The iconic Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez gives us an intimate perspective on a secret world. This portrait of Spain’s King Philip IV reveals the inner court. We see the Infanta Margarita Theresa at center. She’s surrounded with a collection of servants. These are her Ladies in Waiting exemplified in the title. They take care of her in sanctioned hierarchies.
Click below for the podcast version of this piece.
On one such level we spy the blurry figures of her parents, the King and Queen. Right behind Margarita’s head they stand together. This could belie a portrait within a painting. Or it may be a reflection. The royal pair might be standing in the doorway. In the former case, we see this scene from their point of view.
When we realize the King and Queen are at the door, this becomes a more profound portrait. Each player faces their leader to show specific and singular reactions. Lowest in rank, the dog bows his head. Is he asleep or humbled? The canine closes his eyes and bears the weight of a foot on his flank. It could be they try to rouse him. Or the door opening may put an end to a playful poking-doggy game.
These are all players in the Infanta’s life. She stands alert and bright-cheeked in a sunshine flood. Margarita’s subjects surround her in varying status grades. But there’s no question she’s the grandest of all. Her dress floats glorious fluidity and flowers. In fact, the sheer sleeve seems abstract at first glance. But the mastery of Velázquez shines in the details here. Margarita’s arm shape comes alive within the fabric. It takes only a step away to see it with clarity. This sleeve spotlights brilliant abstract work within a realistic painting.
Maids wait on Margarita from her right and left. Doña Isabel de Velasco stands ready to curtsy, her eye on the king at the door. Doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor kneels next to the Infanta. She offers the five-year-old princess a red cup. It holds little interest to Margarita now that her parents are in the picture.
Far to our right stands another well clad duo. Little person Maria Barbola faces us with the most direct gaze of the painting. At the time of this work (1656) the Spanish royals employed a “court dwarf”. This humiliating position would look like slavery to you or me today.
Maria Barbola’s dignified composure and straight forward look are thus surprising. She served as companion to the Infanta – one of her Las Meninas. So, Barbola wasn’t merely the “court dwarf”. This may be why Diego Velázquez depicted her with equal poise to the rest of the painting’s subjects. Complexity of this level brings a profound sense of character to the piece. Each person reflects palace intrigue with a mere facial expression. The impact of Maria Barbola’s decorum reaches us on a deeper level than her stature ever could. It’s clear she matters in Margarita’s world.
Meaning in Las Meninas Shadows
Diego Velázquez plays another crucial character in the Infanta’s painting. He depicts himself at work. Velázquez painted a self portrait within this masterpiece to add a layer of meaning. Las Meninas represents the court of all who wait upon Margarita Theresa. Each subject waits in their own way. The artist stands back from his work. He paints himself pausing at the canvas with brush raised. This portrays him as the thoughtful creator of this world. Little did Diego Velázquez know he’d achieve the height of fame and honor far beyond this piece. That’s quite an accomplishment given the ongoing influence of Las Meninas.
King Philip insisted that another artist add the red cross to his chest after Diego’s death. It signifies his knighthood in the Order of Santiago. Philip knighted Velázquez three years after he finished Las Meninas. This cross symbol represents one of the most renowned military honors in world history. So, an addition made after the painter’s passing brought even more eminence to his work.
The other characters stand abstracted in shadow. Two chaperones hover in the background, blurry. Like the others in Las Meninas, they were actual court members. But as bodyguard and chaperone to the Infanta, their positions were secretive. So, their fuzzy faces make sense in that context.
Another shadowy figure poses in a doorway at the back. José Nieto Velázquez may have been Diego’s relative. But he was for certain the Queen’s attendant and head of the royal tapestries. This indistinct figure serves a critical role in the painting. The bright frame of light around him draws the eye deep into Las Meninas. We see in this example there are no minor players at court.
This masterpiece tells a familiar story. It’s family, work, friendship, and country all wrapped into one moment in a Spanish castle. It all comes down to humanity. We’ve all got families, friends, countries, and work to do.
Everybody is waiting on something or someone. Las Meninas presents us with this microcosm. It’s pristine in specificity – perfect. Still, it represents the macrocosm of everyone. In these particular people we see that human condition we all share. Waiting for recognition. Whether it’s awaiting a red cross of knighthood or the eye of the king on our humble presence. We’re all just one human after another waiting.
Las Meninas – FAQS
Why is Las Meninas so important?
One of the most renowned paintings of all time, Las Meninas translates to Ladies in Waiting or Maids of Honour. It intrigues viewers with double mirror imagery and varied brushwork. Each figure and object in the room plays an fascinating role, not only the royals.
The Infanta Margarita Theresa was the Spanish King Philip IV’s first surviving child. She later married Leopold the first and thus became Holy Roman Empress, Queen of Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, as well as Archduchess of Austria. This was the first of many Diego Velázquez paintings featuring Margarita.
Where can I see Las Meninas in person?
Las Meninas holds a primo position behind glass at the Museo Del Prado in Madrid, Spain. It’s an imposing wonder in person. That’s because it’s about ten and half feet by about 9 feet – a humbling size. Located in the wonder of central Madrid, the address is Calle de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, 28014.
It’s doubtful this painting will ever hit the art market. The value it holds reaches far beyond material worth. I hesitate to use the word priceless about art – it’s pretentious in most cases. But it fits here. The cultural value alone far exceeds any measurable amount.
Enjoyed this Las Melinas analysis?
Check out these other essays on Spanish painters.