Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Surrender of Breda
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.
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.”
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.