As early as the thirteenth century, dwarfs had become securely ensconced in Spanish Court culture. Philip IV found their company especially comforting, as attested to by the numerous portraits of the king's dwarfs that Velázquez painted. In fact, the king is reported to have had over one hundred dwarfs in his entourage (B.M. Adelson, The Lives of Dwarfs, New Brunswick, 2005, pp. 149-150). Looked upon as more than curiosities of nature, these men and women sometimes attained important positions within the court, and provided much-needed entertainment for the royal family and courtiers. As jesters and servants, they were granted generous license from the rigidity of decorum and structured ceremonies that dictated courtly life, offering jokes, companionship and frivolity as they went about their duties. Moreover, Philip IV's dwarfs enjoyed a proximity to the royal family that was normally granted to only the most important members of the court, as evidenced by Velázquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas (Madrid).
Alternatively published by scholars as an autograph second version, a second version with some workshop assistance, and a period copy, this striking painting of a dwarf was first recorded in the 1677 inventory of Don Gaspar de Haro y Guzmán, the 7th Marqués del Carpio and Eliche, where it was identified as a portrait by Diego Velázquez of the dwarf known as El Primo (transcribed in J.M. Pita Ândrade, op. cit., p. 410). The prime version of this composition (fig. 1) is housed in the Prado, Madrid (inv. P01202), and was first recorded in the unfinished 1666 inventory of the Royal Alcázar of Madrid that was prepared by Velázquez's son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, as a 'painting of the dwarf El Primo by the hand of Velázquez'.
For the past century, the sitter represented in this portrait has been identified as Sebastián de Morra, another dwarf at the court of Philip IV, based on an argument first articulated by Don Pedro de Madrazo in 1872 (op. cit, p. 630, no. 1096; see also A. de Beruete, El Velázquez de Parma, Madrid, 1911, p. 14). Madrazo proposed that Velázquez actually represented El Primo in a third portrait of a dwarf (fig. 2) that is also housed in the Prado, Madrid (inv. 1201), in which the sitter appears dressed in black, seated in a landscape and holding a book. This third portrait is securely documented in the 1701 inventory of the Torre de la Parada, where it is recorded generically as a dwarf, without any attempt to identify the sitter. Madrazo's hypothesis, which has already been tentatively questioned elswhere (see Lopez-Rey, op. cit., 1996, pp. 246 ff.), can now conclusively be refuted, primarily on the basis of the present painting's history.
Confusion as to the sitter's identity stems from another entry in the 1666 Alcázar inventory, which documents 'another picture representing the dwarf Morra by the hand of Diego Velázquez.' These two portraits -- El Primo and the portrait of Sebastián de Morra -- are once again recorded in the same manner in the 1686 and 1700 Alcázar inventories. The pivotal moment in these paintings' history occurred on 24 December 1734, when one of the pair was destroyed in the great fire that ravaged the Alcázar. The 1735 inventory of paintings rescued from the conflagration records just one of these two paintings, and Madrazo's theory hinges upon the fact that the surviving portrait was recorded without any indication of the sitter, simply as a 'full-length portrait of a dwarf, an original by Diego Velázquez'. According to Madrazo, it was the portrait of Sebastián de Morra that survived, and not that of El Primo. The 1735 inventory further reveals that the painting in question emerged with slightly narrower dimensions than previously documented and that it had been set into an oval frame. This portrait was transferred to the Buen Retiro Palace, where it was recorded in an inventory of 1794, before it was moved to the Palacio Real Nuevo (recorded in inventories of 1772 and 1794), and eventually entered into the Museo del Prado in 1819. Traces of the oval frame that is mentioned in the 1735 inventory are visible to the naked eye on the Prado portrait, removing any doubt that this is the painting that survived the Alcázar blaze. A possible explanation for the change in dimensions and transfer to an oval frame is that the portrait appears to have been damaged during the fire and subsequently cut down. If this is the case, then the present painting may actually preserve the lost elements of the Prado composition, most notably the terracotta vase to the dwarf's left.
Don Diego de Acedo, known as El Primo, is documented at the court of Philip IV from 1635 until his death on 22 October 1660 (see J. Moreno Villa, Locos, enanos, negros, y ninõs palaciegos, Mexico, 1939, pp. 55-59). It is not certain how he earned his nickname, which translates to 'The Cousin', but one theory is that it alludes to his familial relationship with Don Juan de Acedo y Velázquez, a knight of Santiago in the service of the Cardinal-Infante Don Fernando and Diego's cousin. Archival evidence documents that Velázquez painted El Primo in June 1644 at Fraga, around the same time that he painted his celebrated portrait of Philip IV now in The Frick Collection, New York. Shortly thereafter, the king sent both paintings to Madrid.
The fact that the present portrait is recorded in the Marquis of Carpio's inventories as representing El Primo, and not Sebastián de Morra, strongly suggests that the Prado (ex-Alcázar; fig. 1) painting should be recognized as representing El Primo, too. Carpio was one of the most important art collectors of his day: in addition to works by Correggio and Raphael, he owned Velázquez's Rokeby Venus, and as such, it is unlikely that he would have misidentified the sitter in his portrait. In fact, El Primo was involved in a significant event in Carpio's family history: in 1641, the dwarf was struck by a bullet that was believed by many to be an assassination attempt on Carpio's uncle, the Count-Duke of Olivares, who was inspecting the king's troops in Molina de Aragón. Inadvertently saving Olivares' life would have certainly secured the dwarf's memory within the Count-Duke's family. Finally, the dwarf's identification in the 1790 and 1792 inventories is substantiated by recent technical examination of the Prado and Frick paintings, which has revealed that both the portrait of the dwarf and the portrait of the king were painted on canvases cut from the same bolt. Together, this evidence removes any doubt that the Prado painting (as well as the present lot) represents El Primo and not Sebastián de Morra, as it is currently catalogued by the Prado.
Recent examination of the X-radiographs of the present painting revealed a clearly legible image of the composition since the artist appears to have built up his figure over a red ground using relatively thick, opaque applications of paint. This technique is inconsistent with Velázquez's practice at the time: from the 1630's Velázquez seems to have worked exclusively on gray grounds that have a high lead white content, which accounts for the somewhat illegible, 'cloudy' appearance of corresponding X-radiographs. The present painting's technical construction, together with the self-evident skilled and confident application of paint, more closely aligns with works by Velázquez's son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martìnez del Mazo (Cuenca Province, c. 1613-1667 Madrid). As the leading painter in Velázquez's studio, much of this younger artist's output consisted of faithfully reproducing the master's paintings, working in a style that is nearly indistinguishable with that of Velázquez himself. Comparison with the X-radiographs of Mazo's portrait of Queen Mariana of Spain in Mourning and the striking portrait of Don Adrián Pulido Pareja (both National Gallery, London), which was formerly considered an autograph painting by Velázquez but is now attributed to Mazo, suggests that the present painting may have been created by this accomplished artist (for a technical analysis of these paintings, see P. Ackroyd, D. Carr and M. Spring, 'Mazo's Queen Mariana of Spain in Mourning', National Gallery Technical Bulletin, XXVI, 2005, pp. 43-55).
Nothing is known about Mazo before his 1633 marriage to Francisca Velázquez (1619-1653). The following year, no doubt through Velázquez's instigation, Philip IV appointed Mazo to the position of Usher of the Chamber, and in 1643 he became Painter to the Infante Baltasar Carlos. In addition to instructing the prince on the art of painting, he created portraits and landscapes for the royal family, as well as numerous copies of paintings by Titian, Rubens, and of course, his father-in-law. In 1661 Mazo succeeded Velázquez as Pinto de Cámera, and served in that privileged position until his death on 9 February 1667.