It was on 5 June 1625, ten years before this picture was painted, that Justin von Nassau, the commanding officer of Breda, surrendered the city to the Genoese Ambrosio Spinola, commander of the Spanish forces. Breda was one of the border fortresses of the Netherlands, a military base which had long been a bone of contention, alternately seized by the Spaniards or returned to the Princes of Orange. After a long siege Spinola learned from an intercepted letter that the defendants were in desperate straits, short of both equipment and food, and he therefore proposed that von Nassau should freely surrender rather than continue the bloodshed. The proposal was accepted and the army withdrew in good order, keeping their goods and some of their arms. The citizens did not suffer any harm at all. This victory was one of the last triumphs achieved by Spain in the period when she was accounted a great world power, and it was also one of the fine instances when humanism prevailed even in times of war.
The main problem of a history painting featuring a large number of figures is the question of how to handle the crowd scenes. Velázquez initially tackles this difficulty by dividing the picture plane into two levels - a higher area of action on which the main event is acted out as on a stage, and an area below it in which we see the city and harbour of Breda and the sea. The stage-like situation is further emphasized by various foreground elements. The two military leaders - the defeated commandant of Breda handing over the keys of the fortress to the Spanish commander Spinola - are immediately recognizable as the protagonists because the view opens up behind them towards the otherwise hidden background, whereas to the right and left the respective military entourage is grouped like stage extras. Yet Velázquez does not portray them as anonymous soldiers. Amongst the group of Spanish victors brandishing their lances, we can make out just as many individual expressions of exhaustion as we can amongst the resigned group of defeated Dutch soldiers.
It is thought that the composition of the picture derives from a contemporary book-illustration of the Bible; this is certainly true of the two central figures of the commanders. In its coloring - the brown masses of the horses, the blue and red garments of the soldiers - we see the influence of Venetian painting, particularly that of Tintoretto