So, what does Las Meninas mean?
We know that Las Meninas was intended for the king and first hung in his private office in his summer quarters. So, when he stood before it, he was fulfilling its premise. But the date of the painting complicates what exactly Velázquez intended with this massive work.
An early inventory of the royal collection, compiled upon King Philip IV’s death in 1666, mentions a 1656 Velázquez painting of Margarita with her ladies-in-waiting and a female dwarf. It was widely assumed that this record referenced the work we know today as Las Meninas. The description fit—and, since the princess was born in 1651 and she appears to be five or six years old in Las Meninas, the dates matched up, as well. But this interpretation is complicated by the red cross of Santiago painted on Velázquez’s chest: It’s well documented that the artist wasn’t knighted until November 1659.
Beginning with Palomino, various scholars have assumed that the red cross was added to the painting at a later date, per instructions from the king. Palomino, in fact, believed the work was originally a part of Velázquez’s campaign to achieve knighthood. He viewed the monumental canvas as an example of the artist’s quest for eternal fame, a means of preserving his own name and his connection to the royals. “The name of Velázquez will live from century to century as long as that of the most excellent and beautiful Margarita, in whose shadow his image is immortalized,” Palomino wrote.
The painting was kept in the royal palace until 1819, when it was moved to the Prado. But even before then, the privileged few who saw it remarked on the novelty of a painter portraying himself alongside royalty. “[T]he picture seems more like a portrait of Velázquez than of the Empress,” Portuguese writer Felix da Costa commented upon seeing La Meninas in 1696. Although it was originally described as a painting of Philip IV’s family, in 1843, the work was dubbed Las Meninas in an effort to acknowledge its status as far more than a traditional family portrait.
In modern times, conservators who have examined the painting assure us that there are not two distinct layers of paint. Thus, the cross was part of the original painting—evidence that has led to new theories. Although most scholars continue to date the painting to 1656, Brown has offered an adjusted timeline for Las Meninas. He places the painting’s creation between November 28th, 1659, when Velázquez was knighted, and April 1660, when he aided the king on an expedition to the Pyrenees to meet with the French. Given this, Velázquez would’ve created Las Meninas over a period of just four months. Brown argues that Las Meninas was a thank-you gift for the King, after Velázquez was inducted into the order of Santiago—a supreme honor.
Today, it’s widely been understood that the scenario we see is an imagined one. Velázquez certainly observed each of the parts of the painting firsthand, but he engineered them together, weaving a narrative to suit his own purposes. “Fact is turned into fiction,” Brown writes. The work is “purely a product of the painter’s imagination.”
The mirror is one of several lingering mysteries. Scholars are unsure if it reflects the real king and queen, or a painted portrait of the couple that appears on the canvas Velázquez is working on. Due to the way the artist toyed with perspective in the piece, arguments could be made for either scenario; several scholars have gone to great lengths to study the scale, geometry, and perspective of Las Meninas.
In a 2002 essay, Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt compiled the various approaches to interpreting the work in the 20th century—ranging from allegorical readings to studies of its physical structure. Scholars and writers, like Michel Foucault, have used the painting as fodder to further their own intellectual pursuits. Perhaps the most compelling argument poses Las Meninas as a celebration of the noble art of painting.
“At the beginning of the 21st century,” Stratton-Pruitt concludes, “despite all the analyses of it, Las Meninas somehow still eludes us.”