More Than Portraits: the paintings of Diego Velazquez 8 Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (detail) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Although not Diego Velázquez’s last painting, Las Meninas has proved his most enduring, and is one of the most studied and famous paintings in the world. Its original title is unknown: it was dubbed Las Meninas, meaning The Maids of Honour, much later and it might be better described as a portrait of Velázquez with the Royal Family.

The artist is thought to have painted it for King Philip IV himself, and it continued to hang in the Alcázar Palace until its major fire at Christmas in 1734, when it was damaged. It is one of the most important paintings in the Prado in Madrid, perhaps as attractive as the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Like many of Velázquez’s mature works, Las Meninas is a portrait, but unlike any of the others it is a group portrait of eleven people and a dog in a room in the Alcázar Palace, which is depicted faithfully, according to palace inventories of the time.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (detail) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The figures occupy a strip across the painting, although this isn’t frieze-like as they are at different depths into the view. Working from the left, these are:

  • Diego Velázquez, the artist, making this a self-portrait and more;
  • Doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor, one of the Maids of Honour;
  • Queen Mariana of Austria, wife of King Philip IV, seen in the mirror behind;
  • King Philip IV, also in the mirror;
  • the Infanta Margaret Theresa, who is literally in the limelight and the focus of the painting;
  • Don José Nieto Velázquez, the queen’s chamberlain, who is far back in the distance;
  • Doña Isabel de Velasco, to the right of the Infanta, another Maid of Honour;
  • Doña Marcela de Ulloa, behind Isabel de Velasco, who is the Infanta’s chaperone;
  • an unidentified bodyguard, or guardadamas, with Marcela de Ulloa;
  • Maribarbola, or Maria Barbola, a German dwarf;
  • Nicolas Pertusato, an Italian dwarf whose foot is trying to arouse the large mastiff dog in the foreground.
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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Infanta Margarita (c 1656) [118], oil on canvas, 105 x 88 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image by Yelkrokoyade, via Wikimedia Commons.

Velázquez painted this portrait of the Infanta Margarita no more than a year before, in about 1656. She was the daughter of Queen Mariana, and later became by marriage the Holy Roman Empress. She was born in 1651 in Madrid, and died at the age of only 21 in 1673. She appears to be wearing the same dress in both paintings.

It’s often pointed out that the Infanta was the only surviving child of Philip and Mariana at the time, but Maria Theresa of Austria, her much older half-sister by Philip’s previous wife, was very much alive, and didn’t marry until 1660.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (detail) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maid of Honour to her left is kneeling or crouching, looking directly at the Infanta, and offering her a drink from a red cup (bucaro) on a tray. She is one of only two figures who are not looking at the viewer. But the Infanta is staring directly ahead, even though her head is slightly turned towards the right (her left).

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (detail) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The largest figure, although out of the limelight and over to the left, is that of Velázquez himself. He too looks towards the viewer, with a neutral face of concentration. His right hand holds a brush with his paint laid out on a wooden palette held by his left hand, which also clutches a bundle of other brushes. He is at work on the three metre (ten foot) high canvas in front him – which happens to be the same size as that on which he painted this work.

Although hard to see now, attached to him are the keys symbolic of his official duties at court, and emblazoned on his left chest is the distinctive red cross of the Order of Santiago. That is a puzzle, because he wasn’t admitted to the order until 1659, long after he had completed this painting. Most readings suppose that he added this detail after this last great honour had been bestowed on him, although I’m not aware of any good evidence that was the case.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (detail) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Two figures given a prominent and unusal place are the King and Queen, who are shown reflected in a rectangular plane mirror on the far wall. There has been dispute over whether the reflection shows the couple stood where the viewer is, or the mirror is reflecting their painted images on Velázquez’s canvas.

As the mirror is to the left of the centreline of the painting, it is hard to see that its image of the royal couple could show them standing where the viewer is, and more likely that what appears there is part of Velázquez’s painting. However, the artist had previously been ‘creative’ in his use of reflections in the Rokeby Venus, and at least part of his body should here be obstructing a clear line of sight between what is on his canvas and the surface of the mirror.

It may not be important either: the image of the king and queen in this virtual double portrait is surely the more important, however it was generated.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (detail) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

We next come to the other Maid of Honour, who is just starting a curtsy while she too looks in the direction of the viewer. Behind her, in the deep distance, another official of the court is moving slowly upstairs, as if preparing the way for someone to pass. His silhouette against the light balances the mirror on the wall.

The two dwarves are among those who Velázquez had painted previously, and the remaining two figures almost vanish into the shadows.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (detail) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

High above them on the far wall of the room are two paintings, which sadly can’t be discerned from the gloom, but are said to be copies of paintings by Rubens of stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. That on the left is apparently Pallas and Arachne, which perhaps refers back to Velázquez’s own Las Hilanderas, and that on the right is the Contest of Pan and Apollo. Both were painted by Juan del Mazo, Velázquez’s assistant and son-in-law.

The room in which this is all set is sometimes claimed to be Velázquez’s “workshop”, but clearly cannot be that. Careful study suggests that it was known as the main room in the Prince’s Quarter, which wasn’t normally used for painting. Velázquez must therefore have chosen it for this purpose. As the mirror never appears in any inventory of this room, it is most likely a device used by Velázquez for this purpose too.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (X-ray) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

This X-ray image of the painting isn’t of high quality, but may help show how Velázquez painted it with remarkably few pentimenti, essentially without hesitation or second thoughts. Brown and Garrido call it “the largest oil sketch ever painted”, which is an apt description of its bold and painterly brushwork. The only figure in which he made significant change is his self-portrait, which initially turned his head more towards the Infanta.

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Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Las Meninas has – like all the best paintings – multiple and concurrent readings. It is a family portrait, showing parents and daughter but in an unusual and indirect gathering. If we assume that almost all gazes are directed not at the viewer, but at the King and Queen getting up to leave after sitting for Velázquez, then the image becomes a more cohesive whole.

With so much looking, the reflected images of King and Queen, and Velázquez at work painting, there is also much to read about the acts of looking and painting. Whether this amounts to a “theology of painting”, as has been claimed, is less clear: it is, like so many of Velázquez’s works, composed to fascinate and stimulate speculation. It also records the artist’s unique achievement in becoming a high-ranking member of one of the great royal courts of Europe – something he had earned by applying his skills in the pursuit of great art.

References

Wikipedia on this painting.

Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido (1998) Velázquez, the Technique of Genius, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 10124 9.
Giles Knox (2009) The Late Paintings of Velázquez, Theorizing Painterly Performance, Ashgate/Routledge. ISBN 978 1 138 27464 8.
José López-Rey and Odile Delenda (2014) Velázquez The Complete Works, Taschen and the Wildenstein Institute. ISBN 978 3 8365 5016 1.