The true meaning of an artwork that never ceases to amaze
The piece was painted in 1656, at the end of Diego Velasquez’s career (1599-1660), the greatest Spanish artist of that time period. From his native Seville, the artist had moved to the Court of Madrid in 1624 thanks to the success of a portrait that had been commissioned by Philip IV. He was soon appointed pintor del rey and remained in court for 37 years, bound by a deep relationship of esteem and friendship with the king.
For Spain, although the serious economic stagnation in progress was taking the Iberian Peninsula towards a melancholic decline, the 1600s represented an era of extraordinary literary and artistic growth, so much so that it was called Siglo de oro, the Spanish Golden Age.
The year in which it was painted, the piece was inventoried as the painting of the baby girl with dames, maids, nana and the painter “a sí mismo pintando” [painting himself]. In 1734, it was referred to as the “Family of Philip IV”. Subsequently, housed the Museo del Prado in the inventory of 1843 the work bacame “Las Meninas”, the Portuguese word meaning bridesmaids.
Apparently, this is a family portrait. In the foreground, two bridesmaids surround the baby Margherita. On the left, we find doña Maria Augustina, heiress of the Duchy of Abrantes and, on the right, doña Isabel de Velasco. Three years later, the first would marry the count of Aguilar, while the latter would die unmarried.
To the right of the ladies, there is Mari-Bàrbola, the dwarf of German hydrocephalus origin, depicted with a merciless realism that highlights the beauty of the infant of whom she was faithful companion. At her side, intent on tormenting a dog with his foot, there is Nicolasito Pertusato, the king’s valet who had arrived from Italy 6 years prior. He has the features of a child, however he is actually a dwarf.
Behind, there is Marcela de Ulloa, the first lady of the queen, dressed as a nun, as was sometimes used in the Spanish court for widows. She is busy talking with Diego Ruiz de Azcona, archbishop of Burgos, who would be carry out the testimony upon the death of Velásquez.
On the left side, the painter depicted himself as he protrudes from behind the easel to watch his subject carefully, before returning to painting. He is looking at us, but what is he painting? A mirror at the back of the room show that he is depicting Philip IV and his wife. The painter is making their portrait.
On the back wall, to the right of the mirror, a door opens that reveals another room, quite bright, but we only see the stairs. The room shows Don José Nieto Velàsquez as a marshal of the palace in the service of the queen, perhaps a relative of the painter, whose ambiguous pose does not make it clear whether he is coming or going. The rest of the wall is occupied by paintings, the two above the mirror depicting on right Pallade and Aracne di Rubens, with whom Velàsquez was very friendly, while the other is Apollo and Marsyas of Jacob Jordaens, a pupil of Rubens.
The scene takes place inside a room lit by a window in the foreground on the left, and we only see the door jamb. The sloping of the floors is shown by the fading of light towards the bottom and from the paintings on the right depicted with a foreshortening technique. Velasquez has managed to reach a nearly photographic effect, combining a sharp first floor thanks to the lighting of the window with a blurred interior, in dim light.
In the background, the mirror and door are symmetrical, reflected image and real figure are in relationship as emphasized by the mirror curtains. The vanishing point falls under the hand of Marshal Velasquez who holds the curtain, and whose suspended gesture recalls a painter holding a work in his hands. By placing his namesake in the painting, Velàsquez created another symmetry: the two Velasquez. He is responsible for painting and at the service of the king, the other at the service of the queen, but also superintendent of royal tapestries. In the middle, we find the mirror with the sovereigns.
The brush strokes show a wise dosing between the light colours of the parts that are illuminated and shaded areas. This is a nervous and synthetic style that his contemporaries defined as “abreviada manera”.
His pictorial technique is indebted in many respects to Titian, who he saw in Rome, but also in the royal collections where he found the finest of European production -perhaps the The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, who inspired the play on mirrors.
The Royal Family
A good look at the Spanish court would have been worthy of a soap opera. The “Infanta” was the daughter of Marianna of Austria, who King Philip IV of Habsburg had married in his second marriage after the death of the heir Baltasar Carlos. This has been a premature and sudden death that had upset the king and left the country in uncertainty. Therefore, Phillip had been pushed by the necessity of having a male descendent, and married Marianna who had not only been the bride’s betrothed and was 30 years younger, but she was also a nephew, seeing that she was the daughter of his sister. In 1656 Margherita was still an only child, then three sons would come, but only the last would survive. The unhappy Don Carlo “the bewitched”, last of the Habsburgs of Spain, suffering from serious physical and mental ailments.
Margherita was loved by her family, and from an early age enjoyed a personal court. She also saw a cruel fate. At the age of 15 she married Leopold I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, maternal uncle and at the same time a cousin. A dynastic union sealed by a sumptuous ceremony that lasted several months. The beautiful girl that appears aware and proud in the painting, honoured by her ladies, was surely unaware that she would die very young. First, she would become a woman of precarious health, bigoted and intolerant, disheartened by the repeated deaths of her children. After six extremely troubled pregnancies, she died at the age of twenty-one, sincerely saddened by her husband, but not by the Viennese court, who did not tolerate the arrogance of the Spaniards of his retinue and who had understood that the couple would never have healthy children.
Philip IV and Marianna of Austria are the most important characters in the painting, those to whom almost all the eyes of the characters in the canvas converge. However, they are not the protagonists, their images are a blurred reflection at the back of the room. This is an unusual choice, perhaps the painting was intended to be a display of a certain familiarity with the royals and the exaltation of the nobility of the technique and the work itself. The painter shows on his chest the cross of the order of Santiago, a prestigious honour conferred upon him as a finished painting, and which he later added as evidence of his social ascent.
The theme is not the portrait but the rather the creation of a portrait. whose protagonists are present as a reflection and not as a real presence. In a “short-circuit of vision”, the room is seen through the eyes of the sovereigns who look at the characters in the painting, who in turn observe the couple and also observe us, external spectators. We are in the same position as the sovereigns. We look at the sovereigns, who look at us from the mirror, watching the scene … a game of Chinese boxes.
If the painter is inside this representation, who is actually portraying the scene? It was thought that behind the royal family there was a large mirror and that the painter painted the scene seen in the mirror. Some also believe that the object of the portrait was the girl, and that the painter, having stopped for the sudden arrival of the sovereigns, painted her at his side, overturning the scene by 180 degrees.
There are no certainties. Fiction often blends with reality. With an extraordinary awareness of his own worth, the artist has represented himself while painting, questioning himself in a modern way on the relationship between reality and the people looking on, this mix of fiction and image. Moreover, the artist is not placed at the centre of the scene, freeing the view that leads to the mirror, but catalyses the attention. There is a strength and an awareness in the artist, which perhaps we also find only in the baby girl.
It is rather difficult to give a univocal reading of the painting. However, this work is the triumph of Baroque aesthetics with its taste for visual deceptions, which create disorientation. In the Renaissance there had never been a distinction between what the senses see and reality, due to the fact that seeing meant to know. In the 17th century, on the other hand, the experimental scientific method had shown that appearance does not always coincide with reality, and reality and that what we see often does not exist and we do not have this certainty, in any case. Our senses deceive us. The knowledge acquired through senses has entered into crisis, and this would last forever. The picture is an expression of all this. In short, it tells us that everything we see is fiction.
Anna Maria Calabretta