The Best Painting in the World?

What kind of mess is this? What is it “about”? There are so many people. Which of them is the subject?

The Maids of Honour by Diego Velasquez (1656-1657); Prado Museum, Madrid (public domain photo by Google Earth) Dimensions: 318 × 276 cm (125.2 × 108.7 in)

Answer: Las MeninasThe Maids of Honor—is what an artist does who is obliged to paint a royal portrait and who entertains himself with what is NOT the royal portrait.

Velazquez squirmed at the canvas each time a royal sitter, dressed up for the occasion, walked into his studio for another portrait. Painting routine portraits of the members of the royal family had become a cruel duty. He put off painting them and they took him months to finish. He didn’t dislike painting portraits but he disliked being ordered to paint the same subject over and over again. That he tried at all to say something new about the model was proof of his discipline and his honesty.

But more and more the model’s clothes became the real subject of the picture, or the model’s toys, or the furniture in the room, or the clock on the mantel. By the time he painted Las Meninas, one of his last paintings, this everything-else-but-the-royal-sitter had become almost funny. The room itself became the subject. Plus all the people attendant on the Infanta, including her maids of honor, the buffon and the dwarf woman, the chief butler, the sleepy dog. Plus, in the mirror, the King and Queen. Plus himself, Velazquez, full-length, and his easel.

Key to Las Meninas

(1) Margarita Teresa of Spain, Infanta Margarita (2) doña Isabel de Velasco (3) doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor (4) the dwarf German, Maribarbola (Maria Barbola) (5) the dwarf Italian, Nicolas Pertusato (6) doña Marcela de Ulloa (7) unidentified bodyguard (guardadamas) (8) Don José Nieto Velázquez (9) Velázquez (10) King Philip IV reflected in mirror (11) Mariana, queen of King Philip, reflected in mirror (public domain photo de Tyrenius)

The dark, tall-ceilinged, musty room in the old palace was his prison—the situation he had gotten himself into, for good and for bad. The picture was an anthology of the subjects of all the paintings he had ever made. Las Meninas wasn’t only his self-portrait, it was his circumstances, his autobiography.    See Velasquez Dreamed of Becoming Somebody

Here is Picasso’s take-off on the great painting:

Las Meninas by Pablo Picasso (fair use image)

Read more about Las Meninas here.

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45 Responses to The Best Painting in the World?

  1. peggi says:

    What kind of mess indeed. That was my thought when I looked at this painting. I can imagine the torture of having to paint another overindulged royal child in the same manner again and again.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Have you seen it in Madrid, Peggi? It’s a huge painting that fills a whole wall, and when you walk into the room where it is exhibited, it is as though you are walking into the picture and confronting all those strange people. There’s nothing like this painting anywhere. Like all really original things it requires some surrender on the part of the viewer, some suspension of his prejudices, some getting used to.

  3. Ion Danu says:

    I see it recently, in a movie about Goya’s time – the new king of Spain (one of the numerous brothers of Napoleon) was passing them in revue, in order to choose what to send to Napoleon… He saw Le Jardin des délices de Bosch but said it was too bizarre for Napoleon’s taste… Not very much of a taste, altogether…

  4. 100swallows says:

    Hi Danu!
    Spaniards didn’t like him at the time–they called him Pepe (for José) the Bottle because he drank a lot. But afterwards historians gave him high points for his kingship here. José I. I don’t know who WOULD want the Meninas–such a strange, cheerless picture. Would you? They say it was Goya who rediscovered Velazquez, whose reputation had fallen off for a century. Goya copied many of his things in the Prado. But of course his copies look Goyesque.

  5. visalon says:

    I like Meninas. In my opinion it is a story about infanta’s inner
    world. She is smiling because she put toghether the parallel stories of the people from her life. The painter is a witness of her universe so he has to be “in the picture” in order to prove that her “maya” is real.

  6. 100swallows says:

    That’s an original idea, Visalon. I can’t think of another work where Velazquez painted the “interior world” of his sitters though. You would call this “The Infanta’s Universe” I guess. Sounds a bit too modern but it works, I must say. What is her “maya”? Do you mean “maja”?

  7. visalon says:

    100 swallows,

    My English is not good enough, but I would try to answer to you in few words. After I had read your post I saw again the painting and I was
    impressed by infanta’s smile. I “understood” that all that universe- the room, the dog, etc, including the relationship between people/ objects-, was a relection of her inner and Velazquez was so genial to discover and be able to paint this amaizing fact so strange for those years and places. When I wrote “maya”, I meant Maya= Illusion
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_(illusion)
    Thank you,
    c

  8. ion danu says:

    Hi, carmen! Glad to meet you on my good friend swallows blog! Even if, just like a poet that you are, you put poetry in a painting which is, essentially “illusion” made with paints on a rectangular surface…

    You poets! you are great with words but you do attribute too much ‘sense” to things which aren’t for us painters more than design, composition and color problems… I was just reading about Nicholas de Stael who was reproaching Goya exactly this: too much literature in his great paintings, too much anecdote… A painting (and Velasquez paintings are some of the greatest ever…) should be autonomous, good without any anecdote (which is something extra, in the worst case…) just like a good poetry should be good without any illustration, just with words…

  9. visalon says:

    Danu,

    Glad to meett you, too & happy to discover that you are not embarrassed to let your friend know that we are friends:)
    c.

  10. 100swallows says:

    Thanks for trying hard to explain, visalon. It is a striking interpretation and I think I will remember it when I look at las Meninas again. I looked up maya. Are you into Hindu mythology? I’m not.

  11. visalon says:

    All the mitologies are really important for me.
    I “hope” to discover the difference between the illusion and the truth, and Hindu symbols are very important for me, despite of the fact that I could not understand very well the Hinduism Philosophy.

  12. beti says:

    The most important and touchy element in this painting, to me, is the dog and the girl at the right corner. I think about how much time it takes to accomplish this painting… Sometimes years huh… And at the end, the painter can just capture a scene, just one second from life. He paints just the moment before the dog get disturbed and turned his head to the girl… He is just capable of this.
    may be Velasquez was feeling like he was condemned to be a painter sometimes…

  13. Michael says:

    I prefer Tintoreto’s “Paradise”,Dux Palace,Venice.I love this website congratulations 100swallows.

  14. cantueso says:

    Is it the best? Maybe.

    But is it liked best?

    No.

  15. shaz kahn says:

    is greaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatttttttttt

  16. SHARAD says:

    The subject, the dtailing, the colour combination, didn’t apeal me much. An ordinery painting.

    • 100swallows says:

      Sharad: An ordinary painting it is not. Show me another like it. Perhaps if you saw it in the Prado you would like it better. It is as big as the wall and has greater depth than most paintings so that you feel you are looking right into that room of his at those people, who look back. Those sober colors take some getting used to, I know.

  17. Clohe says:

    Really pretty painting, made the moment forever…

  18. irinsade says:

    Hey…love your posts..thanks for the insights…I happen to be an aspiring artist..started late as usual..lol…but find your take on art fascinating…was wondering if you could do like a piece on renaissance art?

    • 100swallows says:

      iirinsade: Thanks. I’m glad you like the blog. Basically it is about famous individuals and their works rather than movements or periods in art history. But a broader view is sometimes useful and I might yet write one.

      • irinsade says:

        great…yep glad you’re writing about this..especially in such a reflective manner..sometimes its difficult to make sense out of the rigmarole the art critics can spin. this is refreshing and quite enlightening.

  19. I never comment on blogs, but your awsome content have forced me to to leave some positive feedback

  20. salam says:

    My dear:
    Im adoctor,ihave interast of picture maked by painter(artist)so much.
    with best regard

  21. Aniuddha Das says:

    I am not s profound painting observer….
    There are many parts of this painting for which i still cant get an answer

    - one of the painting in the wall is brighter than other , why so
    - there is a nun , included in the list of the of female figure , what is she doing there

    The painting did protray one simple thing, if you are good at some thing , people will make you do that thing again and again , till you get bored of it ….and start disliking it …how sad is that …

    • 100swallows says:

      Aniuddha Das: The brighter painting on the wall is not a painting but a mirror. Those two foggy images you see in it are the king (Philip IV) and queen. The fiction of this big work is that Velazquez is painting a portrait of the royal couple (standing where we viewers are) and all those other people are milling around him in his studio while he paints.
      In fact, it is a collection of portraits of the members of the royal household. Each person has been identified. The “nun” is Doña Marcela de Ulloa, who was in charge of the queen’s maids of honor. I don’t know if she was a nun but you shouldn’t be surprised that a nun was part of the court. Many noble ladies became nuns, including members of the royal family itself.
      I should say that my post gives an unusual interpretation of this famous picture. It may simply have been commissioned by the king: “Paint us a picture of all these faithful servants of ours”. Instead of simply lining them up as some wedding photographer might, Velazquez made a real “play” out of them.

  22. Rich says:

    hi

    (sorry sarah;
    please excuse my somewhat overabundant talkativeness)

  23. Aaron Asare says:

    HI!
    I like your pictures and i would like you to send me more

  24. Aaron Asare says:

    thanks for your nice speech

  25. Tom says:

    While on tour in Madrid years ago (70′s), I went to El Prado and toured the museum.
    When we got to “Las Meninas”, the tour guide anounced that this is the #1 painting
    in the world. As I looked on, I did not understand why they had chosen this particular
    painting from among all the other beautiful paintings. Then the tour guide handed
    us a mirror and asked us to look at any other painting in the mirror. The paintings
    looked all the same. Then she said now look at “Las Meninas” in the mirror. When I
    looked I couldn’t believe it, the little princess, the King and the Queen in the reflection,
    the self portrait of Diego, and others all stood out of the canvas in a 3D effect while the
    other paintings remained flat. He died with the secret technique and it has never been
    duplicated. That is why it is number 1 in the world.

  26. peace says:

    wow that is cool

  27. akshat says:

    i don’ understand it

  28. jerry says:

    the painting is very nice,I have also interest on painting.I want to learn also.

  29. can you please teach me how to paint this?
    from :dana ali alamoudi

  30. Osasona Kenny says:

    Wao! It’s indeed a good work

  31. Anonymous says:

    Well I think is the greatest work i seen in a while i love the details and i’ve seen better!\

  32. Anonymous says:

    I hate it

    • Anonymous says:

      This is the best thing I ever seen I love it

      • sunday aito says:

        I do not need the experts or authorities in art to tell me that this painting is one of the greatest, if not the greatest painting ever painted. The lighting, use of color and of course technique results in a painting whose realism is mind boggling unlike the mona lisa that is all hype and nothing else.
        Sonny aito

  33. Morgan says:

    How do they do it its so amazing to see people do it so well who agrees
    best art I have seen love it!
    it looks so real.

  34. great artist gourav kumawat says:

    Plzz sir call me.
    I want to become very fomuse artist in world.
    I am great artist and great penter.
    I need your gaidenece.
    Plz.
    Mo. 8239088454

    Your penting is best in world.
    Sir i am a great artist. My dream is i will become the great artist in world.
    I do very hard work. Try and try agean.
    I want become femouse in this world.
    Plzz tips me.
    I am carntly study in engineering.
    Age 20 year.
    Name great artist gourav kumawat

    • 100swallows says:

      Gourav kumawat: I am not a talent scout but I will leave your message here for anyone who might be looking for a painter. Keep at it. If you are exceptional it will show in your work. Good luck.

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