It is much more than a simple painting. It is one of the most studied works of art in history and yet, not all historians agree on its meaning, genre and even date.
Mirrors, paintings within paintings, people looking into the eyes of the viewer… The secrets hidden in this canvas of life-size figures are almost as fascinating as its amazing technique. From here we will try to understand what this genius of painting wanted to tell us with one of his most complex works at all levels.
When was it actually painted?
According to the treatise writer Antonio Palomino (1655–1726), “Las Meninas” was painted in the year 1656. And that is today the official date. However, in the painting Velázquez appears with a cross of the Santiago Order on his chest and that knighthood was not given to him until 1658.
So, is Palomino wrong about the date, or is he simply lying? « Some say that the Majesty of himself painted it for himself, for the encouragement of the Professors of this Most Noble Art». Is Palomino seriously insinuating that Felipe IV was in charge of painting that cross? We doubt it.
Rather, it could have been Velázquez himself, who died in 1660 and had plenty of time to touch up his masterpiece.
The work was titled “The Family of Felipe IV”, but at first the king does not appear to be the protagonist.
There we have the Infanta Margarita, the center of attention of the painting, flanked by two meninas who attend her: María Agustina Sarmiento, who offers her water, and Isabel de Velasco. A dwarf, Maribárbola, and Nicolasito Pertusato, the buffoon who kicks the mastiff. Let us remember that Velázquez painted several buffoons during his career.
Behind them are Marcela de Ulloa, “minor guard of ladies” and another unidentified guard. In the background José Nieto, head of the queen’s upholstery and “door opener” of the palace.
Velázquez is brave enough to depict himself plying his trade, palette in hand, so we already have some clue as to what he meant by painting this canvas: it probably has something to do with painting.
And finally there are the kings Felipe IV and Mariana of Austria, but reflected in a mirror. The real protagonists are outside the frame.
So what is this painting? A collective portrait? A “conversation scene” like those that were fashionable at the time in northern Europe? The snapshot of an interior? An allegory to dignify and vindicate his profession as a painter?
Interpretations of the Meninas.
The interpretations are multiple, and have been driving historians for centuries. In fact, there is already a psychiatric disorder of its own: Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome (SFLM), suffered by some researchers who spent time searching for meaning in the painting.
What is clear is that some of the characters portrayed there seem to look outside the painting, towards us. Something catches your eye.
- If the kings are not in the room but are reflected in the mirror, the logical thing to do is to think that Velázquez is painting their portrait. The kings pose for the artist and the image of the painting appears in the mirror, but in reality they are where we are.
- Another option is that Velázquez is working in the palace when the monarchs suddenly enter. Some notice and look up. Since the kings are where we are as spectators, they are reflected in the mirror in the background.
- There are those who affirm that Velázquez actually paints the meninas themselves and at that moment the kings appear. So what actually appears on the canvas (of which we only see its frame from behind) would be Las Meninas within Las Meninas. What Velázquez paints is the painting itself that we are seeing. Pure conceptual art in the 17th century.
It has come to be speculated that Velázquez was a time traveler ahead of quantum theories and relativity, and what he is representing in his painting is the same viewers of the painting. Velázquez is painting us! Certainly, when you pass in front of Las Meninas in the Prado, the artist looks at us clearly and the viewer somehow becomes the fourth dimension of the painting.
Whatever the interpretation, Velázquez immerses us fully in painting and invites us to play, to think, to decipher what is happening right at that instant frozen in time like a photograph. In fact, many consider “Las Meninas” also a precursor of photography since it captures a frozen moment in a more “photographic” than “pictorial” way.
Velázquez was knowledgeable about astronomy and astrology. And if we join the hearts of the characters in an imaginary line, the constellation of Corona Borealis is drawn, whose central star is curiously called Margarita Coronae, like the infanta that occupies the center of the painting.
Thus another theory arises: What Velázquez is painting is a hidden message that would mean a reading of the dynastic continuity in the person of the Infanta Margarita (since her older sister María Teresa was going to marry Louis XIV of France and the future King Felipe Prospero was not yet born). At the time of painting the picture, she was the queen of the future.
Velázquez paints the air.
His theme aside, the technique in “Las Meninas” is spectacular. A display of talent that makes one think that what the painter really does is show off. Up close we see a lot of brushstrokes, almost like an impressionist painting, but from a distance everything makes sense and the figures are made of flesh and blood. The painter is even capable of capturing the air in that room.
Velázquez makes masterful use of aerial perspective, which gives depth to the scene through the air that surrounds each of the characters. The air itself blurs the outlines of the figures (especially those in the background).
The architectural space has perhaps too much prominence. It is the only work by Velázquez where the ceiling of the room appears. In addition , Velázquez devoted too much paint to the empty space at the top that occupies almost two thirds of the canvas. The paintings hanging in the shadows are copies of mythological themes by Rubens made by Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo.
Perhaps with that he wanted to make it clear that painting is the real subject of “Las Meninas” and that this trade was noble enough to be on a par with the nobility and the monarchy.
Be that as it may, like a good baroque, this artist achieves a successful spatial effect, creating the sensation that the room continues outside the canvas, as if the characters shared space with us, the spectators. It is a painting that exceeds its physical and spatial limits without the need for artifice or trompe l’oeil.
Reactions to «Las Meninas».
Obviously, not only historians were intrigued by this painting. Artists, writers, scientists and philosophers also reacted to one of the greatest works of art in history.
The writer Théophile Gautier , for example, when visiting the Prado in the 19th century, exclaimed his famous phrase: “Where is the painting?” Such was the realism of this masterpiece that he could not see it.
Manet, Goya, Oscar Wilde, Foucault, Ortega y Gasset… there are innumerable illustrious characters who based themselves on this painting to recreate their own works.
“Las Meninas” by Picasso.
«Las Meninas, stereoscopic work» by Dalí.
Picasso was obsessed with the painting for years and even said that he would lock himself in a room and not come out until he understood the meaning of “Las Meninas” and Dalí said that famous phrase when asked what he would save from the Prado if there was a fire: “Dalí It would take the air nothing less, and specifically the air contained in Las Meninas by Velázquez, which is the best quality air that exists.»