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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

Additional Resources

Brown, Jonathan. Painting in Spain, 1500–1700. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Brown, Jonathan. Velázquez: Painter and Courtier. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Brown, Jonathan, and John H. Elliot. A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV, rev. and expanded ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Harris, Ann Sutherland. Seventeenth-Century Art and Architecture. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2004.

Moffitt, John F. “Diego Velázquez, Andrea Alciati and the Surrender of Breda.” Artibus et Historiae, 3.5 (1982): 75–90.

Surrender of Breda

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

In the early 1630s, a massive project to build and decorate a new palace for Philip IV was underway outside of Madrid.

Called Buen Retiro, the palace was intended as a retreat for the king and his court. In addition to the temporary spectacles that were held there, Buen Retiro came to house an impressive collection of art by some of the greatest masters of seventeenth-century Spain.

Among the works commissioned for the palace was a series of twelve paintings for the Hall of Realms, where royal audiences and other ceremonies took place. The paintings, by different artists, depicted recent Spanish victories, some won just a year or two earlier. The Surrender of Breda, by the court’s leading artist Diego Velázquez, celebrates the Spanish takeover of the Dutch town of Breda on June 5, 1625. At the center of the canvas, Dutch commander Justin of Nassau stands facing Italian general Ambrosio Spinola, leader of the Spanish troops. It is clear that Nassau (left) is the losing party—not only does he bow slightly before Spinola, but he also relinquishes the key to the city. Traditional scenes of surrender in early modern Europe generally showed the victor raised above the vanquished. Here, Spinola’s willingness to meet the man he trumped on level ground is understood as an act of magnanimity. Yet, the hand he places on his opponent’s shoulder is ambivalent—a concurrent show of respect and condescension.

The Surrender of Breda and the other images in the Buen Retiro series served a dual purpose. On the one hand, they offered evidence of Spain’s power to contemporary audiences; on the other, they commemorated the success of Philip’s reign for posterity. In order to meet these objectives effectively, they sometimes played with the facts. For instance, there was no handing over of keys at Breda and although the Dutch army looks tattered and torn beside the upright Spanish, eyewitness testimony suggests that the battle was extremely rough for both sides. What’s more, by depicting events that had not yet withstood the test of time, the artists (and their patron) were taking a major risk. In this case, the gamble was lost. Spain’s dominance did not last, and by the end of the decade, many of the victories depicted, including that at Breda, had been reversed.

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