Las Meninas: The unsolved mystery of the royal portrait by the Spanish painter Velazquez in 1656
There are some Spanish painters and their masterpieces that even those who are not very much interested in the visual arts have heard of. Like Pablo Picasso's Guernica or Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory. In this article, I would like to talk about a Spanish painter and his masterpiece, perhaps unknown to many, but very famous in the world of art: Diego Velazquez's painting Las Meninas, that is, The Maids of Honour.
Years ago, when I first went to Madrid, I visited the most famous and important places of Madrid, as all tourists do. Sol Square, Retiro Park, Almudena Cathedral… And if you like to visit art museums and want to see the works of the most famous Spanish painters, you should definitely visit the Prado museum. I visited this museum together with a friend. I remember we stopped in front of this painting for a while, observed it and then, continued on our way. This painting did not seem interesting to us at that time, as we went there without reading and researching about it. However, my curiosity started to grow as I kept seeing Las Meninas figurines in all gift shops around the city. Later, when I asked my then Spanish boyfriend (my current husband) about this painting, he told me that the most interesting aspect of this painting was the different perspectives and hidden layers it contained. Even such a small explanation was enough for me to see this painting with different eyes. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to revisit the Prado museum over the years and see this painting again, but I still had time to read and watch a lot about it.
Facts about the portrait
Born in Seville, Spain, IV. Diego Velazquez, who served as Felipe's royal painter for many years, is thought to have painted Las Meninas in 1656 in his final years (he died in 1660). This painting, which he gave as a gift to the king, was first hung in the study room of the king's summer palace. A century later, it was damaged in the fire that burnt the palace, and the painting was cut off from both sides because its edges were burned (but the painting is still quite large, 3.18m x 2.76m in size). In 1819, it was placed in the Prado museum in Madrid, where it is still present today. Although more than three centuries have passed since it was painted, Las Meninas still amazes those who see it and is interpreted very differently by experts. Let's have a closer look at the painting itself and the different interpretations of Las Meninas together...
First look at the portrait
This painting of Velazquez actually depicts what is going on in his workshop which used to be inside the palace because he was a royal painter.
To begin with, the group portrayed here consists of very different characters. In the center of the painting, lit by the light coming in from the window on the right, stands Princess Margarita Maria, the 5-6 year old daughter of the Spanish king and the queen at that time. The princess was Felipe's only surviving child at the time of this painting (Felipe's former wife and son had died earlier, and after he remarried, his daughter Margarita was born).
On both sides of the princess are the "meninas", the servants or maids of the princess, who are the ones that gave the painting its name. There are two dwarfs on the right side of the picture, and one of them is pictured with his foot on the dog. In the back, a priestess and a guard whom she speaks to are standing. When we go further back, we see a palace official; however, we are not sure if he is entering the room or leaving. When we move our gaze to the left side of the painting, we see Velazquez himself standing in front of his canvas with a painting palette in his hand. He is currently working on a painting. So, what's interesting here?
The fine line between art and reality dissolves
Here we actually see a portrait which is very different from the traditional ones. Rather than painting people who are standing and posing, Velazquez seems to have almost spontaneously photographed a crowd in action. While we are looking at them from outside the painting, they are are also gazing back at us amid what's going on. The gaze of the princess, one of her servants, one of the dwarves, and Velazquez is directed at us. For this reason, we feel as if they see us and we are included in the picture, too. It feels like we have entered a three-dimensional picture and we get the impression that we are in the same environment with these people. In fact, we perceive it as if we are in the center of the picture, since the eyes are turned towards us. So why? Are these people looking at us or at someone else who was standing where we are at the moment the picture was taken? With all these play with the gaze and perspectives, Velazquez diminishes the fine line between reality and art, making it difficult to distinguish where the artwork ends and reality begins. But wait, it's not over yet...
Whose portrait is it anyway?
There is another point that experts cannot agree on. Whose portrait is Las Meninas really? Who is Velazquez painting at that time? Due to the dimensions of the canvas that appear in the painting in front of Velazquez, some say that it is this real-life Las Meninas painting. Could Velazquez have painted the moment when this painting was being painted?
First of all, this painting, in which Velazquez also portrays himself painting, can be considered a self-portrait, right? But he stands in the left corner of the painting and does not seem to draw attention to himself with his dark clothes... Then, we can assume that his main purpose here is not to make a self-portrait.
The figures that draw our attention the most in the painting are actually the princess and her servants, because they both stand in the center of the painting and at the brightest point, and they give the painting its name (Las Meninas = Maids of honor). However, this explanation does not logically describe the rest of the painting. Why is Velazquez standing behind the princess and not in front of the princess if he is painting her? He is also looking towards us instead of the princess. We cannot really tell what or who he is painting because his canvas is not facing us. Nonetheless, there may be a tiny hint of who he is actually painting...
The answer may be hidden in the mirror hanging on the wall at the back. Even though it is small and blurry, we can see the reflections of the Spanish king and queen in this mirror (like Jan van Eyck's famous Arnolfini couple). The king and queen themselves are not in the picture except for this tiny reflection in the mirror. According to one interpretation, the king and the queen may be actually standing where we stand as the audience, observing the scene, and Velazquez is looking right at them and painting a portrait of them. So does this painting show us the moment when Velazquez was painting the royal couple that we can't quite see?
According to another interpretation, the mirror at the back does not actually reflect the king and the queen themselves in real life, but rather reflects a painting that Velazquez painted portraying the king and the queen which is hanging on the wall where we stand. In this case, we see the reflection of a reflection, not the reality, in the painting. An interesting detail is that in real life Velazquez had never done such a portrait of the king and queen (like the one you see in the mirror). Does this painting depict the painter making a portrait that is not actually real?
An even more confusing interpretation made by art historians is that Velazquez is not painting the princess, the maids or the king and queen on his canvas, but someone else. The reason for this is the perspectives in the painting. The mirror at the back is located slightly towards the left, not in the center. Then, the king and the queen, if they are really there, are standing on our left side. So who is this mysterious person standing in the middle and looking directly at the characters from our point of view? Since this whole painting was created from our perspective, could it be that Velazquez is painting our portrait?!
There are so many details to be told about Las Meninas... Even the half-dimmed, shadowy paintings hanging on the wall behind have meanings (if you are interested in mythological stories, you can search for them too). But no matter how much you read or research, you cannot solve the mystery of this painting. Maybe, that's exactly what Velazquez wanted? Perhaps what makes this painting so amazing is the questions that it makes us ask.
Of course, modern Spanish artists took notice of this masterpiece as well. Both Picasso and Dali were so impressed with this portrait that they repainted Las Meninas in their own style.
So, what's your interpretation? Who do you think this painting, which depicts a picture within a picture actually portrays?