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 Meninas—The 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.
(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.