Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)
Oil on canvas
10'5" x 9'1"
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The painting is on permenent exhibition at Mark Harden's artchive site (http://www.artchive.com/artchive/V/velazquez/meninas.jpg.html).
One of the great works of Western art, the oil painting Las Meninas (1656; The Prado, Madrid, Spain) is the culmination of Diego Velazquez's masterful career. In his conception, painting combines the immediate truth of what is seen with the enigmatic richness of what is felt. Please locate a reproduction of this painting to unravel a bit of its mysterious beauty.
While Las Meninas ("The Maids of Honor") can be savored and celebrated purely on the basis of its visual beauty -- the effect of the brushwork, the radiant splendor of its lighting, the delicate harmony of its colors -- the painting invites the repeat viewer to dig deeply into the sources of its achievement.
The Question Of Subject
While classical painting presented its central subject clearly and directly, Velazquez's work studies a multiplicity of subjects. Indeed part of the painting's intelligence is that no one subject is figured any more prominently than any other.
Let us first identify the various compositional elements -- "The Six Conspicuous Ones" as James Michener knew them -- that make up the collective. They are, first, a lifelike, softly-rendered dog; second, the young Princess Margarita Maria attended by her maids of honor and the well-known dwarf, Maribarbola; third, Velazquez himself standing back from his foregrounded easel on which he is painting a picture which cannot be seen; fourth, a man and woman closely observing the scene; fifth, a wall containing a mirror in which we see that Velazquez is painting the portrait of Margarita's father and mother, Felipe IV and Queen Marina; and sixth, seen through a doorway, a flight of stairs up which a chamberlain is walking.
A Painter's Painting
Rather than a simple collection of portraits -- an autobiographical self-portrait of the artist; a loving depiction of the young Infantina Margarita, who would continue to grace his canvasses throughout her child and young adulthood; or a commisioned formal rendering of the palace royalty -- Velazquez presents his audience with a meta-painting, that is, a painting about the act of painting.
At the center of the canvas is the young princess who is served closely by her entourage of dwarves, maids, and clowns. Why is she located at the center? The princess was brought into the royal chamber to relieve the boredom of the Royal seating, to visually stimulate the King and Queen as Velazquez captured their image.
Art historian E.H. Gombrich -- author of The Story of Art (1950), truly one of the great diachronic studies of art for its clarity of analysis and the cohesion of its narrative -- suggests that the King or Queen being painted perhaps "remarked to Velazquez that here was a subject for his brush," the princess with the aura of dignity and prestige. What we see is not simply a visual ode to the princess, to the artist, or to royalty, but instead a synchronic arrest of a real moment in time long before the invention of the camera.
On the left side of the canvas, the artist Velazquez contemplates the image of his commisioned painting for the King and Queen. The royal pair are represented through a mirror, and then rendered in a illusory haze, and are locating in the least visible plane. In placing them so far from the immediate field of vision, the artist inverted the accepted scale of values; royalty was now the least visually important component. I believe that this inversion presents a celebration of the voyeur: the audience viewing Las Meninas in the museum; the princess who performs by her very presence; the royalty who watches the princess; the dwarf who "affronts the spectator like a blow from a muffled fist" (Clark).
No one who visits Madrid should go without the edifying experience of viewing this painting, Las Meninas, in that incandescent room in the Prado museum.
Michener, James. Iberia. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1968.
Gombrich, E.M. The Story Of Art. New York: Phaidon, 1950 (ed., 2001).
Clark, Kenneth. Looking At Pictures. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.