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Las Meninas

Las Meninas

Las Meninas, the most famous Velazquez's painting. History and description about the famous Spanish painting Las Meninas.

Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez is the masterpiece of Spanish painting, and one of the most important paintings in the world. It is probably the most controversial, talked about, analyzed and imitated painting in history.

The painting represents a scene from daily life in the palace of Felipe IV. In the painting we see Princess Margarita in the centre accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting (“meninas”); doña Marcela of Ulloa who is speaking to Diego Ruíz Azcona; Velázquez himself painting; José Nieto Velázquez in a doorway at the back of the painting; and on the wall at the back there is a mirror reflecting the image of the monarchs King Felipe IV and Mariana of Austria.

This painting and all of its splendor demonstrates Velázquez´s skill in the use of “claroscuro” (Italian painting technique, lit: light-dark). The points of light illuminate the characters and establish an order in the composition. The light that illuminates the room from the right hand side of the painting focuses the viewer´s look on the main group, and the open door at the back, with the person positioned against the light, is the vanishing point.

The mirror which reflects the monarchs is a key piece, because it transforms the reader into an integral part of the painting and its composition. The king and queen have been sketched with quick brushstrokes so that the reflection is the same that the viewer sees.

However many critics have pondered over the real meaning of the piece, and what this scene actually represents. There are two theories:

The first claims that in this scene Velázquez is painting a portrait of the king and queen posing, which is why we see them reflected in the mirror. In that moment Princess Margarita, the main character in the painting has entered the room with her ladies-in-waiting to see the work of the painter.

The second theory is contradictory. According to this version, it is the king and queen who have burst into the room. It is not clear what Velázquez is painting. The young princess is watching the dwarf play with the dog whilst one of the ladies-in-waiting serves her water. The arrival of the king and queen has not been noticed by all of them, but little by little they begin to notice and turn their heads to look at them. This includes one of the ladies-in-waiting who is situated behind the princess and who has started to curtsy. The young princess has just realised that her parents have entered the room, as her head is directed towards the dwarf playing with the dog, whilst her eyes are now directed towards the king and queen. Thus, there is movement in the whole painting.

It should be added that the composition perfectly follows what is known as “the Spiral of Dürer”, which comes from the princess´ chest and finishes in the lamp situated above Velázquez.

You can enjoy seeing Las Meninas in the Prado Museum in Madrid, in room 12 which is dedicated to the fantastic painter.