Three memories I have of the first time I visited Madrid: the relentless elegance of the women in the fashionable areas, the sumptuous gazpacho at the Ritz Madrid, and seeing “Las Meninas” in the Prado.
Ask an artist or a philosopher today to name the greatest painting in the world and the chances are they will say “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor) by Diego Velasquez.
As a history of art student, I would gaze at the reproductions in my Thames and Hudson art books. I wasn’t sure why this was the most written about painting in Western civilization.
Velázquez’s supreme painting hangs in the high octagonal room at the heart of the Prado Museum. It is recognized as a masterpiece of the Spanish Golden age, one of the pivots on which art history turns.
I gasped in sheer wonder at the first sight of it.
Velázquez: Come Into My Painting
The oil painting is huge (10 feet 5 inches by 9 feet 1 inch) so it competes with real life. It demands to coexist with you, in three-dimensional space, and does this by creating an illusion of continuity between the room you are in and the one in the painting. It is as though you were looking through a wormhole in time into the tall room in the Alcázar Palace in Madrid where Velázquez, who looks back at you, has set up his easel.
Velázquez, however, doesn’t just invite you into the painting. He casts you as a specific character in his play.
Initially, your attention is drawn to the figure of a young girl, Infanta Margaret Theresa, the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. The little girl with candyfloss-blond hair is wearing a formal gown, her small torso bound in a corset and a panniered skirt extending around her like a candy box. She is mind-wateringly pretty. She is orbited by an entourage of court servants, including dwarves and a bodyguard.
Six of the nine people in this painting are seemingly staring at you.
There are many points of especial interest. On the left is Velasquez himself in a rare self-portrait. To the rear of the painting, the queen’s chamberlain is shown in silhouette in the light of an open door. This provides a vanishing point, but it also draws our eyes to the depth that exists beyond.
To the left of the artist, in the distance, is a mirror in which the King and his wife Mariana of Austria are reflected.
“The Story of Art” by E.H. Gombrich suggests that in this masterpiece “Velasquez has arrested a real moment of time long before the invention of the camera.” “Las Meninas” is described as a dialogue between the artist and the viewer.
In some way, it is the ultimate selfie.
In High Style
In addition to the intellectual nuances, Velázquez paints in the theatrical style of high Baroque. The lighting and use of space moving from dark background to light foreground, the lavish costumes, the sparkling scumble of lace—all are painted with extravagant and loose brushstrokes that served his main purpose—the animation of life, not merely its representation. Velázquez’s brush is able to create sparkling, gleaming, and flashing brilliance.
The painting has been debated by philosophers, historians, and critics for three and a half centuries. It has inspired artists from Goya to Dali and Picasso. Dali’s moustache was an homage to Velázquez. Picasso painted some no fewer than 58 versions of “Las Meninas.”
Velázquez (1599–1660) had the ability to depict a face in such a way that it became not only immortal but metaphysical. When he painted kings or misfits he accorded them the same respect.
Some have called him the Shakespeare of painters because he portrayed the world with profound honesty.
Like Shakespeare, too, he effaced himself: one art critic avers, “You can’t even decide if Velázquez was a loyal Christian court artist or a sly ironist who saw through the whole charade.”
In “Las Meninas,” the painter creates one of the most beguiling enchantments in art. As you look at the golden-haired Infanta flanked by her fussing maids of honor—the meninas—accompanied by a female dwarf and a male dwarf who nudges a sleeping Mastiff dog, you accept the painting’s return of your interest. It is as if “Las Meninas” were not a work of art but another person looking back. This is the perfect illusion of life. It is an argument for the virtue of painting. It is a painting about painting.
Professor Roger Scruton, in his documentary “Why Beauty Matters,” argues that beauty is a universal human need that elevates us and gives meaning to life.
“Las Meninas” is indeed a beautiful painting. It enriches us and serves as a reminder that man can aspire to noble aims.
Jani Allan is a journalist, columnist, writer, and broadcaster.