Las Meninas

Las Meninas

Las Meninas (Spanish for The Maids of Honour)is a 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The work’s complex and enigmatic composition raises questions about reality and illusion, and creates an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. Because of these complexities, Las Meninas has been one of the most widely analysed works in Western painting.

The painting shows a large room in the Madrid palace of King Philip IV of Spain, and presents several figures, most identifiable from the Spanish court, captured, according to some commentators, in a particular moment as if in a snapshot.Some look out of the canvas towards the viewer, while others interact among themselves. The young Infanta Margarita is surrounded by her entourage of maids of honour, chaperone, bodyguard, two dwarfs and a dog. Just behind them, Velázquez portrays himself working at a large canvas. Velázquez looks outwards, beyond the pictorial space to where a viewer of the painting would stand. In the background there is a mirror that reflects the upper bodies of the king and queen. They appear to be placed outside the picture space in a position similar to that of the viewer, although some scholars have speculated that their image is a reflection from the painting Velázquez is shown working on.

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”, while in the 19th century Sir Thomas Lawrence called the work “the philosophy of 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”.

Las Meninas2

Las Meninas is set in Velázquez’s studio in Philip IV’s Alcázar palace in Madrid. The high-ceilinged room is presented, in the words of Silvio Gaggi, as “a simple box that could be divided into a perspective grid with a single vanishing point”. In the centre of the foreground stands the Infanta Margarita (1). The five-year-old princess, who later married the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, was at this point Philip and Mariana’s only surviving child. She is attended by two ladies-in-waiting, or meninas: doña Isabel de Velasco (2), who is poised to curtsy to the princess, and doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor (3), who kneels before Margarita, offering her a drink from a red cup, or bucaro, that she holds on a golden tray. To the right of the Infanta are two dwarfs: the achondroplastic German, Maribarbola (4) (Maria Barbola), and the Italian, Nicolas Pertusato (5), who playfully tries to rouse a sleepy mastiff with his foot. Behind them stands doña Marcela de Ulloa (6), the princess’s chaperone, dressed in mourning and talking to an unidentified bodyguard (or guardadamas) (7).

To the rear and at right stands Don José Nieto Velázquez (8)—the queen’s chamberlain during the 1650s, and head of the royal tapestry works—who may have been a relative of the artist. Nieto is shown pausing, with his right knee bent and his feet on different steps. As the art critic Harriet Stone observes, it is uncertain whether he is “coming or going”. He is rendered in silhouette and appears to hold open a curtain on a short flight of stairs, with an unclear wall or space behind. Both this backlight and the open doorway reveal space behind: in the words of the art historian Analisa Leppanen, they lure “our eyes inescapably into the depths”. The royal couple’s reflection pushes in the opposite direction, forward into the picture space. The vanishing point of the perspective is in the doorway, as can be shown by extending the line of the meeting of wall and ceiling on the right. Nieto is seen only by the king and queen, who share the viewer’s point of view, and not by the figures in the foreground. In the footnotes of Joel Snyder’s article, the author recognizes that Nieto is the queen’s attendant and was required to be at hand to open and close doors for her. Snyder suggests that Nieto appears in the doorway so that the king and queen might depart. In the context of the painting, Snyder argues that the scene is the end of the royal couple’s sitting for Velazquez and they are preparing to exit, explaining that is “why the menina to the right of the Infanta begins to curtsy”

Velázquez himself (9) is pictured to the left of the scene, looking outward past a large canvas supported by an easel. On his chest is the red cross of the Order of Santiago, which he did not receive until 1659, three years after the painting was completed. According to Palomino, Philip ordered this to be added after Velázquez’s death, “and some say that his Majesty himself painted it”. From the painter’s belt hang the symbolic keys of his court offices.

A mirror on the back wall reflects the upper bodies and heads of two figures identified from other paintings, and by Palomino, as King Philip IV (10) and his queen, Mariana (11). The most common assumption is that the reflection shows the couple in the pose they are holding for Velázquez as he paints them, while their daughter watches; and that the painting therefore shows their view of the scene.

Composition

The painted surface is divided into quarters horizontally and sevenths vertically; this grid is used to organise the elaborate grouping of characters, and was a common device at the time. Velázquez presents nine figures—eleven if the king and queen’s reflected images are included—yet they occupy only the lower half of the canvas.

The added complexity of this picture is that the division into seven is applied not only to the pictorial surface of the composition, but also to its depth. The viewer looks into a scene that is seven layers deep, arranged at irregular intervals, like a stage-set. The first is defined by the canvas that projects into the left side of the painting, and on the right, the figures of the large dog and male dwarf. The second zone of the composition contains the figures of the Infanta and her maids and dwarf. The third zone is occupied by the artist himself with the chaperone and guard set slightly behind him, the fourth zone being defined by the plane of the rear wall with its rows of paintings. Through the door the figure of Nieto stands, in the fifth zone. The sixth zone is located in the depth of the mirror on the rear wall, and, like all mirror images, tends in two directions, so that it seems to project the painting itself outward into the space of the viewer, thus creating a seventh zone in which both the viewer and the king and queen stand.

According to López-Rey, the painting has three focal points: the Infanta Margarita, the self-portrait and the half-length reflected images of Philip IV and Queen Mariana. In 1960, the art historian Kenneth Clark made the point that the success of the composition is a result first and foremost of the accurate handling of light and shade:

Each focal point involves us in a new set of relations; and to paint a complex group like the Meninas, the painter must carry in his head a single consistent scale of relations which he can apply throughout. He may use all kinds of devices to help him do this—perspective is one of them—but ultimately the truth about a complete visual impression depends on one thing, truth of tone. Drawing may be summary, colours drab, but if the relations of tone are true, the picture will hold.

However, the focal point of the painting is widely debated. Leo Steinberg argues that the orthogonals in the work are intentionally disguised so that the picture’s focal center shifts. Similar to Lopez-Rey, he describes three foci. The man in the doorway, however, is the vanishing point. More specifically, the crook of his arm is where the orthogonals of the windows and lights of the ceiling meet.

Depth and dimension are rendered by the use of linear perspective, by the overlapping of the layers of shapes, and in particular, as stated by Clark, through the use of tone. This compositional element operates within the picture in a number of ways. First, there is the appearance of natural light within the painted room and beyond it. The pictorial space in the midground and foreground is lit from two sources: by thin shafts of light from the open door, and by broad streams coming through the window to the right.[27] The 20th-century French philosopher and cultural critic Michel Foucault observed that the light from the window illuminates both the studio foreground and the unrepresented area in front of it, in which the king, the queen, and the viewer are presumed to be situated.

Velázquez uses this light not only to add volume and definition to each form but also to define the focal points of the painting.

Interpretation

The elusiveness of Las Meninas, according to Dawson Carr, “suggests that art, and life, are an illusion”. The relationship between illusion and reality were central concerns in Spanish culture during the 17th century, figuring largely in Don Quixote: the best-known work of Spanish Baroque literature. In this respect, Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream is commonly seen as the literary equivalent of Velázquez’s painting:

What is a life? A frenzy. What is life?
A shadow, an illusion, and a sham.
The greatest good is small; all life, it seems
Is just a dream, and even dreams are dreams

Michel Foucault devoted the opening chapter of The Order of Things (1966) to an analysis of Las Meninas. Foucault describes the painting in meticulous detail, but in a language that is “neither prescribed by, nor filtered through the various texts of art-historical investigation”.[59] Foucault viewed the painting without regard to the subject matter, nor to the artist’s biography, technical ability, sources and influences, social context, or relationship with his patrons. Instead he analyses its conscious artifice, highlighting the complex network of visual relationships between painter, subject-model, and viewer:

We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject.[59][60]

For Foucault, Las Meninas contains the first signs of a new episteme, or way of thinking, in European art. It represents a mid-point between what he sees as the two “great discontinuities” in art history, the classical and the modern: “Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velázquez, the representation as it were of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us … representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.”

picasso

During 1957 Pablo Picasso painted 58 recreations of Las Meninas.