Diego Velázquez, Water Carrier of Seville, c. 1620 Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656
When Velázquez was only twenty-four years old, he entered the service of the king of Spain, Philip IV and
remained the chief court painter in Madrid for the rest of his life. As a court painter, Velázquez was called
upon to produce allegorical works and paintings commemorating great victories, but above all, he painted
portraits. One of the most famous works in the history of European art is Las Meninas (The Maids of
Honor). It is a court portrait, but it is so much more than that. Painted c. 1656, Las Meninas is as much a
portrait of the artist and an allegory of the artist’s importance, as it is a portrait of the Infanta Margarita,
the little girl who stands facing us in the center. All eleven people in the painting have been identified,
and the room represents an actual room in the palace. In the mirror on the wall is a reflection of the girl’s
parents, the king and queen. At far left is Velázquez himself, facing a large canvas, but looking out toward
us. In fact, almost everyone has turned in our direction. In the painting, Velázquez dissolves the boundary
between the pictorial space and reality, and he forces us to imagine that a part of the scene is actually
going on in our space. What is on the giant canvas? There is no way to know for sure, but it may be
something like the painting we are looking at (it appears to be the same size). More important is that the
canvas is a painting, and Velázquez is shown at work on it; the king has just entered Velázquez’s studio, a
great honor for any artist. Through its deft technique, its complex spatial construction, and its learned
references, Velázquez’s painting shows how much the artist deserves that honor.
Las Meninas is worth looking at closely. A megapixel scan is linked to Google Earth. Enter
Google Earth: type in Madrid, Prado in the search box, then zoom in until you can see the
Museum’s link clearly; click on that and you should see a list of their masterpieces including Las
Meninas. Click on that, then explore.
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