Velázquez (1599-1660): Las Meninas (1656) and Reality.
Of the many descriptions of Las Meninas (aka The Ladies in Waiting, Maids of Honour or The Family of King Philip IV), one of the most frequent is that the scene depicted has all the appearance of reality, that it is true to life. A word sometimes used to describe this is verisimilitude.
But Velázquez’s portrayal of scenes realistically should not surprise us. By the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, change was in the air in the art world thanks to the influence of the naturalistic paintings of the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610) and to a general change in cultural taste away from Renaissance idealism and assurance to the Baroque world’s shifting culture of uncertainty.
Some Contextual Background.
Several non-artistic developments in the 16th century, e. g. secular and philosophical, religious, literary provide a wider cultural context that helps explain this shift towards realism.
1. The rediscovery of scepticism, the nature of which is captured in the title Quod nihil scitur (Nothing is known), published in 1581, by the Spanish-Portuguese philosopher Francisco Sanchez (Portuguese Sanches). For Sanchez, the senses are susceptible to error and since our knowledge is based on our senses our knowledge of the world is also susceptible to error. Hence we know nothing.
2. One of the recommendations of the famous Catholic Council of Trent (a series of meetings held between 1545 and 1563) to artists was to make their paintings as direct, compelling and as relevant as possible to ordinary people. One obvious way to achieve this was to bring the Bible’s message “up to date” by dressing biblical and holy figures in contemporary clothes and/or locating them in recognisable settings.
3. The popularity of realistic prose fiction especially in Spain, beginning with La Celestina, 1499 and continuing with works such as La Lozana Andaluza 1527, and Lazarillo de Tormes 1554. This kind of prose fiction –i. e. novels– flourished especially at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries in the form of the picaresque novel. Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I, 1599, Part II 1604) by Mateo Alemán (a Sevillian, like Velázquez) is the best known and most influential of these. This was also the time when Miguel de Cervantes published: Don Quixote (Part I 1605, Part II 1615), a realistic novel par excellence although not picaresque.
4. In addition, other events and discoveries also helped undermine the certainties that had guided people’s view of the world for centuries: Columbus’s “discovery” of a New World (America) in 1492 suddenly expanded known geographical frontiers and introduced Europeans to new, exotic civilisations; the appearance of Protestantism, generally assigned to 1517, when Martin Luther’s published his famous 95 propositions in Latin attacking church corruption. The new movement challenged the certainty of Catholicism’s claim to be sole interpreter of scripture. In 1543, Copernicus’s proposal that the earth orbited the sun and not vice versa questioned the authority of the ancients.
Velázquez’s interest in the portraying world around him realistically is evident from his earliest paintings in Seville, e. g. his peasant scenes and bodegón works (drawn from daily life often in everyday eating places,) with still life (utensils and foods).
Even his religious canvases such as Christ in the House of Martha and Mary 1618, or The Supper at Emmaus c. 1620 betray the same realistic tendency. In these, the religious message is framed in contemporary, 17th-century kitchen scenes combining bodegón and still life features.
Apart from its courtly setting, what distinguishes Las Meninas from these early works is its compositional complexity. Where the message in the early works is relatively straightforward, it is not only impossible to nail Las Meninas down to a particular interpretation but it is a compositional challenge.
If we compare Las Meninas to some of Velázquez’s early realistic or slice of life paintings, e. g. Three Men at Table (c. 1617), The Three Musicians (c. 1617-18), or Peasants at Table (c. 1618), we see that Velázquez was already treading the path leading to the more complex representation in his greatest work.
The musicians and the peasants are caught informally in mid activity, singing or eating, with some even looking outwards seemingly aware that they are being observed by Velázquez. Here, the artist is clearly outside the picture, at our side as it were, and even though we are drawn towards the figures by the exchange of gazes, there is no doubt that we are outside the picture, looking in.
Las Meninas take us a significant step further. It is more than just a realistic picture of a moment in the daily life of the court surrounding the Infanta Princess Margarita (1651-73). By inserting himself into the scene and showing himself apparently interrupted in the act of painting, Velázquez has added an extra depth or dimension to his work. We as viewers find ourselves facing an artist –brush poised in his hand– who appears to be looking directly at us, creating thereby the illusion that we are part of the picture, that he is painting us. Not only that. Several of the figures are also looking out at us, strengthening the sensation that we are in the room witnessing things happening right in front of our eyes.
From our vantage point of being in the same room as the Infanta and her retinue, we can appreciate the French poet, Theophile Gautier’s (1811-72), witty summary “So, where’s the painting” (Picasso and the Spanish Tradition 121).
That’s how real, verisimilar Las Meninas seems. When I first saw the painting as a young student, I felt that I had inadvertently intruded on Princess Margarita and her retinue. It was many years ago when Las Meninas occupied a room on its own in the Prado, and I happened upon it when there was no-one else in that room. On the wall opposite the painting there hung a mirror. Looking at the painting in the mirror, and adjusting my position until the painting’s frame disappeared, I had the uncanny sensation of actually being in the room with Velázquez and his subjects and that those looking out of the picture had just caught sight of me. I had just interrupted them. It was as if the painting had disappeared, so powerful was the illusion I had of being there.
Being an illusion, it was not true, of course. It was a lie, but a convincing one, confirming Pablo Picasso’s famous observation: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth … at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” Pablo Picasso.
Probably no painting is such a convincing lie as Las Meninas, especially if, as the Velázquez scholar, Jonathan Brown, argues that it was not an observed group portrait but a product of Velázquez’s imagination. It has all the appearance of truth but is a fabrication, an illusion.
The illusion starts with the almost life-size figures (the canvas measures 10.5ft. x 9ft., 307cm x 274cm) who have been caught in mid activity or “arrested motion” (Brown J “On the Meaning ...” 90) by the arrival of King Philip IV and his second wife, Queen Mariana, whose blurred images are captured in the mirror on the wall.
From the body position of the Infanta Margarita, the maid of honour to her left–Doña Isabel de Velasco–, the dwarf Maribárbola (towards the bottom right of the painting), and Velázquez himself, they appear to have only just caught sight of the royal couple (or us!). They look as if they have been interrupted by the royal presence (or by us!).
On the other hand, three figures (Doña María de Sarmiento –the other maid of honour–, Doña Marcela de Ulloa, attendant to the meninas, and the buffoon, Nicolás de Pertusato) do not appear to have registered the company of the king and queen (or ours!). They continue what they were doing: Doña María is extending a reddish ceramic jug to the Princess, Doña Marcela continues talking to an unidentified gentleman to her left, and Nicolás de Pertusato is busy balancing his left foot on the back of the dog.
Nevertheless, whether looking out (the Infanta, Doña Isabel, Maribarbola, the unidentified man and Velázquez) or absorbed in what they are doing (Doña Maria, Doña Marcela, Nicolás), they are all caught in the act of doing something although not in unison. They are not posing for Velázquez who is supposedly painting someone he is looking at (probably the king and queen reflected in the mirror), or of course “us” since we occupy the same space as the monarchs when we look at the painting.
The magic of the painting lies in its deceptive simplicity. Velázquez, with his brush poised above his palette is clearly at work on a large painting to judge from the canvas before him. We are not privy to what he is working on, although it is likely to be the king and queen reflected in the mirror facing us. In the last analysis, it doesn’t really matter because we are never going to find out. Clearly, however, he is not painting the infanta and her retinue; Princess Margarita and Doña María have their backs to him and not a single person in the room is looking at him.
The illusion is complicated by both ambiguity and contradiction. On the one hand, Velázquez appears not to be painting the infanta and her retinue when in fact the finished product does just that; on the other hand, he seems to be painting us (since he is looking at us) when in fact he is not doing so.
So what then is Velázquez’s aim? Are the infanta and her retinue the object of Las Meninas? Why does Velázquez include himself even relegating the king and queen to blurred mirror images? This is indeed audacious: a servant, albeit a courtier and royal favourite, giving himself greater prominence than his master! Is this intended to demonstrate that Velázquez has achieved the social status he so desperately sought?
By creating an illusory world into which we are drawn, Velázquez is challenging accepted ways of thinking. Las Meninas falls very much within the Baroque obsession with appearance and reality. The Baroque world is –like life itself—multidimensional and things are not always what they appear to be. In the same way that language can be manipulated –for example, Quevedo’s famous poem Poderoso caballero is a verbal labyrinth in which words have more than one meaning so that the world is not unidimensional—so too what we see may be susceptible to different interpretations. Sight is one of the least dependable of our senses.
The dichotomy of illusion/ disillusion, of being both within and outside the painting as presented by Velázquez is a very sophisticated sleight of hand. Velázquez is in the act of painting, there are “real” paintings hanging on the wall behind him, but they are not really “real” because they are Velázquez ’s copies of the paintings in his studio made by his son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, which in turn were copies Mazo had made of the myth of Minerva and Arachne by Peter Paul Rubens and the fable of Apollo and Pan by Jacob Jordaens.
The illusion of being inside the painting or being a witness to what is going on in Velázquez ’s studio has an interesting parallel in the greatest work of Velázquez ’s near contemporary, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). Like Velázquez in Las Meninas, Cervantes creates a situation in Don Quixote, that draws the reader into the text in the same way that the viewer in drawn into Las Meninas. It happens in Part II, Chapters 2, 3 and especially 4. In Chapter 2, a local student, Sansón Carrasco, has just returned from Salamanca (Spain’s most famous university) with the news that a book has just been published about their adventures in Part I. Don Quixote is disappointed that none of his “great feats” are recorded in Part I (but his squire Sancho Panza is delighted at the prominent role he plays in it). Nonetheless, Don Quixote, despite his disappointment asks if the author of Part I has promised a second part.
This is a key question which propels us “into the picture” or “into the text” as it were. How can there be a second part if Don Quixote and Sancho have still to continue their adventures? And yet, we have in our hands the complete text of Part II, which is a record of their adventures!
What Cervantes has done is create the illusion that we are not reading Part II, but accompanying Don Quixote and Sancho as they undertake their adventures. We witness their adventures in the same way we are witnesses to the informal scene of the Infanta Margarita and her retinue.
Of course, Las Meninas is art and Don Quixote is literature but their very complexity is complementary and reflects the complexity of life. The worlds both present us are complex, multidimensional and ever changing as the endless interpretations applied to them confirm.
Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan. “On the Meaning of Las Meninas,” in Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century Spanish Painting Princeton,1979, 87-110.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Brown, Jonathan ed. Picasso and the Spanish Tradition New Haven: Yale UP 1996.
Brown, Jonathan “Master and Masterpieces,” Lecture to The Frick Collection, April 30, 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=4&v=6dJ14sdndYM&feature=youtu.be
Editor? The Prado Masterpieces London, New York 2016.
López-Rey, José Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Robbins, Jeremy The Challenges of Uncertainty. An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Spanish Literature. New York 1998.
Picasso quote: “STATEMENT TO MARIUS DE ZAYAS,” 1923,’Picasso Speaks,’ The Arts, New York, May 1923, pp. 315-26; reprinted in Alfred Barr: Picasso, New York 1946, pp. 270-1.
Velázquez: Las Meninas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas
Velázquez: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in National Gallery, London: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_(Vel%C3%A1zquez)
Velázquez: The Supper at Emmaus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kitchen_Maid
Velázquez: The Three Musicians: Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13353696
Velázquez: Three Men at Table The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=159931
Velázquez: Peasants at Table (c. 1618-19): https://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_67213/Diego-Rodriguez-de-Silva-y-Velazquez/Peasants-at-the-Table-%28El-Almuerzo%29-c.-1620