Las Meninas, painted by Diego Velazquez is one of the most analyzed paintings of all time. The Spanish court painter’s masterpiece brings up questions of the painter’s status and 17th century societal norms as it pushes the limits of painting as a medium.
Leo Steinberg approaches Las Meninas by trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting, designating the focal centers and the viewer’s interaction with them, the groupings of the figures, and the recirculation of the real and illusory space. Jonathan Brown goes about his interpretation in a slightly different way. He states past interpretations and then tries to understand what is happening in the painting by trying to understand what Velazquez was trying to portray in the action of Las Meninas. Brown focuses on the artist-patron relationship, including Velazquez’ role in the Spanish court and his many attempts to further his status as an artist. He then questions what is on the canvas in the painting and what the painting means as an attribute to the status of the artist and painting.
Steinberg begins with a self-addressed memo, explaining that he first wrote this article during the Con Edison blackout of 1965, while he was at Vassar College. With an informal tone, he combines his personal life experiences with the influence of Las Meninas. He acknowledges the debate over the painting’s meaning and the many interpretations that have been brought forth over the years. Steinberg argues that if the painting is not discussed anymore, Las Meninas itself will fade into a similar blackout, thus the purpose of his essay.
He tries to understand what the painting actually depicts, what this famous moment can mean to someone who is not well versed in its importance. Steinberg is interested in examining how this painting seems to take a grip on the viewer’s consciousness. Since the importance of the subject is not clearly defined and the appearance seems to be loosely improvised, one wonders how the viewer can feel so closely connected to the event. A reciprocal relationship seems to exist between the viewer and the characters in the painting. This relationship bypasses the pictorial plane, making the picture only one half of a complex, centerless system. We see ourselves being seen in the painting as our presence evokes a response in the figures.
The actual event does not hold much weight; a picture is being painted as a disturbance in the stillness is occurring. The painter hesitates as he looks at King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain enter into the room. The reflection in the mirror reveals that the couple is standing to the viewer’s left as the other figures in the painting also focus their attention on them.
In this interactive piece, the focus keeps changing depending on where the viewer is centering his or her gaze. The three centers are triangulated and dispersed. Firstly, the median of the width of the painting lands on the Infanta’s left eye, again focusing on sight. The orthogonals made up by the horizontal lines that run along the right wall and the ceiling lights lead to the man on the stair in the background, the vanishing point of the central perspective that is opposite the viewer’s vantage point. This man is stopped in his tracks, looking at something outside of the painting.
The room’s central axis converges upon the mirror image of the royal couple. Velazquez’ “scatter effect” is emphasized as the whole scene depends on the deferred center; both the dramatic and psychological center of attention is actually outside of the painting. The image of the king and queen in the mirror can be read in two ways: as a reflection of the image of the painting on the canvas within the painting or a reflection of the actual king and queen. The mirror reveals Velazquez’ skill and the “truthfulness” of a painter’s art.
As viewer’s, our own consciousness is called upon in reaction to Las Meninas. We must respond to the action and different perceptive acts of the painting. Radiant signals of lights are received from several points as the background’s dull surface interacts with the luminosity of the mirror. Velazquez only depicted those things associated with vision: there are no extra pieces of furniture or objects in the room. The sight lines of the characters maintain the painting’s design and composition.
Even the figures are grouped by what they see, not what they are doing or who they are. Velasquez forms three triangles in his composition. The Infanta, the curtseying girl, and the dwarf form the first as they look outside the painting toward the viewer. The boy kicking the dog, the kneeling menina, and the female chaperone behind the first grouping form the second triangle and have a less focused gaze. The guard, painter, and man on the stair compose the third triangle as they look to the outside world or the canvas. The viewer and the king and queen’s reflection make up another triangle, though it is less clear as the couple’s position is ambiguous.
Velazquez gives us real, reflected, and depicted images that all operate independently. This cycle can only function with the participation of the viewer, make this painting multi-dimensional. The viewer can recognize him or herself through the encounter that the painting creates. When the mind “knows itself known”, infinite possibilities of the psyche are created and the process of seeing and reacting to the painting can continue indefinitely. The mirror is the key of Las Meninas, a metaphor for the “mirror of consciousness”, an idea Velazquez invites us to explore forever as viewers of art.
Jonathan Brown uses a more formal tone as he delves into the meaning of Las Meninas. Velazquez has turned a snapshot of seemingly everyday life into a picture that represents the court and value of the artist himself. This painting is hard to understand, as rational and intuitive understanding are impossible to grasp. Since every generation is called to interpret the painting, Brown attempts to do just that. A brief description of the characters and setting do not give us any clues to the painting’s actual meaning. The name Las Meninas cannot tell us anything, since it was probably written to generally describe the piece.
Brown discusses the different interpretations that have come up in the past. In the late 19th century, Karl Justi called Las Meninas “a faithful counterfeit of reality”. In his opinion, this exemplary genre painting is no more than a reproduction of the world, as it exists. Charles de Tolnay calls it “an allegory of artistic creation”, bringing in the self-portrait of the artist and the creative process necessary in the making of a painting. Another critic, Ramiro de Moya recreated the scene of Las Meninas himself by implicating the rules of perspective. He concludes that Velazquez used a mannequin for himself and the royal couple’s reflection is of the painting. There are two realities depicted here: the one that follows the rules of perspective as well as the scene interpreted by the artist.
No one can deny that Las Meninas is Velazquez’ masterpiece. The size, complicated composition, and great technique employed make one wonder even more what is going on in the picture. The action is linked to the understanding that something is going on outside of the painting pictorial frame. The characters seemed to be stopped in action. King Philip IV and Queen Mariana incite the action. The man in the doorway holds the door open for someone or something that has just passed through or will shortly. The living monarch and painter are represented together in one image, the central event being the “royal epiphany” (Brown, 92). The action stops as the royal pair enter Velazquez’ atelier.
Jonathan Brown moves on to discuss the history of the relationship between artist and patron. An ancient Roman text, Pliny’s Natural History tells the story of Alexander the Great’s relationship to his favorite painter Apelles. Painting is given credit as it is appreciated, patronized, by the king. A painter had been considered a craftsman, working with his hands, and not an artist. The idea of the artist as noble had been more accepted in Italy at this time, and Velazquez was aware of this change in social status. Though in Spain, artists were not considered to be knowledgeable or skilled beyond a common worker. Pacheco, Velazquez’ teacher and father-in-law was also interested in the status of the artist in society and used Velazquez as an example in his writing as an exemplary artist that illustrated the nobility of art.
Pacheco’s accounts prove that King Philip IV visited Velazquez as he worked in his studio and Las Meninas further illustrates the king and artist’s special relationship. The key that hangs from the artist’s waist is a symbol of this relationship, revealing his position as aposentador of the Royal Palace. This key could open every door in the palace, including the door to the king’s chamber. Philip IV obviously trusted Velazquez a great deal and favored him over anyone else in the Spanish court. The entire court, revealing that Velazquez was a very important figure indeed, would have understood this sign.
The painting itself is very large and the figures have life-size proportions, making it an illusion of reality. The size clarifies the painting and makes it more significant as Velazquez masterpiece and a statement of his position as an artist and important court member. The artist employs the science of perspective, a long-standing tool that elevates an artist to the status of a mathematician while displaying his knowledge and skill.
Velazquez was not only a painter, but an architect as well. As part of his position as aposentador, he made an octagonal and room of mirrors in the palace. He was sent to Italy to study Baroque Illusionism, a popular practice of the time. Using the tools of Baroque illusionism, Velazquez was further able to blur the line between illusion and reality so that he could make the king and queen’s presence more realistic. The space of the picture plane that is extended melds with the part of the room that is not depicted in the painting itself.
Another room that Velazquez remodeled was the very room that the painting exists in, the pieza principal del curato de Pricipe. The portrait on the canvas that Velazquez is painting in Las Meninas could be a portrait of the royal couple, the Infanta, or Las Meninas itself, which would allude to the nobility of painting.
The room was filled with copies of Rubens’ paintings. Rubens had been knighted, an artist whose status was elevated to that of the nobility. Velazquez wanted to achieve a similar status, though it was difficult in the Spanish court for an artist to gain access to the most prestigious order, the Order of Santiago. Ten years after his first attempt, Velazquez is finally admitted into the order, though this occurred two years after Las Meninas was completed.
Las Meninas is a testament to the social conditions of 17th century Spain as well as Velazquez’ personal ambitions as an artist. This painting depicts nature as it is while it surpasses nature. Philip’s consent to be portrayed is a sign of his approval of Velazquez’ art and possibly painting in general. Velazquez’ self-portrait invites the viewer to consider the possibilities of a noble painter and painting itself.
Steinberg focuses much more on vision than Brown. He constantly relates his arguments back to where the figures are looking, why, and how the viewer’s gaze comes into play. He emphasizes the infinite reciprocal relationships produced by the painting. Steinberg’s approach is much more psychological, dealing with the consciousness of the viewer. He states his opinions in a more informal way, closer to how he would convey his own thoughts about the piece. He does not deal with the history of the reasoning behind the artistic choices that Velazquez made. Steinberg writes for an audience more concerned with Las Meninas as breaking a barrier between the world of depiction and that of reality. He does not go into specific detail of history, like Brown does, but underscores the painting’s importance in the idea of sight and the limitations of what a painting can be.
Brown seems to be more concerned with the history of the status of the artist. He does not analyze the iconography or composition as much as Steinberg. Brown focuses more on the facts of history to explain the important status of Las Meninas and why there is so much attention paid to it even today. He writes for an audience that would need concrete historical proof of the choices that Velazquez made, veering away from its psychological meaning.
Together, Brown and Steinberg compose a complete analysis of Las Meninas on a psychological and historical level. The status of the artist is emphasized in both readings, as the two writers are in agreement that Velazquez was making a point there. Of course, I still have questions about Las Meninas. We cannot know for sure what the reflection in the mirror or what is going on, though I find value in both authors’ opinions.
1. Brown, Jonathan. “Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century Painting.” Princeton Essays on the Arts: 87-110.
2. Steinberg, Leo. “Velazquez’s Las Meninas.” October 19 (1981): 45-54.