most written about painting of all time, Las Meninas. While his metaphysical late-works like Las Meninas and Las Hilanderas give us a glimpse at a man wrestling with his conviction of painting as a liberal art, and not the work of a craftsman, Velázquez’s portraiture deserves a closer look. As the court painter to the Spanish-Habsburg King Philip IV; commander of the largest empire in the world, the primary concern in portraiture was to produce powerful images of the monarch, the royal family, and members of the court. The official state portraiture was treated with cold austerity, pictures of royalty “provided no opportunity to examine the inner life of the sitters; what mattered was their status, not their state of mind” (Painting in Spain 126). This essay will examine the informal side of Velázquez’s oeuvre: the portraiture of the hombres de placer, court dwarfs and jesters, that hung in the Buen Retiro and the Torre de la Parada.1 Because dwarfs and jesters existed on the periphery of the court, painting these informal subjects enabled Velázquez not only the opportunity to experiment with his technique, but they also allowed him to explore deeper psychological complexities of the individualized sitter. In the depiction of the dwarves and jesters, Velázquez manages to paradoxically mock and humanize his subjects.
Before delving into Velázquez’s informal portraiture, we should consider the environment of the Spanish court during the reign of Philip IV. Unlike the gloomy and governmental Alcázar in Madrid (Brown and Elliot 35), the court at the Buen Retiro (Figure 1) hosted numerous festivities and allowed the public to enjoy the gardens—ostensibly the splendor of the empire within close reach of the capital (104). More generally, the court of seventeenth-century Spain prioritized above all the etiquette and protocol of its members (31). This strict decorum was regulated by the “etiquetas de palacio,” regulations which governed everything from ceremonial functions to the wages of every court official (31). However, as noted by Jonathan Brown and J.H. Elliot, the etiquetas “could be disregarded only by the court dwarfs and buffoons” who were “licensed jesters who made free with their right to cross the boundaries between the king’s public and private worlds” (31-32). In a series of six portraits commissioned for the Buen Retiro palace, these jesters can be seen dressed in costume, situated within their own microcosm of mockery.
The most obvious mockery of the court jesters is apparent in the portrait Don Juan de Austria from 1632 (Juan de Austria; Figure 2), which may have hung in the queen’s quarters of the Retiro (Brown and Elliot 133). Brown points out that the jester is dressed as the famous military hero Don Juan of Austria, “the illegitimate son of Philip II who commanded the victorious fleet of the Holy League at the Battle of Lepanto” (Painter and Courtier 101). The actual jester, whose name may have been taken after the military hero,2 is documented at the Spanish court as early as 1624, and the suit of clothes was given to him within the same year of the painting (Juan de Austria). Looking at the figure, we can see Velázquez playing with war iconography, depicting Don Juan as if he were a military leader. With the commander’s baton and the sheathed sword, Don Juan appears unconfident in the situation at play. Furthermore, Brown and former Prado conservation scientist Carmen Garrido, in Velázquez: The Technique of Genius, mention Don Juan leaning on the baton for balance (97), showing the mockery of the baton as a supporting cane to prevent the jester from falling down rather than commanding an army into war. Further critiques of function can be seen in the foreground where Velázquez lays numerous objects of warfare: a breastplate, a helmet, an arquebus, and cannonballs at the jester’s feet. These still life elements partition the reality of the jester’s status at court from the realistic function, and necessity, of the arms and armor. In the Titianesque background, and “just outside the nearby door, the ships of two navies annihilate each other in a fiery battle” (Painter and Courtier 101). For such an early jester portrait, the suggestive power of the brushwork is astounding. Velázquez manages to convey the battle scene as a complete abstraction. Through the “rapid application of very fluid pigments” and “random brushstrokes”, Velázquez creates thin clouds of hazy smoke, and ghostly remnants of ships caught ablaze (The Technique of Genius 100). These military elements, juxtaposed against the timidness of Don Juan, provide a comedic tone to the portrait. Although Don Juan never engaged in battle, the portrait forms an antagonistic relationship with another jester of the court, Cristóbal de Castañeda y Pernia.
Working from the antagonism associated with the two portraits, The Buffoon Barbarroja from 1633 depicts the court jester, Cristóbal de Castañeda y Pernia, who was employed by Philip IV between 1633-1649 (Barbarroja). Cristóbal was actually an emissary to the cardinal-infante Fernando, implying a certain degree of responsibility was given to the jester (Barbarroja). In the portrait, Cristóbal wears a “Turkish costume” as he heroically assumes the guise of “a famous soldier who served the Turks and was still an important part of Spain’s collective imagery” (Barbarroja). Unlike the shaky, timid appearance of the mustached Don Juan, Cristóbal stands defiantly with his sword unsheathed. Velázquez drapes Cristóbal in a dazzling red from head-to-toe and this dramatic color combined with the stern expression on the jester’s face complement the real, short temper that eventually got him banished to Seville in 1634 (Barbarroja). Although the portrait of Barbarroja is rather crude in execution, it hints at Velázquez’s later developments in projecting the sitter’s mental state.
According to Betty M. Adelson in her book; The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity toward Social Liberation, throughout European art, dwarfs “are almost never depicted as autonomous beings; rather, they are shown as decorative elements situated at the fringes of the lives of others more important than themselves” (146). The dwarf as a decorative element can be seen in Rodrigo de Villandrando’s Prince Philip and the Dwarf, Miguel Soplillo from 1620 (Figure 4). Adelson makes notice of the way a “dwarf’s master […] poses with one hand on the servant’s head—a posture of protection and dominance” (147). Villandrando makes the prince assume this exact pose. Although Soplillo was a popular figure at the Spanish court, and admired by Philip (Prince Philip), Villandrando places the dwarf alongside Philip to show the discrepancy of height. As the Prince of Asturias, the heir apparent to Spanish throne, Philip towers over the dwarf. This custom of placing the “principal figure” of a portrait alongside “another being that was physically or socially inferior was common practice among artists who portrayed figures from the Spanish court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Dwarf with a Dog). Moreover, the presence of dwarves “in the company of a king or queen”, in this case the future Spanish king, emphasizes the ruler’s perfection (Brown and Garrido 143). Transitioning to Velázquez’s treatment of dwarfs in art, the difference from Villandrando is staggering.
If we consider Diego Velázquez’s innovative reasoning for positioning a dwarf next to Baltasar Carlos, Villandrando’s reasoning appears stereotypical with the exploitation of dwarfs in seventeenth-century Spanish portraiture. Arguably the earliest painting by Velázquez featuring a dwarf would be Don Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf from 1632 (Figure 5). In the portrait Baltasar Carlos is dressed in military uniform for the Oath of Allegiance ceremony (Brown and Elliot 55). Beside the crown prince stands a female dwarf dressed in a ballooning guardinfante with a white apron. Perhaps the dwarf has taken a rattle and an apple from the child, on the surface these simple objects seem trivial, but they carry symbolic weight and “are essential to the significance of the picture” (Painter and Courtier 83). Although Baltasar Carlos holds the commander’s baton, arguably the most important symbol of military power, the rattle and the apple foreshadow the scepter and the orb (83)—objects of power that will legitimize the child’s divine authority after his coronation. After the oath was sworn, Baltasar Carlos became the Prince of Asturias, the “heir to the most powerful monarchy in Europe” (83). On the same level, the rattle and the apple reflect the transition between adolescence and the responsibilities of royalty. Even Velázquez’s decision to situate two figures of the same size, and equally adolescent appearance, is progressive in the representation of dwarfs in Spanish court painting. And lastly, Velázquez utilizes the dwarf to provide a commentary on the transition between child and future monarch.
Moving on from the jesters of the Buen Retiro, the two dwarf portraits that we know hung in one of the king’s hunting lodges (Alpers 131), the Torre de la Parada, offer a unique transition from Adelson’s description of dwarfs as “decorative elements” (146). Instead, Diego Velázquez individualizes the dwarfs in The Boy from Vallecas (Francisco Lezcano) and The Buffoon with Books, and brilliantly captures their physical and mental states.
In The Boy from Vallecas (Francisco Lezcano) (Figure 6), painted by Velázquez around the year 1638, the dwarf shifts from an object intended for exploitation into a humanized individual.3 Sitting on a rock is Francisco Lezcano, a dwarf from the Basque Country and employed as a servant to Baltasar Carlos (The Boy from Vallecas). The portrait of Lezcano was “designed to be placed above a door or window” in the Torre de la Parada (Brown and Garrido 145) next to The Buffoon with Books as evidenced by the low vantage point of the subjects, and the Sierra de Guadarrama visible in the background of both paintings (Painter and Courtier 148). For a young boy who suffered from “mental retardation, perhaps due to congenital hypothyroidism or cretinism,” Velázquez treats his subject with remarkable sensitivity (The Boy from Vallecas). As noted by Brown and Garrido, Lezcano is depicted as “present in body but absent in the mind” (146). With his head slightly tilted to the left, and his mouth agape, the dwarf does not appear to recognize the viewer but rather look past the viewer. We catch Lezcano shuffling cards, a traditional symbol of idleness (Painter and Courtier 154), and we are confronted with the sitter’s preoccupation with card shuffling, whether the act is conscious or not. Through “long, irregular” brushstrokes that define the dwarf’s fingers (Brown and Garrido 145), Velázquez manages to blur the individual fingers and suggest the motion of shuffling the deck. In the way that Velázquez positioned the figure, we are able to see his true size. From the foreshortened leg, projecting outwards towards the viewer, Lezcano’s condition becomes clear (143). And in the foreground, a wide-brimmed hat is cleverly placed as another measure of how small the dwarf really is (The Boy from Vallecas). Although the young dwarf seems idle and unaware of the situation, he is not unworthy of respect as a human being. Velázquez bridges the gap between mockery and carefully painting the unsteady nature of a dwarf suffering from a mental illness.
Shifting from Lezcano’s lack of senses, we come to The Buffoon with Books from 1640 (Figure 7).4 Here Velázquez depicts the dwarf Diego de Acedo, sitting confidently in front of the Sierra de Guadarrama, with an air of dignification and professionalism. Unlike the other entertaining dwarfs of the Spanish court, Diego de Acedo was a member of the bureaucracy attached to the Secretaría de la Cámara (Brown and Garrido 147). De Acedo’s position, although menial, involved stamping royal decrees with a facsimile of Philip IV’s signature (147). Judging by the dwarf’s normal court dress, nonetheless, made of opulent black velvet brocade cloth and the formal golilla (148), Velázquez presents Diego de Acedo as a respectable member of the court. Yet Velázquez reminds the viewer of the dwarf’s size from the large book opened on his lap. The other books in the foreground and the pot of glue not only symbolize the attributes of his office as the keeper of the seal, but they also reflect his literacy (147). The purpose of the books, which reveal his intelligence and emphasize his true size, complement the seriousness of Diego de Acedo’s facial expression. Perhaps Velázquez recognized the status of the dwarf as a special exception to other court dwarves who were used as “playmates to the royal children and as entertainers and figures of fun” (Painter and Courtier 97). If Diego de Acedo represents Velázquez’s serious but calm and intelligent depiction of a dwarf, then Sebastián de Morra signifies an intelligence fostered by anger.
Easily the most striking dwarf portrait, The Buffoon El Primo (Figure 8), painted at Fraga during the Aragonese campaign in the summer of 1644, situates the court dwarf Sebastián de Morra in the guise of royalty (Painter and Courtier 173). As argued by the chief curator of The Frick Collection, Xavier F. Salomon considers the portrait of the dwarf as the warm-up for the King Philip IV of Spain (Figure 9), known as the Fraga Philip. Looking at the portrait of the dwarf, Sebastián de Morra wears a red smock with gold accents, as well as a thin white lace-collar. These items of clothing closely resemble Philip’s sobreveste, the red coat with silver embroidery, and even the king’s white collar called a valona (Salomon). Moreover, the red smock allows de Morra to partially assume the likeness of the king. Except the green costume, commonly worn by jesters as exemplified in The Boy from Vallecas, quickly dispels this monarchical fantasy and Velázquez leaves the viewer in direct confrontation with the dwarf, as he sits against a wall in an indeterminate space.
The Buffoon El Primo provides another window into Velázquez’s ability to unearth the psychology of the sitter. Jonathan Brown remarks that Sebastián de Morra’s expression “is compounded of intelligent curiosity and thinly veiled intensity” (Painter and Courtier 174). Velázquez manages to communicate Sebastián de Morra’s discomfort, or potential frustration with being objectified as a miniature king. Additionally, de Morra’s facial expression reveals a shocking comparison to Adelson’s research in the real stigmatization of dwarfs. For someone encountering The Buffoon El Primo for the first time, the “observer”, in this case the viewer of the portrait, must resolve their cognitive dissonance (Adelson 88). This cognitive dissonance results from realizing that “the small size suggests a child, but the facial features are those of an adult” (88). Since Velázquez positions the dwarf sitting against the wall, with his foreshortened legs—an indicator of small size recalled in the portrait of Francisco Lezcano—the viewer can see the entire body, and the dwarf’s serious look. What Velázquez accomplishes with de Morra’s stare, his slightly downturned head, and the balled-up fists in his lap, is the impression that the dwarf is consciously aware of his objectification, in the exact moment dressed as his king, and for anyone else viewing his likeness. For Velázquez, de Morra’s awareness, and subsequent anger of his exploitation gives the image its power. But for another jester, Juan Calabazas, the lack of awareness makes it the most profound portrait of all the dwarfs and jesters depicted by Velázquez.
As previously seen in the portrait of Francisco Lezcano, Velázquez is capable of eliciting the sense that his subjects cannot physically or mentally be aware of the situation at hand. Perhaps that implies the sitters were actually incapable, to some extent, of comprehending the act of being painted. When Diego Velázquez painted The Buffoon Calabacillas between 1635-1639 (Figure 10), the Spanish master disoriented the jester and the viewer. Sitting on a low wooden stool, Juan Calabazas looks up in the general area of the viewer, with legs crossed and hands clasped shut. Calabazas’ pose, indicative of an etching by Albrecht Dürer (The Buffoon Calabacillas), compresses the figure into himself. Flanking the jester are two gourds, and a small cup of wine is placed in the foreground. The two gourds serve to not only ground the figure within a perceived space, but they also function as a symbolic still-life (Painter and Courtier 148). Not totally dissimilar to how jesters were jokingly named after people from history (Brown and Garrido 97), like don Juan de Austria, Juan Calabazas, is also a nickname. In English, the name roughly translates to John Gourds (The Buffoon Calabacillas) or even “John Pumpkinhead” (Brown and Garrido 152). This nickname may connote associations with pumpkins and gourds which were often used when referring to instances of madness and a lack of the senses (The Buffoon Calabacillas).5 Examining how Velázquez painted the figure of Calabazas, we can see the painter employing ideas on how to depict a sitter that were off limits when painting the royals (The Buffoon Calabacillas). On the lacework Velázquez paints the broad lace collar and cuffs only through loose strokes of white and black paint on a loaded brush (Painter and Courtier 148). It was as if the fabric of the sitter communicated the darting, and manic disposition of his psyche. Due to a high vantage point, Velázquez forces us to look down on him (The Buffoon Calabacillas), except we cannot meet his gaze since he is cross-eyed. By using the technique of alla prima painting, Velázquez casts the thinnest veil of light over Calabazas’ face (Painter and Courtier 148). This layering of wet paint over wet paint creates a distorted haze that makes the face appear slightly out of focus (148). Moreover, this effect was achieved through modifying his technique, and finely grounding and diluting the pigments (Brown and Garrido 155). From the blurred facial features, the cross-eyed gaze, and his empty smile, there is the implication of a “disjunction between his thought processes and the stimuli of the outside world” (154). In the portrait, the entertaining jester is not present, nor is he in a mode to be exploited due to his mental disabilities. Instead, Velázquez portrays Calabazas as a humanized man uncertain of his place at the exact moment.
As a portraitist, Velázquez may be one of the best painters in history. Painting the nobility of Spain is one situation, which involves the absence of expression, but in painting the informal subjects of court jesters and dwarfs, Velázquez questioned what it meant to paint a human being. Through employing complex, and experimental painting techniques, that were strictly forbidden when producing images of the monarch, Velázquez commingled realistic representation with abstraction. Perhaps the miracle of these portraits is their ability to interact with the viewer, Sebastián de Morra stares at us with those exacting eyes, and his disappointed posture. While the earlier jester portraits intend to mock the subjects, Velázquez’s later informal portraiture accomplishes these problematic aims simultaneously. In the way that Velázquez painted figures like de Morra, and especially Juan Calabazas, it is as if they gain an awareness of observation, and their subsequent exploitation. What Diego Velázquez did that was so remarkable was effectively extract and communicate, with such sensitivity, the possible internal struggles that people like Lezcano or Juan Calabazas had with grasping reality.
Figure 1. Jusepe Leonardo, Palace of the Buen Retiro in 1636-7, 1637. Oil on canvas, Palacio Real de Madrid, Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 2. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Buffoon Juan de Austria, 1632. Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 3. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Buffoon Barbarroja, Cristóbal Castañeda y Pernia, 1633. Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 4. Rodrigo de Villandrando, Prince Philip and the Dwarf, Miguel Soplillo, 1620. Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 5. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Don Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf, 1632. Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 6. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Boy from Vallecas (Francisco Lezcano), 1635-1645. Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 7. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Buffoon with Books, 1640. Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 8. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Buffoon El Primo, 1644. Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 9. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, King Philip IV of Spain, 1644. Oil on canvas, The Frick Collection, New York, United States. Click here to view this painting.
Figure 10. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Buffoon Calabacillas, 1635-1639. Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Click here to view this painting.
1. Diego Velázquez painted a few other dwarves and jesters not discussed in this paper which are somewhat irrelevant to the Retiro or the Torre. For example, there are two dwarves Mari Bárbola and Nicolás Pertusato in Las Meninas (Brown and Garrido 181), a copy of a now lost original known as Ochoa, the Gatekeeper, and an early portrait of Juan Calabazas (Painter and Courtier 100). I am also omitting the portrait of Pablo de Valladolid, even though it belonged to the Retiro jesters such as Barbarroja and Don Juan de Austria, because the first use of indeterminate space would be the only point of interest, and this paper does not concern the perspective of the portraits. See Painter and Courtier 101, 104.
2. See Brown and Garrido 97 for an elaboration on the naming of non-royalty after royalty.
3. Even though Lezcano’s portrait was the counterpart to the portrait of Diego de Acedo, the portrait, and the sitter’s imperfections, would have contrasted with the portrait, Prince Baltasar Carlos in Hunting Dress. See Brown and Garrido 143 for more.
4. To avoid any confusion with the two works both named “El Primo” according to the Prado, I will be strictly referring to the sitter in The Buffoon with Books as Diego de Acedo, and the sitter in The Buffoon El Primo in the traditional manner as Sebastián de Morra. I question the continued similarity of title considering that “Primo” (Cousin) was, and is, a privileged form of address “used by the grandees of the realm when speaking to the king and vice-versa” (Brown and Garrido 148). Thus, it appears a general form of address and not any one man’s name. Furthermore, Jonathan Brown’s 1986 monograph states that two paintings of dwarves were commissioned at Fraga, one called El Primo and the other, surviving one, as Sebastián de Morra (174). This information directly conflicts with the current entry of The Buffoon El Primo on the Prado website which states that the sitter has now been identified as “El Primo” (El Primo).
5. See Brown and Garrido 152 for more interpretations of Calabazas’ name.
Adelson, Betty M. The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity toward Social Liberation. Rutgers UP, 2005.
Alpers, Svetlana. The Decoration of the Torre de la Parada. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, vol. 9, Phaidon, 1971.
Brown, Jonathan. Velázquez: Painter and Courtier. Yale UP, 1986.
Painting in Spain: 1500-1700. Yale UP, 1991.
and J.H. Elliot. A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV. Yale UP, 1986.
and Carmen Garrido. Velázquez: The Technique of Genius. Yale UP, 1998.
The Buffoon Calabacillas. Museo Nacional del Prado, www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-buffoon-calabacillas/f5b4b198-ea59-480e-b30b-8e599cda31db.
The Buffoon El Primo. Museo Nacional del Prado, www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-buffoon-el-primo/cc7a8493-e2ff-4d33-a0d0-91d7dc210d5a.
The Buffoon Juan de Austria. Museo Nacional del Prado, www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-buffoon-juan-de-austria/66016ebf-0468-4a0a-8a3f-30c6d4b42c42.
Dwarf with a Dog. Museo Nacional del Prado, www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/dwarf-with-a-dog/a70eeee5-09b5-4e61-9f51-d498cb035c97.
Prince Philip with a Dwarf, Miguel Soplillo. Museo Nacional del Prado, www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/prince-philip-and-the-dwarf-miguel-soplillo/f966c6b6-9357-4ec7-b7df-b674bc76f9ac.
Salomon, Xavier F. “Cocktails with a Curator: Velázquez’s ‘King Philip’” Youtube, uploaded by The Frick Collection, 22 May 2020.