Velazquez is painting a portrait of King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana of Austria. They are posing outside the painting, standing where we stand. We see what they see. We know it’s them because of that blurry reflection in the mirror.
Velazquez stands at the enormous easel, brush in hand, with the abstracted look of an artist considering his subject. It is the only sure portrait he ever painted of himself, the only likeness we have. The one where we see him with that strange moustache Salvador Dalí adopted in imitation.
Velazquez usually worked alone but this time he has company. The Infanta Margarita and her maids and other members of her household have come to pay the royal couple a respectful visit. Margarita is their first child.
One of the chambermaids stoops to offer a drink to the little Infanta; the other seems to curtsy to the royal couple. Perhaps the Queen beside us is addressing the Infanta, who seems to listen.
It is a strange group of attendants. The woman with the big face formed part of the royal entourage along with other dwarfs and bufones. The boy with his foot on the big, sleeping dog is not a boy but a tiny man named Nicolasito. In the background, two palace headservants watch; and still farther back, the Queen’s “Chief of Tapestry”, or mayordomo, hesitates a moment on the stairs, deciding whether to enter the room or discreetly retire.
It is Velazquez’s atelier in the old castle of Madrid. Besides containing portraits of people, Las Meninas is a portrait of the great room—a cold, empty, high-ceilinged palace hall. Velazquez, who was in charge of the royal art collection, used it to hang up some of the paintings. Those on the back wall are by Rubens and Jordaens. But there is no furniture around—not even a chair for the visitors to sit on. In fact, Velazquez had one installed just for King Philip who came regularly to watch and chat.
By a masterly use of certain features of linear perspective and the very subtle use of lights and shadows, Velazquez presents it so realistically that Theophile Gautier, standing in front of it for the first time, exclaimed: “Where’s the painting?”
Critics have tried again and again to explain the realism and the originality of this painted room. “This isn’t the ‘passive space’ of those fifteenth century experiments in perspective,” wrote Camón Aznar, “but … a dense and palpable spatial complexity.” “It’s not only the objects that mark the distances,” wrote another. “Velazquez paints the very air”.
Why is there so much of the room in the picture? Why so much dark space above the Infanta and her attendants? Any amateur photographer would tell Velazquez to center his subject and cut off the whole top half of the painting. What does it add?
A further step in illusion
It is, precisely, one of the great experiments of this painting and the one that has intrigued people ever since it was shown to the public. The room seems to envelop the viewer and include him in its space. Its high ceiling goes on above our heads and behind us. We seem to stand inside, not just peek in through a window. Each person who comes to the painting is, for a moment, included in it, and stands a witness to the illusion. Then he steps out of it, just as he steps out of the world, and is gone.
The king’s household
Velazquez painted this for his king, who liked to sit and watch him. Diego was as fast as a wizard. In no time the King’s pretty little daughter smiled out at him, along with her maids-of-honor (las meninas), and then all the other members of the royal household. “And don’t forget to put yourself in the picture too,” said the Monarch. “I don’t have any of you, my friend.”
It was all like a vision that the Wizard cast on the big canvas for His Majesty; but it stayed. And when it was finished, the king hung it in his private room, and there it remained until long after he and Velazquez had passed on.
Then came the terrible fire of 1734 and the palace burned down with most of its five hundred paintings, many of them by Velazquez.
Real Alcázar or palace of Madrid, which burned down in 1734. Velazquez’s atelier was on the second floor (Wikipedia PD file)
But Las Meninas, the “fabric of [at least] this vision”, though scorched on both sides, somehow survived. And now it is one of the most celebrated paintings in the world and we can see it just as King Philip did and behold the vision Velazquez the Wizard called up for him.
The way Velazquez paints
Manet called him “the painter’s painter.”
After years of painting live models, Velazquez became a master of alla prima—painting without a preliminary drawing and without any re-touching. He set up his easel and began to copy the model in front of him, building his image on the canvas with light, accurate brushstrokes. First came the dark paint, then the light. He worked with a minimum of paint—he even thinned it to emphasize the look of sketchiness. The final brushstrokes, squiggles, and dabs—those that are most brilliant and lively—he applied with such apparent ease, precision, and economy that even master crafsmen were astounded.
Not everyone liked this look. “The man never finishes his paintings!” complained many, who, approaching his paintings, saw only shapeless blots of color. They were used to seeing greater definition up close, not lesser. Yet Velazquez realized that a broken, sketch-like image was more lively than the fixed, definite, flat ones of most paintings, like those of Raphael or Poussin.
Are they real?
His light touch gives his figures a strange fleetingness, a ghostlike indefinition and temporariness. They might be just coming into being or just about to vanish as we see them. Las Meninas is full of references to illusion. For instance, the mirror shows a reflection of the King and Queen who are there but not there. We ourselves—phantom visitors—are part of a room which, though it looks real, is only stains and blots of paint. Illusion versus truth was a preoccupation of the philosophers and dramatists of his time. Life Is a Dream was the famous title of a play by Calderon de la Barca, one of Spain’s greatest Golden Age dramatists. Velazquez too thought long about the meaning of his work as a maker of images. He might have placed this caption beside Las Meninas:
“ …these our actors,
as I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…” The Tempest Act. IV, Scene I
What does Meninas mean?
Meninas is an old word, no longer used, that meant “ladies-in-waiting”, i.e. those girls from noble families who were chosen to live in the palace and wait on the king, the queen, and the royal children. Velazquez didn’t give a title to this painting. In the palace inventory it was simply listed as “A picture of the Family”.
That strange red cross?
The red cross on Velazquez’s black doublet is the emblem of the Military Order of St. James.
For years he tried to be recognized as a nobleman but couldn’t find the necessary documents to support his claim. Then finally, just before he died, and with the help of his friend King Philip, he received the official authentication, became a Knight of St. James, and proudly painted their cross on his self-portrait.
His pupil’s family portrait
Velazquez’s son-in-law and pupil, J.B. Mazo, painted this portrait of his own family and paid homage to his master by showing him at work in the old palace.
In the painting Velazquez is at work on another portrait of the Infanta Margarita, like this one:
Today’s Infanta Princess
What is an Infanta?
In Spain and Portugal an “infanta” is a legitimate daughter of the king. This is the Infanta Leonor, daughter of Spain’s present-day Philip VI. The photo is by Cristina García Rodero and appeared on last year’s Christmas greeting from the royal family.