LAS MENINAS by Diego Velázquez. Ready as if considering the next step, Velázquez is at work on a huge canvas, of which only the back is visible. He does not yet know that the work in which he tells us about this work will later become one of the most mysterious masterpieces in the history of art. I am Clelia and today we discover: Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez from 1656.
Every time I return to the Prado in Madrid there are some fixed stops of my visit, Goya of whom I told you in another video is one of them. But Velázquez with this particular work makes him great competition.
We are in a large room that Velázquez uses as a study in the Alcazar palace in Madrid and the other figures are the members of the court. The golden-haired girl in the center is the Infanta Princess Margaret, at the age of five. Next to her are the two meninas, the bridesmaids, who give the painting its title. Title invented in the middle of the 19th century, not before. In fact the painting was known as The Family of Philip IV. And Philip himself, with his second wife, Marianne of Austria is seen reflected in the mirror on the back wall.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez | Interpretations
The painting looks like a real photograph of a moment of everyday life for the king, queen and princess. The figures seem captured in an instant of time and live in the canvas. However, the picture in many ways is mysterious, and many scholars and critics have founded theories of interpretation of the work. Everyone is looking for what exactly is going on in the scene and wondering: What are Velázquez’s intentions?
There are two main theories: in the first Velázquez is working on a portrait of the king and queen reflected in the mirror and the daughter with her bridesmaids interrupts the scene by entering the door at the back of the room.
For the second, equally plausible, it is the king and queen who visit the studio while the princess is posing for one of his many portraits. In fact, not even Velázquez’s pose and attitude of the self-portrait help to interpret the work. He may have stopped to reflect on the next brushstroke or on the contrary to welcome King Philip IV.
Certainly it is known that the king as an art lover enjoys watching Velázquez at work, but in both cases it is not clear why there is a need for one of the two portraits of a canvas so large that it reaches the ground.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez | The details
In the painting Velázquez depicts himself painting on the left of the work. And he describes himself as a serious, well-dressed gentleman. For him, painting is not just a commercial activity but a real intellectual pursuit. And his raising the figure of the artist in society together with the ability to represent some details with light brushstrokes will make him gain incredible fame over time and even outside Spain. And in particular the admiration of the impressionist artists and among all of Édouard Manet who considers him “the painter of painters”.
Just next to Velazquez another figure becomes important because it gives the title to the work: the maid of honor. Kneeling in front of the young princess, one of the bridesmaids offers her a tray with a drink. Her charming profile and the silver ornaments in her hair are suggested by Velázquez with some incredible light strokes of the brush.
In contrast to the delicate princess and the maids of honor, Velázquez also paints on the right Maria Bárbola, one of the official court maids of Queen Mariana of Austria. It is known thanks to the biography of Velázquez written by Palomino in 1724 as the “Enana de la reina” and therefore the Queen’s Dwarf. Its history is quite interesting. She was born in Austria and was invited to the Spanish court by the queen herself. However, she completely lost her status when Philip V ascended the throne in 1700 and by now an elderly woman she was forced to return to Austria, leaving Spain more than 40 years after she was portrayed for Las Meninas by Velázquez.
In the background of the work another court figure is portrayed on the threshold of the door. It is unknown if he is entering the door or leaving the scene to climb the stairs and exit the canvas. We only see his silhouette, but we know who he is: he is the queen’s chamberlain and head of the court’s tapestry work. The story goes that he may be related to Velázquez, but not much is known except his full name: José Nieto Velázquez.
The mythological paintings
Next to him on the background wall are some hanging paintings. They are poorly lit but thanks to the research and inventory of the works of the Alcazar Palace it was possible to identify them. The subjects are drawn from mythological stories in which mortals engage in artistic competitions against the gods. In both scenes, mortals are punished for their presumption. Perhaps Velázquez wants to include them as a gesture of humility? Maybe yes or maybe no, but we know in any case that he is very committed to enhancing the value of art and the figure of the artist at court.
The king and queen in the mirror
Velázquez and his workshop make many individual portraits of the different members of the royal family, in particular of Philip and Mariana of Austria. As far as is known, however, Velázquez never painted the king and queen together as a couple, except in one image: the mirror of this work. However, it is not clear whether or not the king and queen are the protagonists of the canvas that Velazquez is painting.
And however brilliant Velázquez may have taken the idea from another artist. There is indeed a great precedent for this mirror technique. The portrait of the Arnolfini couple. But how does Velazquez find out about a work by a Belgian artist made more than 100 years earlier? He knows it very well because the work at the time is located in the Alcazar Palace of the Spanish court, where Las Meninas is set. This is a long story of the arrival of the Arnolfini spouses in Madrid from the home of the Spanish ambassador at the beginning of the 16th century that I will surely tell you soon. The fact is, however, that the work in 1656 is under the nose of Velázquez.
But who is the true protagonist of the work in all this? Certainly the Infanta Margherita, in the center of the composition. The little girl could also be the protagonist of the work in the work on the left and she is certainly used to living these situations at court and spending time with Velázquez while he portrays her. Born in 1651 from the second marriage of King Philip IV of Spain to Marianne of Austria, Margherita is the favorite of Philip’s children. Which should not have been easy given that the king has seven children with two officially queens and at least thirty other illegitimate children. And Margherita has been so loved since she was a child that in addition to being the protagonist at the center of this work, she is also reported in numerous other paintings by Velázquez.
The Infanta Margherita Teresa | Story of the Princess
For example in the opera L’Infanta Margherita Teresa dressed in pink, preserved in Vienna. Another masterpiece that if you can you must see with your own eyes. is a portrait in which she poses alone, but despite being only 3 years old, the princess is still in space like a real little queen.
The large blue table to his left becomes his support point. It is framed between the oblique lines of the curtain and the table and wrapped at the bottom by the oriental carpet with arabesques.
The dress is also princely. Silver with strong and intense plays of geometry in pink and with a wide skirt that goes down to the floor to cover the step on which Margherita is standing. A perspective trick adopted on several occasions and not only by Velázquez. In fact, the step under the carpet serves as a pretext for the artist to raise the figure of the child. But above all to emphasize the center of the picture and give the princess a strong posture.
This portrait probably arrived in Vienna for a reason: to send an image of the child to Margaret’s future husband. In 1666, in fact, Margherita married the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, her uncle Leopoldo I and died very young at the age of 21 after having four children.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez | Meaning
And again on the subject of theories Las Meninas has been interpreted as a sort of personal manifesto of Velazquez, in which he wants to emphasize the importance and nobility of his profession. Although he is the most beloved of the court painters, in fact, Velazquez does not easily obtain what he most desires: the honor of being a knight of the crown of Spain. In the Spanish court where etiquette and rules are strictly followed, it is thought that artists are not at the same level as knights in the social order. Initially his candidacy to become a knight was rejected, but Philip persisting at length with Pope Alexander VII obtained permission to appoint the artist as a knight in November 1659, only a few months before his death.
But the beauty is that already in our work Las Meninas completed in 1656 Velazquez wears the red cross of the knights. Legend has it that the king himself added it only in 1659, but more likely it seems that Velázquez or an assistant did it.
After all, Velázquez was born and raised in Seville, in southern Spain, but spent most of his life in Madrid where he became Philip IV’s favorite painter at the age of 24. And it remains his lifelong favorite. And Philip admired Velázquez so much that he gave him various prestigious positions at court, which obviously took his time away from painting. Despite this Velázquez creates an unforgettable series of portraits of the Spanish court, including members of the royal family and the aristocracy, but also the dwarves and buffoons who are kept at court to entertain the king and queen.
Velazquez begins his career by working in a very dark style and demonstrating a very strong attention to detail. In general he has always maintained what in art is called a sense of naturalism which simply means that he has represented people and things with a realistic effect. But his way of representing has changed a lot over the years. In fact, over time it tends to sacrifice more and more details to obtain an overall effect. In his final works, the brushstrokes are very free so not too controlled and careful to render reality. For example in the detail of the dress of the infant Margherita. But what above all makes this work Las Meninas a masterpiece is the fact that the whole of the work is seen and understood when you move away, not when you are attached to the canvas. And this is one of the reasons why I stop in front of Las Meninas every time I return to Madrid. As probably great artists like Manet did in the middle of the 19th century.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez | Curiosity
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Like most of Velasquez’s works, this one too was not accessible for a long time. These masterpieces are in fact made for the king and remain inaccessible in the Royal Alcazar Palace. Las Meninas remained little known until the national museum of Spanish painting was opened: the Prado in 1819. And among his greatest admirers is a famous Spanish artist: Pablo Picasso, who in 1957 made a series of 58 paintings inspired by Las Meninas.
“If someone wanted to copy Las Meninas, entirely in good faith, for example, at some point if that was me, I’d say… what if I put them a little more to the right or to the left? I’ll try to do it my way, forgetting about Velázquez. The test would definitely lead me to tweak or change the light due to changing a character’s position. So, little by little, it would be a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter, but it would be my Meninas ”
And this cycle of Picasso’s attempts is kept in one of my favorite museums in Barcelona: the Museu Picasso which I recommend you visit as I did for free on Thursday afternoons from 6 to 9.30. Maybe in the summer when you leave the museum and there is still that warm Barcelona atmosphere and the sun is setting.
Velázquez’s influence on Francis Bacon
But Picasso is not the only great artist of the 20th century to be completely captured by Velazquez’s work. In fact, in 1953 Francis Bacon also created one of his most famous works Studio from the portrait of Innocenzo X based on the portrait of Innocenzo X made by Velazquez during his stay in Rome in 1650.
Velazquez in fact does not remain all his life in Madrid. It also has the ability to travel. And visit Italy twice for long periods. The first time from 1629 to 1631 and then from 1648 to 1651. And during his second stay he paints the portrait of Pope Innocent X who enters history and becomes a starting point for other great artists such as Francis Bacon in 1953. A work by Bacon which tells of all his obsession with the great masterpieces of art history.
Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas still remains today one of the most mysterious paintings in the world. And if you liked this post in which we discovered a little more, I also suggest you take a look at my post on Goya’s May 3, 1808 or the one on the 20 works that have made history in the last 20 years.
Thanks and see you next time!
Cover: Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 3.18 mx 2.76 m, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid