Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Las Meninas – Diego Velázquez’s The Maids of Honor

By Edith McClintock

Las Meninas (1656), Diego Velázquez
Have you ever been fascinated, entranced—even spellbound—by a work of art? I’ve experienced it many times with dance, music, theater, even architecture. With literature, it’s too frequent to count. But it’s only happened a few times with a painting. Perhaps it’s the setting that works against paintings. Museums or galleries can be overstimulating, with too many pieces, one after another.

When rushed, as one often is when visiting a museum—either because your partner is impatient, or your schedule is tight, or the crowds are pressing you forward—the colors and textures and feelings can blend. I’ll often leave a museum or art show with a sense of enjoyment or disappointment but have little remembrance or feeling for individual pieces. (It’s especially bad when the exhibit has free mojitos sponsored by Bacardi, as is all too frequent at Art Basel Miami. Alas, those days are gone for awhile.)

There is, however, one painting I’ll never forget. I was thirteen and I’d been anticipating seeing it, but only because I’d given a presentation on Diego Velázquez in my art class the preceding year, and generally had a crush on all things Spanish. Despite that, I didn’t love the reproductions of his 1656 masterpiece I’d seen in art books. They were too dark, and I was drawn to the pretty French impressionists.

Close up of the
Infanta Margarita
I finally saw Las Meninas in 1986 during a summer trip to Madrid with my family. The atmosphere at the Prado helped. It was alone in its room and had been since 1899, in recognition of its growing acclaim as a masterwork of western painting—so important, that it has never been loaned out. It was imposing, monumental really, dominating an entire room. The figure of the Infanta (the Princess) Margarita glowed in the darkly lit space. The entire piece was luminescent and much more beautiful than I’d expected—probably because of its then-recent restoration.

But it was more than just the painterly technique. I was drawn into King Philip IV’s Spanish court: the young infanta surrounded by her maids of honor, a chaperone and bodyguard, plus two dwarves. Velázquez, the artist, looking beyond the scene to me, the audience, standing in the place of King Phillip and Queen Mariana who are possibly being painted and reflected in the mirror. Or maybe Velázquez is painting Las Meninas itself on the large canvas, reflected in a mirror that is the audience.

Meninas (1957), Pablo Picasso
The work raises questions about reality and the connection between the artist, the observer, and the artwork. It didn’t feel like an intellectual concept, though, but rather a reality under Velázquez’s gaze, the infanta’s slight preen, the direct look of the German dwarf Maria-Bárbola. Even my older sister, who’d spent most of that summer inventing ways to torment me in public, stopped her leg dragging and loud clattering in English (her own performance art piece), and fell silent in awe.

Like many great works of art, the painting has been endlessly analyzed and reinterpreted over the past 356 years, from the role of the artist in Velazquez’s time, to the history and protocol of the court, and each of its members. Up until the early 1800s, the painting was known mostly within the Spanish court circles, and Goya, another famous Spanish court painter, was one of the first to be deeply influenced by it. He used aspects in several royal portraits, including The Family of Charles IV (1800) and The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón (1784). Like Las Meninas, the artist is there, possibly painting the scene, although his relationship with the royal family and audience is distant and not as inviting (see photo at bottom of blog).

Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita
with the Lights and Shadows of His Own
(1958), Salvador Dali
Pablo Picasso may have painted the most famous reinterpretation in 1957. He shut himself up for four and a half months with a photograph of Las Meninas, producing 44 canvases, some of the painting in its entirety, but some recreating single figures or small groups. And his homage, in turn, spun its own imaginings, including Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory (1958) by another Spaniard, Salvador Dali. Personally, although I’m not a huge Dali fan, I prefer his reinterpretation over the Picasso series. 

By the mid-20th century, reinterpretations of Las Meninas spread in tone, technique, and geography. In Spain, painters used humor, irony, and parody to critique the sociopolitical conditions of Franco’s Spain and its appropriation of Velázquez for propaganda. Beyond Spain, the piece inspired artists as varied as the American portrait painter, John Singer Sargent (who painted my favorite reinterpretation), Edgar Degas (who painted a version without ever having seen the original in person), and the Chilean-born multimedia artist Juan Downey, whose video, Las Meninas of 1975, was inspired by seeing the painting at the age of 22, as well as a critique of 17th century Spanish colonialism. 

Artists have continued to reinterpret, recreate, and inspire new pieces based on Las Meninas, whether in sculpture (see Manolo Valdés below), print and paintings, or video, film, literature and theater, making it not a relic of an old master, locked away in a museum, but a living, breathing, dialogue between the artists and Velázquez. And for me, 25 years later after my first look, I too have not forgotten. Perhaps one day, I’ll attempt my own reinterpretation. Or more likely just hang a print on my wall. Although neither could do the original justice.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882),
John Singer Sargent.
This is one of my least favorite interpretations, more because
I prefer Goya's later works on war and madness.
The Family of Charles IV (1800), Francisco Goya.
I love these sculptures by Spanish artist, Manolo Valdés.
Las Meninas, Bronze 2006, Düsseldorf, Hofgarten
Photo by Ralf Hüls

Reference note: You can find a more in-depth discussion, and the source material for artists who have reimagined Las Meninas over the years, on the Museu Picasso websiteClick here for the influence of Las Meninas from 1656 through 1901, and here for a discussion of its influence during the 20th century and beyond.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. Considering the lasting impression the painting has had Edith, I think that you should add your voice to the conversation.

  2. Lovely, thoughtful piece, Edith. Las Meninas also made a big impression in me when I saw it at the Prado many years ago. And I was reminded of it again last fall when I saw the John Singer Sargent painting in Boston.

    1. I haven't seen the John Singer Sargent painting in person yet. Haven't ever been to Boston. But soon....

  3. This is a remarkable piece, Edith. I'm astonished to realize that I don't remember the painting from my art history classes. Blame that on my fascination with the Italian Renaissance. I also like the commentary on interpretations by other artists. I love the sculpture!

    Your post makes me want to hop over to Spain to see the work.

    1. Definitely best to see it in person, Patricia, although I read that it is fading again, due to all the museum visitors. And Velazquez also collected many of the pieces now in the Prado from that time period and earlier, so there is plenty of Italian Renaissance art there.

  4. I love how you tied all these pieces together Edith. Being the art history buff (that I used to be!) I remember studying the Velazquez painting in detail. I am not clear on how the Singer Seargent correlation, but one thing I do remember for sure is the paing by Goya for the family of Charles IV. Goya disliked the family very much and painted them in an uppealing way- as far as he could get away with it, without overly insulting the subjects.

    1. Glad you like, Dana. And good close reading. I did miss describing the Sargent painting, and it is definitely a less obvious connection (and really an amazing painting all on its own). According to the experts, here are a few connections:
      1) Sargent is known to have copied Las Meninas in 1879 and I'm guessing part of the interpretation is the way his paintings changed after studying Velazquez;
      2) In the way both engage the viewer as an active participant in the scene;
      3) In the use of white in the girls dresses and the way they both “glow”;
      4) In the use of depth, dark tones and shading with a source of light at the far distance;
      5) The change in focus from people at various distances;
      6) The angles, shadows, and spaces in the two rooms.
      In 2010, they were even exhibited together at the Prado.