Velázquez. Las Meninas. Introduction and Status Symbol.
Few paintings have received such critical acclaim or been subject to so many interpretations and analyses as Velázquez’s Las Meninas aka The Ladies in Waiting (1656). Within 50 years (1692), the Italian Baroque artist, Luca Giordano, called it “the theology of painting,” following on the comment of his friend (and Velázquez’s biographer), Antonio Palomino, that “just as theology is superior to all other branches of knowledge, so is this picture the greatest example of painting.” Francisco de Goya made a print of Las Meninas in 1778, Edouard Manet –after seeing the painting and others by Velázquez called him “a painter’s painter.” Pablo Picasso paid homage to the work with a series of 45 variations/ interpretations over a four-month period in 1957. Such was the impact of its realism that the French poet, Theophile Gautier (1811-72), upon seeing it commented “So, where’s the painting.” In 1985, a poll of artists and critics organized by the Illustrated London News, voted Las Meninas the world’s greatest painting.
Much of what we know historically about Las Meninas is owed to the painter and art critic Antonio Palomino (1655-1726). Thanks to him, we know that the setting depicted in the painting/ group portrait was a room in the Royal Alcázar where Velázquez had an apartment. It was a privileged location, having previously belonged to Prince Baltasar Carlos before his death in 1646.
Palomino also identified all but one of the individuals in the painting, the dimensions of which –(10ft. x 9ft. 305cm x 274cm) make the figures almost life size. In the centre is the Infanta/Princess Margarita (1651-73) attended by her two ladies-in waiting (the meninas), Doña María Agustina de Sarmiento –who extends a reddish ceramic jug to the Princess– and Doña Isabel de Velasco, whose gaze is directed towards us.
To Doña Isabel’s left, and in the lower right-hand corner, we see the dwarf Maribárbola and a dog (usually identified as a mastiff) being teased by the Italian-born buffoon Nicolás de Pertusato. Slightly in shadow behind Doña Isabel and Maribárbola stands Doña Marcela de Ulloa, attendant to the meninas, in conversation with an unidentified male attendant.
Along the back wall, Don José Nieto, the royal chamberlain to the queen is silhouetted as he pauses in an open doorway. To the left of the doorway, a mirror reflects the blurred image of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana, his second wife (she was also his niece!).
Finally, next to the easel that dominates the left side of the picture, we see Velázquez himself, who appears to be taking a momentary pause from his painting. On his chest, highlighted against the black of his tunic, is the red cross of the Order of Santiago, a source of some considerable controversy (see below).
Decorating the wall above the mirror and open doorway, we can see, if only dimly, two large paintings, the subject matter of which are taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here Velázquez engages in a bit of sleight of hand, one of many in Las Meninas: the two works represent two paintings that hung in Velázquez’s studio and were the works of Velázquez’s son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo. These, in turn, were copies Mazo made of the myth of Minerva and Arachne by Rubens and the fable of Apollo and Pan by Jacob Jordaens. So, what we see as we look at Las Meninas is not Mazo’s paintings nor of course Rubens’s nor Jordaens’s, but Velázquez’s rendition of Mazo’s versions of two paintings by the Flemish masters.
Why is the Cross of Santiago controversial and why was it important for Velázquez?
Velázquez’s self-portrait has long drawn considerable attention related to the traditional dating of the painting’s composition –1656—and the presence of the red cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest.
Velázquez had always been ambitious for social status (that’s why he left Seville for Madrid in 1623) and his years in court, his proximity to the throne, and his role in the royal household only served to whet his appetite for official recognition for himself and his art. His goal was to be seen as a gentleman artist and a man of status.
That he had achieved this honour to his satisfaction might be perceived in two ways in Las Meninas: 1. He is seen prominently in the painting as being very much part of the royal court, and furthermore honoured by the attendance of King Philip and Queen Mariana themselves in his studio. The presence of the monarchs was an affirmation of the importance of his role as artist and an argument in favour –by royal association— of the nobility of painting, a significant matter at a time when painting in Spain was still considered a manual/ mechanical and menial craft or trade unworthy of nobility. 2. Prominent on Velázquez’s tunic is the red Cross of the Order of Santiago*, Spain’s most prestigious emblem of knighthood and a supreme sign of noble status that Velázquez had pursued since his arrival in Madrid.
[*The Order of Santiago was Spain’s most prestigious military religious Company/Organization, and membership required all applicants to provide proof of unblemished lineage and to demonstrate, in the case of artists, that painting for them was a liberal or gentlemanly pursuit with no expectation of payment.]
That ambition finally came to fruition when –after an initial rejection– he was made knight of the Order on November 28, 1659. It was a reward that owed much to the king’s determined support, the backing of several of his colleagues in the art world and a special papal dispensation.
So, where’s the controversy? Simply put, if Las Meninas is dated 1656, how is it that Velázquez’s tunic in the painting bears the red cross of Santiago when he didn’t receive his knighthood until November 1659? How could the painting show Velázquez wearing the cross three years before he had received his knighthood? Even Velázquez –distinguished as he was and highly favoured by the king– would hardly have been bold enough to display the cross of the Order on his tunic when he had not even been nominated for knighthood (which the king did on June 6, 1658)!
One solution to this conundrum –and perhaps the simplest– is that Velázquez added the cross after receiving the honour. Another, according to Palomino, is that the king ordered it to be added after Velázquez’s death. Yet another –anecdotal and unlikely, and also from Palomino — has been to attribute the painting of the cross to the king –himself an art aficionado— done a few years after Velázquez’s death and as a sign of his esteem for the artist.
Was Las Meninas painted in 1659-60?
In a series of six lectures given at the Prado Museum in 2012, the eminent art critic and Velázquez scholar, Jonathan Brown, proposed that the work was painted following Velázquez’s investiture on November 28, 1659 and intended as a “thank you gift” for the king for his support. This meant that Velázquez would have painted Las Meninas in just four months, shortly before setting out north to the Spanish-French border on April 8, 1660 where the older Spanish infanta, María Teresa (1638-83) was to marry Louis XIV of France. Clearly, he had no time for painting during this period of travel nor between the short time after his return to Madrid (June 26) and his death on August 6. It would have to have been painted between December 1659 and the beginning of April 1660, a mere four months. Brown argues that Velázquez could indeed paint rapidly if needed.
However, an argument adduced in favour of the 1656 date is that the Infanta Margarita looks very much a young child of 5 years old which conforms with her year of birth (1651). Furthermore, there is a portrait of the infanta done in 1656 in which she not only looks very much like the child in Las Meninas but the dress she wears is identical in both works. For the 1659-60 date, we would expect to see a more mature looking child, as in for example, the Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress, 1659.
The argument in favour of the 1659-60 date rests largely on an analysis by conservationists that does not show different layers of paint around the cross, which would be expected if that area had been retouched to add the cross. This suggests that the cross was in the painting from the beginning.
Brown further argues –along with others– that Las Meninas is not a portrait of the royal family drawn from real life, but a product of Velázquez’s imagination, bringing together individual sketches to form a coherent whole, centred around the Infanta. In which case, the composition of the painting need not be tied to 1656.
Much then depends on whether we accept that Velázquez completed this complex piece of art in a relatively short period or whether Velázquez might have retouched the painting with such expertise that conservationists have been unable to detect the touch up. The controversy is not settled although, despite Brown’s eminence as a Velázquez expert, the consensus at the moment remains that Las Meninas was painted in 1656.
Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Brown, Jonathan Picasso and the Spanish Tradition 1996
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016
Jacobs, Michael Mythological Painting New York 1979.
López-Rey, José Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Velázquez: Las Meninas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas
Velázquez: Infanta Margarita in Blue Dress 1659 pAHSoRgE1VSx2w at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22003519