Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez (1599 – 1660), Las Meninas, 1656, oil on canvas, Madrid, Prado Museum

 

Las Meninas or The Maids of Honour[1] by Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) is part of the collection of the Nacional del Prado museum in Madrid.  It has been a part of the royal collection ever since it was painted in 1656.  This is a very large format painting, larger than most of Velazquez’s other works, making this a very unusual painting in the context of his oeuvre[2].

 

It was formed by stitching 3 large pieces of hemp cloth together and the cloth was then primed with a white based ground which was then lightly coloured with ochre and black and spread across the canvas[3].  This was unusual at the time as most canvases were primed using dark colours such as ochre and brown.  When painting with oils, one starts with the darkest colours first and work the lightest colours on the surface last.  The colour palette used is quite limited and Velazquez achieves wonderful tonality with just whites, blues, yellows/ochres and small touches of red.   The colours he represents on his palette in the painting are the small amount of colours he used to create this work[4].  He then varies the way that he applies the paint across the canvas, using very thin applications in places which gives a luminous quality to these sections, such as the skin of the Infanta and her ladies in waiting.  He alternates this with a thick impasto technique in others to create the texture of the various costumes for instance.

 

Velazquez painted this work in a very painterly style, similar to that of Titian or Rembrandt.  He would have had access to many of Titian’s works in the Royal collection, for which he had responsibility, and he uses very soft focus in the background to create a sense of atmospheric perspective at the back of the room, blurring the focus of the mirror and the paintings by Rubens hanging above it.  He also uses a linear perspective technique to create the depth in the room.  On the wall on the right hand side, the windows and picture frames reduce in size as they draw closer to the open door way.

 

There is strong use of diagonal lines in the composition to direct the viewer’s eye around the canvas.  These lines also break up the space, placing the Infanta Margarita in the centre foreground, with the King and Queen reflected in the mirror just behind her in the background.  She is the focal point of the painting as she looks directly at us.  Velazquez is also looking out at us, considering us with a cool, distant stare as if he were about to paint our portrait.  On the right, one of the lady’s in waiting and the dwarf also stare out in our direction.  These direct gazes give the viewer the sensation of being in the room, creating a sense of intimacy between us and the assembled group.  The diagonal lines also give a strong feeling of action to the group.  These people look as if we have just caught a moment in time, they have just stopped what they are doing in order to look at us, it is very dynamic.  The composition is also very open and therefore open to interpretation.  The painting has been described as a puzzle painting, and there is a vast amount written about this work.

 

There has been much debate about its meaning and purpose.  What is certain is the identity of almost everyone featured in the image, thanks largely to a written description by the painter Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco who wrote a detailed account of the painting in his book “Museo Pictorico y Escala Óptica”,[5] which was published in 1724.  Palomino knew one of Velazquez’s workshop assistants and he named the people as follows:

 

On the left, we have Diego Velazquez, who depicts himself at work on a large canvas, next to him, kneeling to serve water to the Infanta Margarita at the centre of the picture is Maria Agustina Sarmiento, daughter of Count Salvatierra[6], and on the other side of the Infanta is Isabel de Velasco, daughter of the Count of Fuensalida.[7]  The dwarfs, who were companions to the Royal children, are named as Mari Barbola, and Nicolasito Pertusato who has his foot on the large hunting dog, which belonged to King Philip IV.

Meninas 1
Fig. 1: The names of the people in Las Meninas

Queen Marianna of Austria and King Philip IV, pictured in the mirror at the back of the room.  In the doorway is Jose Nieto Velazquez, chamberlain of the King[8].  Behind the dwarfs are Marcela de Ulloa, escort to the Queen[9] who is speaking with an unknown bodyguard. (See Fig. 1.)

 

Knowing who is in the picture however, does not help to explain the purpose of the painting.  There is no evidence that it was commissioned by the King, so Velazquez might have simply undertaken to do this painting for his own pleasure.  As previously stated, much has been written about this ‘puzzle painting’, putting it into the same category as The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck (1390 – 1441) with which it shares some similarities.[10]  This painting was part of the Spanish Royal collection at the time and Velazquez would have been very familiar with it,  The similarities that it shares with Las Meninas are as follows:

  • It features the devise of a mirror in the background reflecting two men coming into the oom on the viewer’s “side of the room”
  • While Van Eyck has put himself figuratively in the scene through his signature “Jan Van Eyck fuit hic”[11] on the back wall, Velazquez places himself at the centre of his work and both have a dog in the foreground of the painting
  • Both works share an ambiguity about their meaning and their purpose.

The mirror in the back of Las Meninas reflects Queen Marianna of Austria, the King’s second wife and mother of the Infanta Margarita and King Philip IV.  Isabella of Bourbon, Philip’s first wife, died in 1644, followed two years later by her son and Philip’s heir to the throne Prince Baltasar Carlos.[12]  The king then married his niece the Archduchess Marianna of Austria[13], who was only 15 at the time.  This meant that the king would have needed new royal portraits of his new queen and their children to share with the rest of his kingdom.  Therefore it could be assumed that Velazquez is painting a double portrait of the royal couple in Las Meninas.  However, the canvas depicted is too large for a painting of this type at this time and also, the King and Queen were not painted together in a double portrait, the convention was to paint them in separate portraits.[14]

 

It has also been posited that Velazquez is painting a portrait of the Infanta Margarita Maria, born in 1651[15], who is the central character in Las Meninas and the King and Queen have come to visit her during the painting process.  However again, the size of the canvas the artist is working on would not have been used for a portrait of one of the royal children.   Velazquez had worked as a royal portraitist for over 30 years by the time he painted Las Meninas.  He joined the court in 1623 and this painting was produced in 1656.  Over all of those years he painted many official portraits; however this painting does not fit in with the official style or conventions of a royal portrait of the Infanta.  For example when portraying the young Prince Baltasar Carlos, in Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback, 1635, (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado), aged about 5 or 6, he is shown mastering a fully grown horse.  He is the image of a future king, and this is the kind of image that would have been sent to various parts of the kingdom to show how the young prince was being prepared to become a king.

Similarly, in a portrait of the older Infanta, Maria Teresa in Infanta Maria Teresa, c.1653 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) she is portrayed in full formal-wear, in a portrait that was sent to the Emperor Ferdinand III in Vienna.  Portraits of the princesses were sent to parts of the kingdom where there may be plans to marry them off to future husbands to strengthen the power base of the royal families and forge strong familial ties.  Just like the portrait of the Infanta Margarita in The Infanta Margarita in White, c. 1656, (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) which was also sent to Vienna, and in it she is wearing the same dress as the one she wears in Las Meninas, but where this is clearly an official portrait, it is quite clear to see that Las Meninas is not.

Meninas 2

The Infanta Margarita in White                                                Las Meninas

Fig 2: Detail of the Infanta Margarita’s  Dress

When one looks closely at the Infanta in Las Meninas, the brushwork on her dress is much looser, more impressionistic.  It could almost be described as casual; it is an oil sketch. Velazquez is experimenting with paint.  Using small, fast brush strokes he is giving an impression of the rosette on the dress rather than painting it in minute detail.  This was unprecedented for the time, and he predates Monet and the Impressionists by more than 200 years.

Velazquez was a major influence on Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883), who also painted his own ‘puzzle painting’ A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882 (The Courtauld Institute of Art, London), 226 years after Las Meninas.  The brushstrokes on the Manet’s barmaid’s pendant are very similar to the Infanta’s.  This shows just how ahead of his time Velazquez was in terms of his technique.  For example, his contemporary Murillo (1617 – 1682) painting Two Women at a Window around the same time models the top of the girls dress very precisely.   As does the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675).  The Procuress was painted in the same year as Las Meninas.  When one looks at the carpet in front of the woman in this painting, one can see how meticulously Vermeer has represented the design of the fabric.  Velazquez had worked out that the eye would make sense of the brushwork from a distance and there was no need to paint this level of detail, predating the Impressionists work by two centuries and this is one of the reasons that he was such a source of inspiration to generations of artists after his death, such as Manet and Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973).

To conclude, if Las Meninas is not a simple portrait, then we are left to wonder what it is.  Some have argued that it was simply a gift from Velazquez to the King, of a portrait of the King’s young daughter who he doted upon, although there is no evidence for this.  Others have argued that it was a painting about painting, in which the artist is trying to show that painting was an elevated art and not just a simple lowly craft.   Given that Velazquez was petitioning at the time to become a Knight of the Order of Santiago, this could be the case, as the artist is showing himself at the centre of the Court, with unprecedented access to the members of the royal household.

Edouard_Manet,_A_Bar_at_the_Folies-Bergère
Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, oil on canvas, Courtauld Gallery, London

The red cross on Velazquez’s chest is the insignia of the Order of the Knights of Santiago[16].  It was painted onto the canvas 4 years after the painting was completed, as Velazquez’s entry into the order did not happen until November 1659, a year before he died.[17]  Artists in seventeenth century Spain were thought of as craftsmen.[18]  Becoming a member of the military order of Santiago gave him a position of nobility in Spanish society and raised him above the status of lowly painter & craftsman.  This gives some credence to the idea that Las Meninas was an exercise in self aggrandisement on behalf of Velazquez as he was clearly very proud of becoming a knight.  Also, it was a very bold move on his part to portray himself as a key figure at the centre of the court, in amongst the royal family and on such a large scale canvas.

However, King Philip IV must not have minded this audacious move, as he hung this painting in his rooms on the lower floor of the Alcazar where he would go in the Summer and which were kept private.[19]  It was hung alongside works by Ribera, Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Titian.  This is where the king kept paintings that were simply for his own viewing pleasure and his personal collection. [20]

There is a quote from Palomino which captures some of the essence of Las Meninas:

“Air flows among the figures, the composition is superb, the idea totally new; in brief, there is no praise that can match the taste and skill of this work, for it is reality and not painting.”[21]

While the true nature of the meaning of this painting will likely never be agreed upon, the one thing that is clearly evident is that this painting is Velazquez’s masterpiece.  It has inspired countless generations of artists from Picasso to Salvador Dali and Richard Hamilton and continues to inspire contemporary artists working today.  It is one of the Golden Age of Spain’s finest paintings.

 

Bibliography

Brown, Jonathan, Carmen Garrido, and Diego Velázquez. Velázquez : The Technique of Genius. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Checa Cremades, Fernando, and Diego Velázquez. Velazquez : The Complete Paintings. The Classical Art Series. Antwerp, Belgium: Ludion, 2008.

López-Rey, José, and Wildenstein Institute.  Velázquez  [in Vol. 2 in French, English and German]. Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1996.

McKim-Smith, Gridley, Greta Andersen-Bergdoll, and Richard Newman.  Examining Velázquez. New Haven, Conn. ; London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Sureda, Joan.  The Golden Age of Spain: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture [in Translated from the Spanish]. New York: Vendome Press, 2008.

Footnotes:

[1] Fernando Checa, Velazquez The Complete Paintings, pg. 199.

[2] Ibid, pg. 51.

[3] Jonathan Brown, Velazquez, The Technique of Genius, pg. 17.

[4] Ibid, pg. 17.

[5] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 265.

[6] Fernando Checa, Velazquez The Complete Paintings, pg. 199.

[7] Ibid, pg. 199.

[8] Fernando Checa, Velazquez The Complete Paintings, pg. 199.

[9] Fernando Checa, Velazquez The Complete Paintings, pg. 199.

[10] Jose Lopez-Rey, Velazquez, pg.156.

[11] Fernando Checa, Velazquez The Complete Paintings, pg. 52..

[12] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 261.

[13] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 261.

[14] Jose Lopez-Rey, Velazquez, pg.158.

[15] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 265.

[16] Fernando Checa, Velazquez The Complete Paintings, pg. 51.

[17] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 235.

[18] Fernando Checa, Velazquez The Complete Paintings, pg. 47.

[19] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 269.

[20] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 269.

[21] Joan Sureda. The Golden Age of Spain, pg. 267.

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