Why not start at the top? Quite possibly the greatest painting ever made, Velazquez’s self-conscious masterpiece is as much about painting as it is a painting. What seems to be a group portrait featuring the young Infanta Margherita is much more than what may be seen at first glance. Thomas Lawrence said that Las Meninas represented no less than “the philosophy of art.” Velazquez’ contemporary, the painter Luca Giordano, described it as the “theology of painting.” A noted philosopher once stood in front of it and asked, “But where is the picture?” What did they mean?
The scene is Velazquez’ studio at the Alcazar Palace. Pride of place goes to the Infanta Margarita, only surviving child of King Philip IV and his second wife, Mariana of Austria, who appear together within the frame in the background of the composition. The Infanta is flanked by her two maids of honor (las meninas, from which the painting draws its title): Isabel de Velasco (curtsying) and Maria Augustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor. Two dwarves are present, in the person of the stocky German Maria Barbola and the slender Italian poking a dog with his leg, Nicolo Pertusato. Considered both preternaturally cunning and amusing, dwarves played important roles at the Spanish Habsburg Court, both as entertainers and advisers. Behind the Infanta is her chaperone, Marcela de Ulloa, and an unidentified bodyguard. In the doorway at the back of the large studio stands a relative of Velazquez’, Don José Nieto Velazquez, the Queen’s chamberlain and keeper of the royal tapestries. Try an experiment. Close your eyes as you look at the painting, then suddenly open them. Where has your line of sight naturally flowed? Its destination is the perspectival vanishing point which, in this case, is the open doorway at the back of the painting. Velazquez himself stands before an enormous canvas, so large that it must be the very canvas of Las Meninas before which we stand.
What is unusual? The painting is full of unsolved mysteries, for which reasonable interpretations have been offered, but no definitive key discovered. To begin with, Velazquez himself may be seen, paintbrush and palette in hand. It was radical to portray an artist in the process of portraying other, far more important, individuals. And then there are the myriad other figures, all identifiable members of court. What is the significance of their presence in a portrait of the princess? But there is more. At the back of the room, either in a framed painting or framed mirror, we see the king and queen. The beveled edges whisper to us that it is a mirror at the back of the room. But reflecting what? The real king and queen, or a portrait of them which Velazquez is painting on the canvas that stands before him? As all attention is directed towards the front of the canvas, effectively where we the viewers stand, one theory suggests that King Philip and his queen are meant to be physically present in the room with those portrayed, their reflections seen in the mirror at the back of the room, all eyes toward them standing at the front.
But why does Velazquez look directly at us, while painting the Infanta? There is an artistic tradition that, while painting someone’s portrait, the artist would not look directly at the subject, but would look at the subject through a mirror. This is most obvious when one paints a self-portrait—one must look at a mirror to see oneself. But it was also used by artists portraying others. The techniques does two useful things. One, it puts the subject inside a frame, that of the mirror itself, so that the artist can compose the picture. Two, it transfers the three-dimensional subject onto the two-dimensional surface of the mirror. This transfer of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional flat surface is the essential act of painting, rendering a real three-dimensional person on a flat canvas, using paint to give the picture the illusion of reality.
So, if this is the traditional technique, where is the mirror? We are the mirror. The front of the painting at which we, the viewers, stare is in fact a mirror, bouncing the scene trapped inside the painting back to Velazquez’ eyes. Imagine a pane of one-way glass. We see through it. Velazquez and those within the painting see only their own reflection in it. But by staring at their reflection, they make eye contact with us, we who are on the far side of the one-way glass. They “break the fourth wall,” to borrow the theatrical term, announcing to us that they are aware that they are figures inside a work of art, and that they know that we viewers are staring in at them. As the philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, in this painting Velazquez has crafted a work self-conscious of itself an artwork, a painting about the act of painting–the first Post-Modernist work of art.
Though of monumental size, the painting was initially kept in the private chambers of King Philip IV. One might imagine the work as a group portrait of those closest to him. The painting itself has been through many adventures. A fire devastated the Alcazar Palace in 1734, damaging Las Meninas. The painting had to be cut down at the edges and parts of it repainted, including all of the Infanta’s left cheek.
Painted four years before his death, Velazquez intended this to be his masterwork. Though he was always renowned as an artist and carried the official title of Court Portraitist, Velazquez suffered from the fact that painters at the Habsburg court were under-appreciated and considered ignoble. He led a bittersweet life, feeling that he had to justify himself as an individual of high standing, by dismissing his painting as a mere hobby. In order to achieve stature at court, he took on a series of time-consuming administrative positions, leaving him little chance to paint. He had to prove on several occasions that he did not earn his keep from painting, which was considered inappropriate for a man of court. He required the personal protection of his patron, King Philip IV, to avoid censorship of his artistically creative work by the Inquisition, a constant threat.
Velazquez’ dream was to raise his social standing and to be given a knighthood, which he finally received mere months before his death. Knighthood required the approval of a commission, which had found questionable elements in Velazquez’ heritage, perhaps Jewish or Muslim blood, delaying the king’s ability to grant the honor that his court painter so desired. After receiving his knighthood, Velazquez revisited Las Meninas, in order to paint the emblem of his title, the red Cross of the Order of Santiago, onto his garment in the painting, which may be seen to this day. A contemporary biographer tells a Romantic version of the addition of the cross, relating that King Philip IV painted it himself after Velazquez’ death, to record the honor of his friend for posterity.
After centuries and fires, Velazquez’ self-conscious masterpiece, as much about painting as it is a marvelous painting itself, is still considered one of the most important works in the history of art, and Spain’s single greatest national treasure.