Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?


[Music] There’s maybe no painting in the history of the form more worthy of analysis than Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas. What we’re talking about here is a masterwork by an artist late in his life, but at the height of his powers, determined to drive into this canvas the sum total of his talent, his experience, and his intellect. Velazquez had been, by then, a court painter for the Spanish King Philip IV for over thirty years. Indeed, he was a favorite of Phillip’s, painting his portrait many times and advancing in salary and rank all the way up to Chamberlain of the palace, responsible for decorating this great Alcazar of Madrid with all its many artworks. So it’s no surprise that for his masterpiece Velazquez sets his painting in the palace itself, the place he knew best. Specifically, in his own studio, adorned with paintings that he himself chose. Now, they’re a little bit hard to see, but we know what they are based on histories of the space and it’s no accident that he chooses these paintings specifically. But we’ll get to that a bit later. First, let’s take a look at the main action of the scene: So much hits you right away. Maybe the first thing you see is the little girl, Margaret Theresa. The, then, only living child of the king. Or, maybe you see that mirror showing reflected images of the king and queen themselves. Or maybe the first thing that stands out to you is that 6 of the 9 characters represented here are staring beyond the picture plane. Which is to say, at you. That fact alone gives this image its great sense of spontaneity as if it were a snapshot. Velasquez captures the moment just when several of these figures are noticing something. Some, like these three, have yet to notice it In the case of the little princess all that’s moved, so far, is her eyes. But, though the moment depicted is spontaneous, the composition of the subjects is anything but. You have here a real clinic in composing group scenes. What Velasquez has done in this group of eleven, including the mirror-images of the king and queen, is arranged an extraordinary number of links and contrasts that slides your eyes back and forth across the canvas. The first thing to notice, perhaps, is the obsession here with grouping two’s and three’s. Everyone here but the princess can be split into pairs. The male and female dwarf, the two chaperones here, the curtsying maid and the palace official in the back corridor, the king and the queen in the mirror, and Velasquez and the maid kneeling to offer the princess a drink. Notice also that these are all male-female pairs. And these pairing accentuate the princess as the focus of the scene. But you could also split the group up into threes. The princess with her two maids, the dog and the two dwarfs and the two palace officials with what now occurs to us are mirrored couples. See also that these two groups of three, internally made up of doubles and triples, are all on the same horizontal plane. This group of six also draws the entirety of the painting’s three dimensional space. Our eye is drawn from Velasquez in the foreground to the palace official in the distance, as they’re wearing similar black garb and stand in line with the two doorways on the back walls. The chaperones in the middle ground link to the king and queen in the background, which simultaneously brings the z-axis all the way forward beyond the picture itself, intimating a depth that we can’t even see. It’s amazing. What you might not have realized is that this motif of twos and threes has already been established in the frames on the back wall, with two giant canvases over top two door frames and the central mirror. Of that bottom triple, the right sides of the frames correspond with the princess and her two maids, moving the eyes naturally from the king and queen to their daughter. But the eyes are also drawn from the mirror to the right, that lighted passage framing the palace official. This space of this lighted rectangle is equal to that of the mirror and they’re put on the same horizontal plane as well. Indeed, because of its brightness, like the brightness of the little princess bathed in light, we’re drawn to it just as much as the other two. In these three elements of Las Meninas, we have three central focus points. Unlike Da Vinci’s Last Supper for example, where all elements in the painting point toward Jesus Christ, Las Meninas is more ambiguous, letting the viewer vacillate between multiple centers of weight. Being a court painter for the royal family, it’s obvious why Velasquez would want to highlight the royal couple and their daughter. But what’s significant about the back hallway? Well, this gets at a long running debate about the significance of this mirror. What exactly is it reflecting? A number of critics have seen it as the reflection of the actual king and queen standing, like we said, beyond the picture plane, putting the viewer literally in the shoes of royalty. But a closer examination of the one point perspective of this image reveals something else. The vanishing point of Las Meninas is not here, but here, in the lighted doorway to the right. What does this mean? Well, it means that the eye of this painting, so to speak, isn’t opposite the mirror, but opposite the door. So the mirror doesn’t reflect directly back at us. It reflects at an angle. An angle that puts its image on another unseen aspect of Las Meninas: The canvas that Velasquez is working on. Now, for a moment, let’s get back to the paintings in the upper half of this picture. These are copies of two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, a hero of Velasquez. And they tell similar stories, in this case, both from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In the right, the mortal Marsyas challenges the god Apollo to a flute playing contest. In the left, the god Athena challenges the mortal Arachne to a weaving contest. On other words, these are two contests between mortals and gods on the subject of the arts. Now, Marsyas loses and Arachne wins, but both are punished by their gods in the end for failing to recognize the divine source of the artistic endeavor. Such stories are extremely relevant to Las Meninas because in the end, this is a painting about painting, itself. In Velasquez’s time, painting still didn’t hold the same kind of noble place as poetry and music. Las Meninas, in all its splendid effects, is a vigorous argument for the virtue of painting, whether it comes from the heavens or the lifelong practice of craft. And this gets at the heart of the mirror, the vanishing point and the multiple centers of focus. “See what my art can do,” Velasquez is saying to the viewer. And to his king and queen, “Look not to nature or your own reflection in the mirror for the most marvelous depiction of your image, but to my canvas.” Las Meninas is an extraordinary accomplishment for its time. But its effect is timeless. It’s said that King Philip IV often came to Velasquez’s studio just to watch him paint. Somehow, I think Las Meninas animated his consciousness as it does mine, 360 years later. Indeed, to stare at this painting, in any age, is to be convinced slowly, gradually, and then confidently that you are witnessing the very best this medium has to offer. [Music] Hey everybody, thanks for watching an thank you to Squarespace for sponsoring this video. 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