Centuries Later, People Still Don’t Know What to Make of “Las Meninas”

Casey Lesser
Mar 23, 2018 9:56PM

The longer one looks at Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas, the more questions arise. Case in point: Scholars have been analyzing the painting for over three centuries, and still haven’t settled on its meaning.

“Few paintings in the history of art have generated so many and varied interpretations as this, Velázquez’s culminating work,” wrote art historian and Velázquez expert Jonathan Brown in his 1986 book, Velázquez: Painter and Courtier. Nearly two decades later, during a 2014 lecture at The Frick Collection, he quipped, “I feel in my bones that I may be suffering from the early stages of LMFS—Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome,” adding, “I’m not referring to the painting, but to the writing about it.”

An enigmatic group portrait of sorts, Las Meninas is populated by an odd cast of characters, including a princess, a nun, a dwarf, and the Baroque artist himself. A stark divergence from traditional royal portraiture, many have likened the painting to a snapshot, in the sense that it packs in a wealth of action. At the same time, close examination reveals that it doesn’t seem to follow the rules of perspective. Without clear evidence of the artist’s intentions or the wishes of his patron, viewers and historians alike are mostly left with theories and unanswerable questions.

Despite this ambiguity—or, perhaps, because of it—Las Meninas has found a place among the greatest Western paintings of all time. Below, we break down what we do (and don’t) know about this inscrutable Spanish masterpiece.

Who was Velázquez?

Diego Velázquez, Adoration of the Magi, 1613. Mueso del Prado, Madrid. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.  


Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in 1599 in Seville, Spain, to a family of minor nobility. He demonstrated an aptitude for painting from an early age, becoming an apprentice to the painter Juan de Herrera when he was around 11 years old. The boy went on to study for five years under Francisco Pacheco, today known for his technical, Mannerist style. Velázquez would eventually marry Pacheco’s daughter, Juana, and the elder painter would remain a mentor to him.

By the 1620s, Velázquez’s early work had earned him a following in Seville. His output at the time included depictions of biblical scenes, like Adoration of the Magi (1619), as well as bodegones, Spanish paintings that depicted scenes of everyday life, like Waterseller of Seville (1618–22) and Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618). In other works like Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1618) and Supper at Emmaus (1620), Velázquez uniquely blended the two styles in a surprising way—foregrounding regular, working people, while including miniature scenes from the New Testament in the background.

Velázquez displayed a mastery of light and shadow, a flair for rendering the minute details of surface and texture (something that some Baroque masters, like his Italian precursor Caravaggio, did not dwell on), and a talent for capturing the likenesses of people. Although this would soften slightly in later years, given the need to flatter his royal subjects, he was always acclaimed for his faithful portrayals.

In 1622, Velázquez caught the attention of one of Philip IV’s advisors and was summoned to sketch the king’s portrait the following year. Pleased with the result, the monarch—whose previous court painter had died the year prior—hired Velázquez to take over the post in Madrid.

Known for his support of the arts, Philip IV earned the nickname “The Poet King.” His reign marked the second half of Spain’s golden age of cultural production, the Siglo de Oro, and his art collection went on to become part of the foundational collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain’s national art museum—where Las Meninas continues to hold pride of place today.

In the decades that followed his appointment to court painter, Velázquez demonstrated his deft ability to portray the royal family: Philip, his wives, his children, and other members of the royal household (including minor players, like jesters). He simultaneously managed to build a strong personal rapport with the king. In 1652, Velázquez was appointed palace chamberlain, which saw him take up residence in the palace and have direct access to the royal family. The artist held duties that involved advising on the royal art collection, caring for the palace, and preparing it for guests, but he also aided in facilitating diplomatic matters and even weddings.

Scholars have documented the painter’s unusual double life, remarking on his aspirations for greatness that went far beyond that of a typical court painter. This second role may account for why Velázquez was not very prolific: Today, it’s estimated that he only made around 120 paintings during his lifetime. Las Meninas was among Velázquez’s final works, and speaks to the fact that he was no ordinary court painter.

What do we see in Las Meninas?

Thanks in large part to 18th-century art historian Antonio Palomino and his 1724 book on Spanish painters, we know quite a bit about the people and the physical space pictured in Las Meninas. As part of his research, Palomino spoke to Velázquez’s colleagues (the artist himself died in 1660), as well as four of the nine people pictured in the painting.

Las Meninas is set in Velázquez’s studio space at the Royal Alcázar of Madrid, the fortress-turned-palace where the king and his family lived. Hanging on the room’s far wall are copies of works by Peter Paul Rubens, another favorite painter of Philip IV, which were executed by the artist Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo. (Palomino mistakenly assumed the paintings were originals.) This series depict scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, including one of Minerva and Arachne and another of Pan and Apollo.

Detail of Doña Margarita and the titular meninas in Las Meninas.

At the center of the chamber stands the princess—also referred to as the empress and the infanta—Doña Margarita Maria of Austria, the first child of Philip IV and his second wife Mariana. The princess was Philip’s fourth child, and is pictured at the age of five or six; she was one of the artist’s favorite subjects, and, per the king’s orders, would paint her portrait several times after.

She wears a lush cream-colored gown with a buoyant skirt and diaphanous sleeves. Rather angelic, her soft golden hair and pink cheeks appear to glow, reflecting the stream of natural light that filters into the picture. Margarita is one of few moments of lightness in the entire composition.

Directly to her left and right are the titular meninas, the ladies-in-waiting, who would accompany and attend to the young royal in her daily routine. Directly to the left of the princess is Doña María Augustina Sarmentio, who kneels to offer the child a small jug on a silver dish; to the right, we see Doña Isabel de Velasco mid-curtsy, her hands outstretched over her voluminous gown. Both women are dressed in elaborate finery, including butterflies pinned in their hair (a delightful sartorial decision that features prominently in a previous portrait of one of Philip’s other daughters, Infanta Maria Teresa).

Detail of Maribárbola and Nicolasito Pertusato in Las Meninas.

Detail of the background figures in Las Meninas.

Further to the right stand the dwarf Maribárbola and court jester Nicolás Pertusato (or Nicolasito), who were a part of the royal household. It wasn’t uncommon for Velázquez to portray these supporting characters; individual portraits of them also hung in the palace. Nicolasito rests his foot on a large, gentle dog, which some have identified as a mastiff.

Just behind the meninas is a nun, Doña Marcela de Ulloa, who appears to be caught mid-discussion speaking with an unidentified guard. To the left, we see Velázquez himself, peering out from behind a large canvas. He wears a fine black courtier costume, including a cape and the red cross of Santiago painted on his chest. This symbol was a marker of his knighthood, which the king bestowed upon him in 1659.

In the center of the back wall stands an open door where a man is either ascending or descending a staircase and looking towards the viewer. This is José Nieto Velázquez, the queen’s chamberlain, who also ran the royal tapestry workshop.

Detail of Velázquez and the mirror (picturing King Philip IV and Queen Mariana) in Las Meninas.

Finally, perhaps the most crucial aspect of the entire composition, is a mirror to Nieto Velázquez’s left, where we see the backlit reflection of a couple—King Philip and Queen Mariana. Given this, it’s been assumed that they were standing where we, the viewers, stand, while Velázquez painted their portrait. Las Meninas, then, portrays a moment when the princess and her entourage walked in during the portrait-painting. Others have guessed the opposite—that the king was dropping by the artist’s studio, as he was known to do, during a portrait session with Margarita. A third theory posits that the princess had refused to join the family portrait, and the painting shows her being persuaded by one menina. Regardless, the presence of action beyond the frame is supported by the gestures and gazes of the various figures.

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.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019