The Reality and Illusion of Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez

January 13, 2019

The leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velázquez created a fiercely individualistic and impressive body of work guided by his underlying passion for the human being and experience. Using complex strategic tools in composition, Velázquez created pieces so compelling they could not escape interest. One of his largest paintings, Las Meninas from 1656 is one of the finest examples of the artist's genius, intelligence and technical mastery. Imbued with a dense network of meanings, the painting became one of the most analyzed works in Western painting.

Ever since the painting became the only work to which the writer on art Antonio Palomino devoted a separate section in his history of Spanish painters of 1724, the painting has never lost its status of a masterpiece. The portrait is part of the foundational collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain where the portrait continues to hold pride of place today.

Las Meninas, 1656
Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas, 318 cm × 276 cm (125.2 in × 108.7 in). Museo del Prado Madrid

Velázquez - Not an Ordinary Court Painter

Already an accomplished painter who was a part of the Painter's Guild of St. Luke, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was summoned by the Spanish King's minister, Count-Duke of Olivares in 1622 to replace the favorite court painter of young King Philip IV who had died. Within two years, he was paid to move his family to Madrid, where Velázquez stayed until the end of his life, and was admitted to the royal service.

Over the years, Velázquez showed a remarkable ability to portray the royal family, at the same time building a strong personal relationship with the king himself. In 1652, he was appointed palace chamberlain, which saw him take up residence in the palace where he had direct access to the royal family. Always aspiring for greatness, he held duties which went far beyond that of a typical court painter. Among his final works, Las Meninas is a testimony to the special place he occupied at the court.

From the writing of the aforementioned Antonio Palomino, we know that the painting was created in the artist's spacious studio in the Cuarto del Príncipe in the Alcázar in Madrid, Spain which is the room seen in the painting. With this portrait, Velázquez championed the potential of the genre of history painting to which he had devoted his activities since he arrived at court decades ago. This impressively large-scale piece, measuring in at roughly 10.5 feet by 9 feet, has been rightfully called the resume of his entire life and career.

Las Meninas at Museo del Prado
Las Meninas at Museo del Prado

The Composition of Las Meninas Painting by Velazquez

Set in one of the most credible spaces depicted in western art, the scene in Las Meninas shows a group portrait of figures undertaking comprehensible actions. Palomino identified most of the figures of the court servants grouped around Infanta Margarita, the daughter of King Philip IV and the last of the Spanish Habsburgs. In the portrait, we see the "meninas" of the Queen or her maids-of-honor, María Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco, the dwarves Mari Bárbola and Nicolasito Pertusato provoking a mastiff, the lady-in-waiting Marcela de Ulloa next to an attendant, the chamberlain José Nieto standing in the doorway in the background, and the painter himself working on a large canvas.

Also in the room are King Philip IV and Queen Maria of Austria, Infanta's parents, who are only being reflected in the mirror. It is believed that the royal couple was posing for Velázquez in the presence of their daughter Infanta and her entourage. The result is the depiction of an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the Spanish court, devoid of its etiquette.

The art historian Ernst Gombrich even suggested that the picture might have been the sitters' idea:

Perhaps the princess was brought into the royal presence to relieve the boredom of the sitting and the King or the Queen remarked to Velazquez that here was a worthy subject for his brush. The words spoken by the sovereign are always treated as a command and so we may owe this masterpiece to a passing wish which only Velazquez was able to turn into reality.

The canvas is a testament to Velázquez's compositional mastery. Utilizing strategic placement of his subjects and the direction of their eyes to create multiple visual planes and diagonals, the painter makes the viewer wonder what is outside of the frame we can see. The gestures and gazes of five figures in the composition, which are looking directly out at the royal couple, affirm the royal couple's presence outside the painted space, showing their view of the scene with the use of a mirror. The artist also plays with several light sources, making more than half of the space dim, dark and empty around the figures. The art historian Kenneth Clark argued that the real success of the compositions lies the accurate handling of light and shade.

Diego Velazquez - Las Meninas (details), 1656, infanta is in the room and king and queen are seen in the mirror
Details of Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas (detail), 1656

Varied Interpretations of the Piece

For its richness and variety in the content, this masterpiece has been the subject of the most numerous and most varied interpretations, many studying the painting's scale, geometry, and perspective to great length. Although the piece was initially referred to as Retrato de la señora emperatriz con sus damas y una enana (Portrait of the Empress with her Ladies and a Dwarf), and then La familia del Señor rey Phelipe Quarto (The Family of the Philip IV), it was dubbed Las Meninas in 1843 in an effort to acknowledge its status as far more than a traditional family portrait. Some even argue that the work is actually a celebration of the noble art of painting.

The red cross of Santiago painted on Velázquez’s chest confused many scholars, as the artist wasn't knighted until November 1659. For this reason, many scholars, beginning with Palomino, believed that the symbol was subsequently added to the portriat, maybe even by the King himself. Some argue that the painting was maybe created after the painter was knighted as a thank-you gift for the King for this honor.

The piece itself contains a range of art historical references, expressed through the presence of the painter himself and the paintings on the walls - copies of works by Peter Paul Rubens, who was one of the Kings' favorite painters, executed by the artist Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo. The presence of the mirror brings to the fore the act of seeing, the laws of representation, and limits between painting and reality. Today, it is widely believed that the depicted scene never actually took place and that it was only a product of the artist's imagination.

However, despite all the analyses, the work still continues to puzzle the audience, at the same time forever cementing Velázquez in the annals of great artists.

Editors’ Tip: Velázquez's Las Meninas (Masterpieces of Western Painting) by Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt

A real masterpiece, Velázquez's 1656 Las Meninas has inspired an avalanche of published attention since it was first placed on public view in the Museo del Prado in 1819. The essays in this volume survey the responses to the painting in the nineteenth century, when Velázquez's fame outside Spain peaked. They include introductions to interpretations of the painting by twentieth-century art historians, critics, philosophers, and art theorists, as well as the modern appropriation of the painting by Picasso.

Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas, 1656

Featured image: Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas (detail), 1656. All images creative commons.