Painted in 1656, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (which translates to ‘The Ladies in Waiting’) is one of the world’s most important pieces of art. Hanging in El Prado in Madrid, the huge painting has entranced, mystified, and touched its viewers for centuries, inspiring the works of Foucault and Picasso. It continues to defy analysis to this day, despite being the most written-about painting in history. Read on to try and find your own meaning in Velázquez’s masterpiece.
10. It Is the Work of One of the World’s Greatest Artists
Born in Seville in 1599, Diego Velázquez showed artistic talents from an early age. At only 23, the young Velázquez traveled to Madrid for the first time to seek royal patronage from the new King, Philip IV. Unfortunately, he did not get the chance to make a royal connection, but only a year later he was summoned back to paint a portrait of Philip. The court was so impressed with Velázquez’s painting that he was appointed as the official artist, with the promise that he would be the only painter allowed to depict the king.
Velázquez was justifiably proud of his position as court painter, and remained in Madrid for the majority of his life, producing art under the patronage of Philip IV. Inspired by the works of the Italian Renaissance artists, he developed an extraordinary style that epitomized but transcended the Baroque.
Las Meninas, by Diego VelazquezUsing a variety of different brushstrokes and combining colors in perfect harmony, Velázquez captured not only images but atmospheres. His lifelike and vivid paintings were unparalleled among his peers and would go on to inspire countless future artists across Europe.
Velázquez died in 1660, while still working on plans for his next project: the interior decoration of a grand pavilion for the wedding of the king’s daughter.
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9. Nobody Is Quite Sure What It Is All About
Las Meninas is one of those paintings known for attracting huge crowds. Like the Mona Lisa or The Birth of Venus, visitors can spend hours gazing at the canvas, moving from side to side, forwards and backwards to try and take in every element. Upon seeing Las Meninas for the first time, one is faced with innumerable questions. Luckily, scholars have been studying the painting for so long that there are at least some clear facts:
The painting was made in 1656, while Philip IV and Mariana of Austria were King and Queen of Spain.
It depicts the main chamber on the ground floor of the Royal Alcazar in Madrid.
Taking center stage is the young Infanta Margaret Theresa, flanked by her Meninas, the daughters of royal officials. To their right are two dwarfs, entertainers at the court, accompanied by a great German Shepherd. Just behind them stands the girls’ chaperone, a nun, along with a bodyguard. Velázquez himself stands to the left of the image, working a huge canvas. Most interestingly, Philip and Mariana are shown reflected in a mirror on the back wall, while the figure of Don José Nieto Velázquez lurks in the doorway.
The questions of what is the context of painting and why, however, are far more mysterious.
8. One Mystery Is the Image of the King and Queen
In choosing to portray the King and Queen reflected in a mirror, Velázquez was paying homage to Jan van Eyck, an important Flemish artist who had used the same technique in his famous Arnolfini Wedding Portrait. The key difference, however, is that van Eyck’s mirror appears to show the artist, whereas Velázquez’s shows; The subjects? The onlookers? The spectators to come?
Philip and Mariana are both outside the painting and within it. We are not sure whether they are the subject of Velázquez’s colossal canvas (the size of it suggests not), or whether they are simply observing the artist at his work as he paints their young daughter.
The mirror puts the King and Queen in the same position as the viewer, with the figures in the central image staring at us, just as we stare at them. In this way, Velázquez creates a timeless connection between the figures on the canvas and the generations of spectators who would come to view it over the centuries.
7. Another Mystery: The Shadowy Figure in the Background
One of the most engaging and yet elusive characters in Las Meninas is that of the man standing in the doorway. Scholars have identified him as Don José Nieto Velázquez, chamberlain to the queen during the 1650s, head of the royal tapestries and possibly a relative of the artist. Analysis of the painting has shown that the vanishing point lies just within the doorway, the bright open space behind Nieto drawing our eyes into the distance.
The most puzzling thing about the figure is the fact that he seems to be frozen mid-movement. His feet are on different steps, but it is almost impossible to tell whether he is coming down into the room or on his way out. The former, and we are seeing the scene just before it is disturbed; the latter, and we must wonder why he is looking back just as he departs.
One of the most convincing interpretations is that of art historian Joel Snyder, who argues that Nieto is opening the door for the king and queen to leave. This is why, Snyder states, Velázquez has stepped away from his canvas and the girls are poised to curtsey.
6. Las Meninas Is Packed with Symbolism
The two paintings on the back wall above the mirror are laden with symbolism. They represent two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, which show scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Both paintings depict tales of artistic triumph, in which mortals prove themselves more skilled than even the gods. One shows the goddess Minerva punishing Arachne for daring to outshine her in the art of weaving, while the other shows the god Apollo flaying Marsyas for his superior flute playing. With a remarkable degree of intricacy, the former painting even contains a reference to another artwork owned by the Spanish royal family: Titian’s Rape of Europa.
But what purpose does this complex painting within a painting within a painting serve? Rubens was the most influential Flemish artist of the 17th century, and Titian was among the most important of the Italian Renaissance painters. Thus, by linking himself with these two legendary artists, Velázquez showed that he had reached the highest tier in European art. Likewise, the red crosses emblazoned upon the painter’s chest represent the Order of Santiago. Velázquez was not awarded this honor, however, until three years after Las Meninas was completed. The fact that the marks were added later shows that the artist was keen for the painting to impress upon the viewer his success.
5. The Painting Asks Some Big Questions
There may be a deeper, philosophical meaning behind Las Meninas too. During the 17th century, Spanish thinkers, artists, and writers were preoccupied with ideas about illusion and reality, foreshadowing the philosophical Enlightenment of the 18th century. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for instance, famously asks its audience to contemplate themes of madness, fantasy, and perspective.
With its elusive subject matter and manifold interpretations, then, Las Meninas reflects the intellectual concerns of the day. By blurring the line between spectator and subject, the internal and the external, image and reflection, Velázquez asks his reader to consider the much more profound issue of the difference between representation and reality.
4. Las Meninas Has Been the Subject of Thousands of Studies
Las Meninas is perhaps the single most documented, dissected, and discussed piece of art in the world. Thousands upon thousands of books, articles, and essays have been written on it, most famously Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things.
The French philosopher dedicates the opening chapter of the work to an analysis of Velázquez’s painting, studying the gazes shared by artist, viewer, and subject and using them to explain the network of relationships. Foucault saw Las Meninas as the birth of a new age, marking the transition from the classical way of thinking, where man has not yet been defined, to the modern, in which multiple interpretations compete for acceptance.
3. And Has Inspired Some Remarkable Reinterpretations
During the late 19th and 20th centuries, artists began to look back at the golden age of Spanish art for inspiration. Salvador Dali is even said to have modeled his famous mustache on that of Velázquez!
Many famous painters chose to look at Las Meninas through their own lens. On the surface, Pablo Picasso’s abstract emulation baffles the viewer, while Fernando Botero’s squat Infanta seems to make a mockery of Velázquez’s delicate little princess. Both recreations remind us, however, that there is no right or wrong way to read art. Sometimes amusing, sometimes dark, these homages each offer yet another way of interpreting Las Meninas.
2. The Painting Has Been on Some Adventures
Las Meninas passed straight from royal hands into the keeping of El Prado when it was established in the 19th century. It was only during the Spanish Civil War, as the threat of destruction loomed, that the painting traveled outside its homeland. In 1939, it was evacuated to Geneva by the Republican Government in order to protect the country’s artistic heritage. The logistics of its escape were complicated, and involved being thrown out of windows, packaged using emergency supplies, and almost torn apart in a railway tunnel!
Safely back in the museum, the painting was originally housed in a special room of its own, the Sala de Las Meninas. Eventually, the directors decided that it should be made the undisputed centerpiece of the collection, and it was placed in the long hexagonal gallery at the heart of El Prado.
1. Las Meninas Holds a Key Place in Spanish Heritage and the History of Art
At over 3m in width and 2.7m in height, Las Meninas is both literally and metaphorically a huge part of Spanish heritage. Legend has it that some details were added by King Philip IV himself after the painter’s death, giving it an extra touch of majesty, although the rumor is not based on any solid evidence. Nonetheless, it is still considered so much a part of the country’s identity that it is not allowed to travel abroad for exhibitions.
Las Meninas represents Spain’s great contribution to the world of art, one that has inspired countless studies, visits, and speculations, as each viewer forms their own opinion on the meaning of Velázquez’s masterpiece.