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Las Meninas

Las Meninas is probably the most famous of the works by great Spanish painter Diego Velazquez. It is housed in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Las Meninas
Painted 1656
Larger version


This is a composition of enormous representational impact. The Infanta Margarita[?] stands proudly amongst her maids of honour, with a dwarf to the right. Although she is the smallest, she is clearly the central figure; one of her maids is kneeling before her, and the other leaning towards her, so that the standing Infanta, with her broad hooped skirt, becomes the fulcrum of the movement. The dwarf, about the same size as the Infanta, is so ugly that Margarita appears delicate, fragile and precious in comparison. On the left in the painting, dark and calm, the painter himself can be seen standing at his vast canvas. Above the head of the Infanta, we see the ruling couple reflected in the mirror.

The spatial structure and positioning of the figures is such that the group of Las Meninas around the Infanta appears to be standing on "our" side, opposite Philip and his wife. Not only is the "performance" for their benefit, but the attention of the painter is also concentrated on them, for he appears to be working on their portrait. Although they can only be seen in the mirror reflection, the king and queen are the actual focus of the painting towards which everything else is directed. As spectators, we realize that we are excluded from the scene, for in our place stands the ruling couple. What seems at first glance to be an "open" painting proves to be completely hermetic - a statement further intensified by the fact tbat the painting in front of Velázquez is completely hidden from our view.

text modified after 1911 encyclopedia to be merged with above:

Margarita Maria, the eldest daughter of the new queen, that is the subject of the well-known picture Las Meninas (the Maids of Honour), #1662 in the Madrid gallery, painted in 1656, where the little lady holds court, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, her dwarfs and her mastiff, while Velazquez is seen standing at his easel. This is the finest portrait we have of the great painter. It is a face of much dignity, power and sweetness—like his life, equable and serene, unruffled by care. "Las Meninas" was the picture of which Luca Giordano said that it was the "theology of painting," another way of expressing the opinion of Sir Thomas Lawrence, that this work is the philosophy of art, so true is it in rendering the desired effect. The result is there, one knows not by what means, as if by a first intention without labour, absolutely right. The story is told that the king painted the red cross of Santiago on the breast of the painter, as it appears to-day on the canvas.

See also: Diego Velazquez

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