What’s in a painting? Taking a Look at Velázquez’s Masterpiece: Las Meninas (c. 1656)

“I would rather be the first painter of common things than second in higher art.” ~ Diego Velazquez

As someone who enjoys looking at art, but with no education in art history, or any practical skill in sketching or painting, I thought it would be great to educate myself a little more and share my findings with you on my blog.

Detail of Infanta Margarita Teresa from Las Meninas. Her left cheek had to be repainted after the painting suffered fire damage in 1734.

Detail of Infanta Margarita Teresa from Las Meninas. Her left cheek had to be repainted after the painting suffered fire damage in 1734.

Great art was painted for many different reasons by the masters of history, but these days it serves chiefly as a window into the past. Great art has immortalised its creators and their methods and become sought after by wealthy collectors, as well as for the aesthetic enjoyment of all those who clap eyes on it in a museum.  It’s there to be appreciated.

You don’t have to know the specific techniques that the artist employed to achieve a certain effect, although maybe that knowledge would deepen understanding and thereby recognition of what makes a ‘masterpiece’.

Art, like music and literature is subjective; with each era bringing to the fore its masters of the craft, replete with their varied and individual styles, techniques and subject matters.

There have been many glorious paintings that have captivated, yet also eluded humanity over the centuries; their mysterious meanings being debated and interpreted by art scholars and critics through the ages, so I thought this would make a good subject for a series of posts.

I’m starting with the Spanish baroque painter Diego Velázquez, (June 1599 – August 1660), born in Seville to Spanish parents and Portuguese grandparents, he became principal court painter to King Philip IV of Spain and one of the leading figures of the Spanish Golden Age. His oeuvre consisted mainly of royal portraiture, plus important cultural scenes of the epoch, but he also captured portraits of ‘ordinary’ people.

Diego Velazquez - The Rokeby Venus - The National Gallery London

Some of my favourites of his are the Rokeby Venus, The Spinners, Mars, God of War and the Three Musicians. He was admired greatly by Impressionist French painter Édouard Manet, who called him the “painter of painters”.

In addition to his royal portrait commissions, Velázquez was the king’s curator of the royal art collection in the 1640-50’s. He became known as a great connoisseur of European art and was responsible for the curation of works by Titian, Rubens and Raphael, which can still be seen in the Prado today.

Velázquez met Rubens during the Flemish master’s six month diplomatic trip to Madrid in 1628 and escorted him to El Escorial to view a collection of Titians. I can only surmise that they felt a mutual respect for each others talents!

Pablo Picasso, 58 recreations of Las Meninas.

Pablo Picasso, 58 recreations of Las Meninas.

Strangely his work only became known outside of Spain in the 19th century, but his influence on Western Art was considerable. Picasso recreated Las Meninas in 58 variations in 1957.  Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon both created works based on notable paintings by Velázquez. John Singer Sargent and Goya both referenced Las Meninas.

From Wikipedia:

Las Meninas has long been recognised as one of the most important paintings in Western art history. The Baroque painter Luca Giordano said that it represents the “theology of painting” and in 1827 president of the R.A. Sir Thomas Lawrence described the work in a letter to his successor David Wilkie as “the true philosophy of the art”. More recently, it has been described as “Velázquez’s supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting”.

There is much information about the life and work of Velázquez, but for now I want to focus on the multi-layered visual information embedded in the astoundingly innovative Las Meninas, (The Maids of Honour).

This sizeable oil on canvas work measures 318 cm × 276 cm, and was painted only four years before Velázquez died at the age of 61 in 1660. If not quite his valediction, it is considered to be the apotheosis of his artistic achievement.

Las Meninas was painted in the ‘Pieza Principale’ of the apartments of the late Balthasar Charles’s in the palace of Alcázar, Madrid. After the death of Philip’s first child (by the deceased Queen Elisabeth), it was used as Velázquez’s studio.

Diego_Velázquez - Las_Meninas

Who or what, is the real subject?

Upon first glance it could be thought that the subject matter is the only surviving child of Philip IV of Spain, a precocious looking Infanta Margarita Teresa. Either side of her are her two attentive ladies-in-waiting, one of whom appears to be offering her a small cup of cocoa. Incidentally, four hundred years ago the hot chocolate they drank contained mind-altering qualities!!

In her vicinity you can also see two dwarf court jesters, and behind them two courtiers (one of which is a nun), with the royal pooch obediently resting at their feet. The painter standing at the easel is Velázquez himself, (there could be no doubt about the origin of this masterpiece).

Then your eyes are drawn to the reflection of King Philip and Queen Mariana in the mirror at the back of the room. You wonder, are they visiting their daughter having her portrait painted, or is she visiting her parents having their picture painted, which is being reflected back to us from the tall canvas into the mirror? The imagery on the canvas he is painting can only be imagined.

Las Meninas - Mirror detail of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana

Las Meninas – Mirror detail of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana

It could be interpreted that the royal couple are standing precisely where we, as the viewers, are witnessing the scene from, which is endowed with natural light from the front right window. We are standing in the king and queen’s shoes…

The air in the large, but to my sense, oppressive space between the figures and the high ceiling above them is almost tangible.

The painting is considered to have many vanishing points, apparently coinciding on the shadowy figure visible through the open door, posing somewhat menacingly on the staircase…

The presence of the man in the doorway, (Don José Nieto Velázquez), seems to signal that the king and queen (having posed for their portrait), will soon be leaving the room, but perhaps there is a darker theme being introduced to the viewer here? He could be a visual representation of a deeper meaning: mortality and death.

The heavily muted, dark background (perhaps one of the huge paintings hanging on the back wall is by Rubens?) is contrasted sharply by the bright light emanating from behind the figure on the stairs revealed by the open doorway, which draws your gaze away from the people in the foreground, giving the perspective of distance, of perhaps a journey into the unknown.

It seems to me a complex portrayal of the painter (and his elevated status among the royal household), a kind of snapshot of their life journey witnessed from the canvas and on the canvas!

No wonder it has been so celebrated over the years by artists, historians and art lovers alike. If you want to see it in real life you’ll need to travel to the painting’s permanent home in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Velazquez was admitted into the Order of Santiago by royal decree in 1659, hence the red cross was added to his breast on the painting after the artist’s death.

For those in the UK with an interest there is also a smaller version of the painting (minus the royal reflection), preserved in the country house of Kingston Lacy in Dorset. Radiographs have shown it to be painted after the Madrid masterpiece. Some believe it could have been a copy by Velázquez’s student and son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1612-1667).

The opening chapter of French philosopher Michael Foucault’s book, The Order of Things was devoted to an in-depth analysis of Las Meninas.

It seems somewhat sad to think that the most prominent figure in the painting, the young Infanta Margarita, was married off to her uncle Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna aged only 15, and by the time of her death in her early twenties she had endured 19 pregnancies, resulting in just four births, with only one of her babies surviving into adulthood.

Velázquez - Infanta_Margarita aged 8 in a blue dress 1659

Growing up she was painted several times by Velázquez, probably the other most famous portrait is of her wearing a blue dress c. 1659 (now on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Unlike its long gone painter and sitters, Las Meninas survived the Peninsula War, the Spanish Civil War, a precarious train journey back to Madrid and a fire that destroyed the palace in 1734. Luckily for us, monks rescued the scorched painting by throwing it out of the window! Sadly hundreds of paintings in the royal collection were lost in the disaster.

I’ll leave you with an interesting documentary about Diego Velázquez, his art and Las Meninas by the National Gallery:

One thought on “What’s in a painting? Taking a Look at Velázquez’s Masterpiece: Las Meninas (c. 1656)

  1. Pingback: What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Hans Holbein the Younger’s Masterpiece: The French Ambassadors (c. 1533) | rhap.so.dy in words

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