Las Meninas

One of the most famous Spanish masterpieces is Las Meninas, painted in 1656 by Sevillian painter Diego Velázquez. It is probably the most controversial, talked about, analyzed, and imitated paintings in history.

To analyze Las Meninas, we’ll begin by noting that the painting represents a scene from daily life in the palace of King Philip IV. Of all the people who appear, Infanta Margarita stands out in the center of the painting, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting (meninas). Doña Marcela of Ulloa is the woman speaking to Diego Ruíz Azcona, and Velázquez himself is the painter we see. José Nieto Velázquez stands in the doorway at the back of the painting, and on the back wall there is a mirror reflecting the image of the monarchs King Philip IV and Mariana of Austria.

This painting demonstrates Velázquez’s mastery of chiaroscuro. 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 gaze on the main group, and the open door at the back, with the person positioned against the light, is the vanishing point.

In the more than 350 years that have passed from when the painting was created to today, many critics have pondered over the real meaning of the piece, and what this scene actually represents. There are two theories:

The first theory claims that Velázquez is painting a portrait of the king and queen, which is why we see them reflected in the mirror, when Infanta Margarita suddenly enters the room with her ladies-in-waiting to see the painter’s work.

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

After this short analysis of Las Meninas, if you want to see the painting with your own eyes, you should visit the Prado Museum in Madrid, specifically room 12, which is dedicated exclusively to Diego de Velázquez.