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3 / History and Memory

Surrender of Breda
Surrender of Breda
Artist / Origin Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)
Region: Europe
Date 1634–35
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 121 in. (307 cm.), W: 144 ½ in. (367 cm.)
Location Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Credit Courtesy of Art Resource, NY/Photo by Erich Lessing

expert perspective

Jonathan BrownProfessor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts at New York University

Surrender of Breda

» Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)

expert perspective

Jonathan Brown Jonathan Brown Professor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts at New York University

The Surrender of Breda records a victory of the Spanish armies in the war against the Dutch in 1625. They were given exceptionally generous terms of surrender. Usually the act of surrender was an act of humiliation of the vanquished by the victor. But in the center of the Surrender of Breda, you see the two generals—Justin of Nassau on the left, he’s the head of the Dutch troops, and Ambrogio Spinola, a Genoese general who was in the command of Philip IV—and they meet on the same ground, they meet on level ground. And this was a complete rupture with the tradition of surrender scenes where the winning general sat upon the horse, in front of him was the kneeling losing general, who handed over the keys to the city to the victorious general. Because the Spaniards respected the Dutch and their defense of Breda, they allowed them to march out of the city in good order. And when the retinue arrived at the place where the Spanish victor was waiting, the Spanish victor dismounted from his horse and put a friendly hand on the shoulder of the Dutch commander indicating his respect for a vanquished enemy. Now it seems like a very nice gesture, and it is, but behind that gesture is another gesture, which is magnanimity—you can be generous with your enemy, thus demonstrating not only military superiority, but also moral superiority.

We have an accurate illustration of how the surrender ceremony actually occurred, and, in fact, the two commanders did not meet face to face—they did not, as it were, embrace each other. By changing, by altering the way in which the surrender took place, by bringing the commanders face to face on equal footing, Velázquez was emphasizing the great generosity—the magnanimity of the Spaniards, and by implication, the king of Spain.

Court painters such as Velázquez had one overriding function, which was to present, preserve, and glorify the image of the monarch, and Velázquez did this so very well indeed—so well, in fact, that up until recently everybody in the world knew who Velázquez was; nobody in the world knew who Philip IV was. So as a strategy it paid off very well. Now we have studied Philip IV, but I think Velázquez’s place is secure. And it happens time and time again in history where the rulers come and go—some do well, some do poorly, some do a mediocre job—but if they have hired a good court painter—Rubens, Van Dyck, Velázquez—their chances of immortality are much greater.” 

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