Today we look at Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez for Artwork in Focus. Join me Divvya Nirula as I explore and present my experience of the selected artwork.
Artwork in Focus
Title: Las Meninas
Artist : Diego Velázquez
Year : 1656
Medium : oil on canvas
Dimensions : 3.18 m x 2.76 m
Location : Museo Nacional del Prado
The Allure of Las Meninas
As I look at this painting time and time again there is something alluring – a pull. The dissonance between the visual Velázquez presents and the title tell us two different stories. Almost exactly in the centre of the painting we are presented with a little girl being dressed. She is dressed in white, appearing to be of royal or noble blood. She is clearly the central character from a visual perspective. For the light is falling on her and a non-native speaker of Spanish may be forgiven the assumption that she is Las Meninas. However, this is not the case. Velasquez tells us through the title – ‘look beyond what I am presenting’. Look to the two other slightly older girls who are preening and dressing our assumed central character. For they are – The Ladies in Waiting/The Maids of Honour – that is Las Meninas.
Housed and on display at the National Museum of Prado, this artwork holds the position as one of the most enigmatic paintings ever made. 364 years later the painting’s uncanny power lies undiminished and continues to thrall audiences and viewership, critics and art lovers, myself included.
The Subjects of Las Meninas
The little girl is Infanta Margarita of Spain. Daughter of King Philip IV and his second wife, Queen Mariana of Austria. Captured at the age of five or six, Infanta Margarita was one of the artist’s favourite subjects as well as her father’s for whom she was the fourth child.
Her lush cream gown with its buoyant skirt floats above the ground. Soft golden hair and pink cheeks give her an angelic appearance, reflecting the stream of natural light that filters into the picture. Noticeably, the presence of the child Margarita creates a lightness in the entire composition.
To her left and right are the titular meninas, the ladies-in-waiting, attending to the young royal in her daily routine. They are Doña Isabel de Velasco and Doña María Augustina Sarmiento. Doña Isabel entered the service of the Royal Palace as menina to Queen Mariana in the year 1649 till her death in 1659. Doña María Augustina Sarmiento served as menina to the Infanta Margarita directly. We see Doña María Augustina Sarmentio, directly to the left of the Princess, kneeling to offer the child a small bright red jug on a silver dish; on the right, is Doña Isabel de Velasco in a mid-curtsy, with her hands stretched over her gown.
Adding to the tableaux, further to the viewer right is the dwarf Maribárbola and court jester Nicolás Pertusato (or Nicolasito), who were part of the royal household. They featured in Velázquez’s works as a part of a group with single portraits as well. Nicolasito rests his foot on a large, gentle dog, which some have identified as a mastiff. Nun Doña Marcela de Ulloa is behind the ladies and seems to be caught mid-discussion speaking with an unidentified guard.
As we look deeper into the painting, we see a mirror in the background. Within it are reflected King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana, posing for none other than Velázquez himself. He is peering out from behind a large canvas dressed in the black courtier costume. He has a red cross of Santiago painted on his chest. Symbolising his knighthood, which the king had bestowed upon him.
As our eyes travel acros the canvas more characters jump out at us. There is a man in the doorway, either ascending or descending the staircase. He appears to look directly at us, the viewer. Identified by royal scholars as José Nieto Velázquez, the queen’s chamberlain, who also ran the royal tapestry workshop. The most crucial aspect of the composition, as mentioned before, is the mirror to Nieto’s left. It is within it that we see the backlit reflection of the painting yet to be made. That is the portrait of King Philip and Queen Mariana. The importance of this composition and the awe it inspires within me, is best illustrated by the observation below,
“Velázquez has arrested a real moment of time long before the invention of the camera.”– EH Gombrich in his book the ‘Story of Art’,
It is in fact, among many other things – a “behind the scenes” snapshot of court life as a painter.
The Critics and Scholars
Critics have called the painting “a dizzying retinal riddle of a painting” they claim that “Las Meninas plays tug-of-war with our mind. On the one hand, the canvas’s perspective lines converge to a vanishing point within the open doorway, pulling our gaze through the work. On the other hand, the rebounding glare of the mirror bounces our attention back out of the painting to ponder the plausible position of royal spectres whose vague visages haunt the work. We are constantly dragged into and out of the painting as the here-and-now of the shadowy chamber depicted by Velázquez becomes a strangely elastic dimension that is both transient and eternal – a realm at once palpably real and mistily imaginary.”
Scholars who have studied this Baroque artwork for several decades, have been fascinated by the light displayed on the canvas. Three light sources to be specific. From the shadows it has been surmised that there are three definitive source so light. One from the open doorway, the second from the window and the third source is an unknown off-canvas source that lights the skirt of Infanata Margarita. All of this adds to the communication that Velázquez is having with his audience. The canvas is a display and play of illusions and delusions, mystical with an almost film liek quality to it, for all the movement it presents. Our imagination rushes to fill this scene with dialogue, voices, sounds and conversations.
The Red Vase Theory
Over the years a theory has emerged. In this theory the red vase being offered to the little Princess is seen as holding a key to the painting. The small unassuming earthenware mug, known as a búcaro, was among the many covetable crafts brought back to the Old World by Spanish explorers to the New World in the 16th and 17th Centuries. According to Byron Ellsworth Hamann, the art historian who has traced the origin as a product of Guadalajara, Mexico. A secret mixture of native spices was kilned into the clay when the vase was made, which ensured that any liquid it held, would be delicately perfumed.
Apart from the fragrant and flavoured water, the búcaro held another surprising function. In the 17th-Century, in the Spanish aristocratic circles for girls and young women, it was not uncommon for them to nibble at the rims of these porous clay vases and slowly to devour them entirely. The consuming of this mixed clay led to a dramatic lightening of the skin to an almost ethereal ghostliness. Skin the colour of ivory was the most prized possession for ladies especially royalty. This cultural motivation for porcelain skin is not only to be found in our histories and centuries past. It remains till today a fetish, an obsession for the rich and poor alike. Perhaps, the luminosity and fairness of the skin in somehow in our global psyche linked to a presence of the ethereal, the divine?
Want to read more of my views on artworks that hold my attention ? Visit the archive for Artwork in Focus.