Diego Velázquez’s iconic work “Las Meninas” has long been regarded as one of the most important paintings in Western art due to the profound message that the masterpiece’s snapshot style dissimulates (Alpers 31). Upon its completion in 1656, “Las Meninas” offered a revolutionary interpretation of art that parted with the restrained formality of Classicism and offered the first glimpse of the experimentation of Modernism, a world of possibilities far larger than that to which the artist had previously been confined (Foucault 18). By simply depicting a pair of reflections amidst a web of complex spatial relationships, Velázquez forever changed the nature of representation in art.
Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599, during the Spanish Golden Age, a period marked by the thriving of art in Spain. Showing an early gift for art, Velázquez received formal training through apprenticeship from 1610 to 1617 before beginning his career. By the early 1620s he was well known as a talented artist and he moved to Madrid, having been selected as the painter of King Philip IV’s court. For thirty years he developed his artistic style, painting dozens of portraits and traveling to Italy twice. Throughout his career he also tried to heighten the social status of the artist so as to be accepted by the royal family (Kahr 241). The culmination of the artistic and social aspects of Velázquez’s life, “Las Meninas” is a quintessentially baroque oil on canvas painting clearly influenced by the importance that 17th century Spanish ideology placed on the relationship between illusion and reality (Steinberg 52).
The composition of “Las Meninas” is not in itself particularly complex. Nine figures, five of whom look directly out at the viewer, are depicted in Velázquez’s studio, a large room in King Philip IV’s Alcázar palace. In the foreground stands the Infanta Marguerita, in the center, flanked on the left and right by two of her maids of honour. Further right stand two dwarfs, also members of the Infanta’s entourage; a sleeping dog lies at their feet. The left is occupied by the back of a tall canvas, a canvas from which Velázquez himself, paintbrush and palette in hand, has stepped away; he stands in the left middle ground. The artists’ gaze is directed at the viewer. Two more figures, the Infanta’s chaperone and bodyguard, stand in the right middle ground, partially obscured by the maid of honour behind whom they stand. A chamberlain stands alone on a flight of stairs at the back of the room. Lastly, a mirror hanging on the back wall reflects the image of the Philip IV and Mariana of Austria; the Spanish King and Queen are having their portrait done; the Infanta is either interrupting or is there to alleviate their boredom. The scene depicted in “Las Meninas” is from the point of view of the royal couple; the viewer of the painting seemingly looks out of their eyes (Kubler 212). The viewer, occupying the same space as Velázquez’s, is thereby included in the painting and becomes one of its integral elements (Alpers 31).
That is not to say that similarly composed works had not been completed before. Parmigianino’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” make the viewer the artist himself, while Pontormo’s “Portrait of Duke Alessandro de’Medici” and Floris’ “St. Luke” make the viewer the artist’s subject (Steinberg 46). Therefore the fact that “Las Meninas” places the viewer in the same space as the subjects does not in itself make this painting remarkable, though the role of sight is evidently one the most significant elements of Velázquez’s magnum opus (Steinberg 46).
To fully appreciate why “Las Meninas” is remarkable one must understand the complexity of the relationships between the elements of the painting’s composition. For one, “Las Meninas” has no well defined focal point. Determining focus based on the center of the canvas’s width would place the focal point on the Infanta, more specifically on her left eye (Steinberg 51). However, the vanishing point of the scene’s perspective places would establish the chamberlain at the back of the room as the focal point (Kubler 212). On the other hand, awarding focus to the center of the room would place the mirror reflecting the royal couple at the focal point (Steinberg 51). In addition, the painting is further destabilised both by the divided placement of the three men (Velázquez, the chamberlain and the bodyguard) looking at the viewer as well as by the natural light, which casts the middle ground into shadow while illuminating the foreground and background (Foucault 21). By dispersing the viewer’s focus, Velázquez leaves the identity of the subject of “Las Meninas” ambiguous. The possible candidates are numerous. Perhaps the Infanta is the subject, or Velázquez, or the King and Queen. Perhaps the subject is the viewer himself, whose inclusion in the painting arguably makes his presence another focal point (Alpers 31).
Faced with this ambiguity, the viewer realises that “Las Meninas” was not designed conventionally. The complex spatial relationships do not serve to establish the subject of the painting but to grant heightened significance of the mirror hanging on the back wall and thereby to provide the viewer with an insight on the representation of reality and illusion (Snyder and Cohen 429). Since the chamberlain at the back of the room represents the vanishing point and since this point lies directly opposite the viewer’s eye, it can be concluded that we the viewer as well as the royal couple stand at an angle to the mirror (Stork 4). The mirror must therefore reflect part of the portrait that Velázquez is in the process of painting on the tall canvas to our left (Snyder 547). The symbolism of this element of “Las Meninas” is immense. The reflection of the King and Queen is equated to their painted representations, “the real thing and the painting of it [...] the mirror reveals as identical, as if to grant that the masterpiece on the canvas mirrors the truth beyond any mirror's capacity to surpass” (Steinberg 52). Snyder and Cohen affirm that Velázquez, exulting in his art, sends the powerful message that the reflection provided by a mirror is a poor imitation of reality in comparison to the representation provided by a work of art.
The other crucial insight into representation that the complex spatial relationships in “Las Meninas” grant relies on Leo Steinberg’s argument that the figures of “Las Meninas” are actually grouped in accordance to what they see. The Infanta, the curtseying maid of honour, and the female dwarf see only the royal couple while the boy, the kneeling maid of honour, and the chaperone see only what preoccupies them. Yet, more importantly, the bodyguard, Velázquez, and the chamberlain see the other figures of the painting, the royal couple and the painting of the royal couple. The viewer, by also seeing the figures, the royal couple and the painting, completes this cycle of sight lines. It is the fusion of this role of sight and the aforementioned role of the mirror which explains the remarkable nature of the painting and which transmits the central message of “Las Meninas,” that reality, reflection and representation exist together (Steinberg 53). As Steinberg elegantly explains, “the royal presence is seen from within the picture to inspire a painting, [...] the viewer sees the averted painting engender its mirror image, which in turn guarantees the royal pair's real presence”.
In conclusion, the significance of Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” cannot be underestimated. Combining powerful messages about reality, illusion and sight into a unified system of representation, Velázquez “gives us the real, the reflected, and the depicted as three interdependent states, three modalities of the visible that cause and succeed one another in a perpetual round” (Steinberg 53). This revolutionary interpretation of representation widened artist’s horizons drastically, forever altering the nature of Western art.
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Snyder, Joel. "Las Meninas and the Mirror of the Prince."Critical Inquiry 11.4 (1985): 539-572. JSTOR. Database. 25 April 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343417>.
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