Baroque and Beyond C. 1600–1850

The Golden Age of Spain

What is Las Meninas?

Las Meninas (1656) is huge, both in its physical size and its significance in the history of art. While at first glance the painting appears to be a simple depiction of the young princess, Infanta Margarita Teresa, posing for her portrait, further inspection reveals a much more complicated scene. The petit princess, wearing a white dress and a ribbon in her blond hair, is at the relative center of the image and is surrounded by her doting attendants and a well-behaved dog. Behind the attendants, a chaper-one and perhaps a bodyguard, watch over the room; in the far right background, an open door lets light into the space as the Queen’s chamberlain steps in. To the left of the group stands the artist himself, Diego Velazquez. He is poised and confident with his shoulders back, holding his palette for the viewer to clearly see. In front of him is an enormous canvas upon which he is presumably painting the image that we are now seeing. Curiously, just behind the Infanta’s head, is a mirror hung on the back wall. Within this mirror, we can see a reflection of the King and Queen. Have they just walked into the room from a door we cannot see? Are they the true sitters for this portrait? Or perhaps what we see is not a mirror at all, but a fading portrait.

Much like the Arnolfni Portrait, Velazquez’s Las Meninas is a sophisticated puzzle that raises questions about what we are actually looking at. For years, art historians have hashed out theories and analyses about the meaning of the painting and theories about Velazquez’s intentions. One of the major conclusions about Las Meninas is that through this compositional enigma, Velazquez emphasizes his own status as the artistcreator. His figure dominates the scene. He is the one who controls what we see. The artist’s presence in the heart of the royal palace, sharing space with the royal family, emphasizes his high social status, as does the red symbol displayed on his shirt, which declares his membership in the Order of Santiago. Las Meninas is both a royal portrait and a self-portrait of the artist, one that has garnered Velazquez respect for centuries.


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