In art, there are certain paintings that are seminal works that change or influence people’s ideas of art, such as Diego Velásquez’ painting ‘Las Meninas.’
There are a number of paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, which are instantly recognisable to the public, even to those with very little interest in art. One such painting is Las Meninas painted by the Spanish court painter Diego Velásquez in 1656. It is considered by many critics to be one of the great pictures of Western art, especially for its naturalistic style wherein it almost appears as if someone had taken a photograph of the scene within the portrait.
The painting shows a number of people, nine actually in the room and two reflected in the mirror on the back wall. The centre of the work is the five-year-old daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, the Infanta Margarita. She is accompanied by her maids (las meninas of the title) a bodyguard, two dwarfs and a large dog. In the background, a man can be seen in the doorway (either going out or coming in – art critics are divided on this point) who is believed to be Don José Nieto Velázquez, chamberlain to the queen. He is thought to have been a relative of the artist. The artist himself is depicted at the left of the painting, looking out at the viewer with a canvas in front of him. He carries in his hand a paintbrush and palette. He has keys in his belt, a sign of his position in the Royal household and has the cross of Santiago painted on his chest, a later addition to the painting which, legend has it, was painted on by the King himself. Also in the picture is a mirror with a portrait of the King and Queen of Spain. Various commentators have discussed this positioning of the King and Queen in depth. Are they actually in the room, watching the artist at work? Or is it a reflection of a painting on the easel at which the artists stands? Are the King and Queen posing for the painting on the easel and the young Infanta has just popped in to see what her parents are up to? It is heavily debated.
There is so much going on in the painting, that the viewer must spend some time studying it to capture all the detail. It has exercised the minds of many art historians over the centuries, with each new age since the painting’s creation coming up with new or different meanings to each part.
On the back wall of the painting are a number of other paintings such as those of ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ by Peter Paul Ruebens. The painting is set in a room of the Royal Palace and the naturalism of the setting shows the high position and close relationship that the artist had with the Royal family. At the time of the painting, the Infanta Margarita was the only child of the Royal couple which may explain her central position, emphasized by the light coming in from a window at the right and her white dress. Later two brothers arrived, one who died young and one who went on to become Charles II.
Influences For The Painting
The layout of the painting, with its complex spatial positioning and unusual sight lines is what makes the painting so impressive. It shows the same kind of understanding of perspective and positioning as the great artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci (compare with his’ Last Supper’). The use of the mirror also refers the viewer to the famous painting ‘The Marriage of the Arnolfini’ by Jan van Eyck which was painted in 1434 and has a mirror reflection.
Diego Velásquez was born in Seville on 6 June 1599. After becoming an accomplished artist at a very early age, he moved to Madrid in 1622 where he gradually became known to the Royal Family and soon became their favourite artist. He travelled to Italy on two occasions where he was influenced by the masters of the Renaissance. He painted a large number of works and also created sculptures. Much of his work is on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid. He died in August 1660.
‘Las Meninas’ is described by many as the best painting of the period and some go so far as to say it’s the best portrait ever painted. Whether you are an art buff or someone who would like to learn more but know very little, then learning about Velasquez’ masterpiece Las Meninas is an essential part of your art education.