What’s going on here?

     “Las Meninas” means “The Maids of Honor” hangs behind bulletproof glass, probably the greatest treasure of the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain.  This beautiful and impressive oil painting was created in 1656 by court painter Diego Velazquez, and is 9 feet 1/2 inch by 10 feet 5 inches.   This work was painted for the private summer quarters of Philip IV, king of Spain, and is both a portrait of the king’s young daughter and a sophisticated tribute to the king himself.  It portrays one moment in time, with each person responding to the entrance of the king and queen.  The royal couple is in the position occupied by you, the viewer of the painting.

     Possibly one of the things that might strike you about this painting is that it seems to be half dark and half light; the darkness being the vastness of the room in the royal palace, and the light being centered on the little princess, the Infanta Margarita Teresa.  Around her are her maids, tutors, page and dwarf, as well as her gigantic dog.  As our eye roams around the painting, there are fascinating details to be noted. 

     The left side of the picture is taken up by a huge canvas, and we can see the painter, Velazquez himself, standing at the far left and concentrating on an impressively large canvas.  Behind him are a number of large paintings by Rubens.  Did the artist put them in the shadows to indicate that he had surpassed this master?  The red cross on Velazquez’s chest was actually added to the painting two or three years after it is finished.  It signifies that he received a knighthood from the king.

     In a mirror at the back of the room we can see a reflection of the king and queen of Spain.  However, we don’t know if this is an actual reflection of them as they enter the room, or a reflection of the painting the artist is working on. 

     The man in the doorway has been identified as a courtier.  In fact, all of the people in the painting have been identified as historical personages except for the man standing quietly on the right, in the background.  Velazquez has shown us the whole world of the inner court of Spain, presented in reverse order of importance with the king and queen in the background.  Even as reflections in a mirror, they are a strong presence, a subtle compliment from the artist.

     Velazquez, born in 1599, became court painter in 1623.  His beautiful paintings are official statements of what the monarch and entourage looked like in an age without photography.   His royal friends found the artist’s use of paint intriguing.  They pointed out to one another that when his pictures must be viewed at a distance.  When one stood back from a painting, the seemingly hasty brushstrokes suddenly and miraculously turned into an amazing semblance of reality.  The rosy flush of a child’s cheek, the glitter of light, lace, gold, and the noble face of a king were caught by the artist’s rough and apparently haphazard dabs of color much more accurately than the work of court painters who carefully set up and blended each stroke.

     Whether Velazquez painted a king, Christ on the cross, a mythological theme or one of the court dwarfs who served as jesters, he gave each figure its own dignity and humanity, painting the portrait of a dwarf, often a figure of fun, as carefully as he painted the king himself.  His paintings are unique, and his vision of humanity makes him one of the greatest of all painters.




Published by on December 2012. Filed under Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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