An artwork that has been seminal in the development of our western art is Las Meninas, the portrait of Spain’s King Phillip IV’s daughter in his court. The work shows the artist at his easel, and the King and Queen faintly in the mirror behind them all.
The artist had been a background and lesser member of the court, more a draftsman than a societal equal to courtiers. Velázquez moved beyond this role and into membership in royal society and friend to the king. This is shown to some degree in his painting of himself in that circle.
Las Meninas has long been recognised as one of the most important paintings in Western art history. The Baroque painter Luca Giordano said that it represents the “theology of painting” and in 1827 president of the R.A.Sir Thomas Lawrence described the work in a letter to his successor David Wilkie as “the true philosophy of the art”. More recently, it has been described as “Velázquez’s supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting”.
On his chest is the red cross of the Order of Santiago, which he did not receive until 1659, three years after the painting was completed. According to Palomino, Philip ordered this to be added after Velázquez’s death, “and some say that his Majesty himself painted it”. From the painter’s belt hang the symbolic keys of his court offices.
A mirror on the back wall reflects the upper bodies and heads of two figures identified from other paintings, and by Palomino, as King Philip IV (10) and Queen Mariana (11). The most common assumption is that the reflection shows the couple in the pose they are holding for Velázquez as he paints them, while their daughter watches; and that the painting therefore shows their view of the scene.
Depth and dimension are rendered by the use of linear perspective, by the overlapping of the layers of shapes, and in particular, as stated by Clark, through the use of tone. This compositional element operates within the picture in a number of ways. First, there is the appearance of natural light within the painted room and beyond it. The pictorial space in the midground and foreground is lit from two sources: by thin shafts of light from the open door, and by broad streams coming through the window to the right. The 20th-century French philosopher and cultural critic Michel Foucault observed that the light from the window illuminates both the studio foreground and the unrepresented area in front of it, in which the king, the queen, and the viewer are presumed to be situated. For José Ortega y Gasset, light divides the scene into three distinct parts, with foreground and background planes strongly illuminated, between which a darkened intermediate space includes silhouetted figures.
Velázquez uses this light not only to add volume and definition to each form but also to define the focal points of the painting.
The work has been incorporated into others’ art, and Picasso did stylized renderings of the painting in a series of his own.
(Thanks are due Knut for suggesting a post on Velázquez.)