Diego Velazquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) is one of my favorite works of art for technical, aesthetical, and metaphorical reasons. The scene is of Spain’s Royal Household congregating in one of the rooms of a palace in Madrid.
On a literal basis, I was first struck by Velazquez’s use of chiaroscuro–Italian for “light from dark.” This Renaissance technique illuminates the foreground and the bottom half of the background, meshing the two sections together, adding depth, and increasing the volume of the subjects. The looming darkness above broadens the painting’s height and feeling of vast space.
What also interested me, was the discreet way in which Velazquez conveyed the time period by covering the walls with shadowed Baroque paintings.
Additionally, Las Meninas is noted for its realism. The figures are meant to be those of the Royal Family of Spain, and Velazquez depicted himself on the left as a courtier, commissioned to create exalting works of art for the Royal Household.
Interestingly enough, there are four vanishing points present: one is the prominently seated infant, Maria Margarita, the second is the top right edge of the canvas, the third is the mirror/picture frame (no one knows for sure what it’s supposed to be), and the fourth is the space above the elbow of José de Nieto, the man spotlighted in the upper doorway. Depending on the focal point the viewer chooses to look at, the presence of Philip IV and Mariana of Austria (the couple in the black frame) shifts.
For picturesque reasons, I believe the lavish clothes and resplendent, icy hues emerging from blackness make Velazquez’s painting beautiful.
Finally, I love Las Meninas for its ambiguousness.
The black frame in the background is either a mirror capturing the image of Philip and Mariana standing in a doorway, a mirror that is reflecting the painting Velazquez is working on, or a completed portrait of the Monarchs. If it’s the former, the figures are obviously addressing the couple who are standing in a doorway. If it’s one of the latter two, the people are staring at the viewer, giving the vibe that we are intruding on their space.
Even more symbolic if the black frame were to be a portrait or a mirror image of a portrait, would be the suggestion that the Monarchs have a spiritual or “God-like” presence. Whether this is good or bad, is up to the individual.
However, what if the Royal Couple is physically standing in the doorway? Does this mean that their presence and political influence is imposing? Or is it dwindling since they’re only seen in a mirror image? Again, whichever rings true varies from person to person.
One of the paintings hanging on the wall is supposed to have been done by the famous artist, Rubens. The aforestated could represent Velazquez paying homage to an artistic predecessor, and/or, he could be criticizing the Spanish’s views of ideal art. If the latter is correct, then is Velazquez’s figure “waiting in the wings,” hoping to prove to Spain that he is the best court painter? The answer is up for interpretation.
On a smaller scale, the dog in the foreground could symbolize the loyalty of the Royal Family to Spain, Nieto could be a lingering threat to the government, and Maria Margarita may or may not be curtseying to a presence at the door, indicating if the black frame is a mirror showing Philip and Mariana entering.
And speaking of Margarita, what does she embody? The wholesome image of the Royal Household that needs constant maintenance and upkeep (as she is being attended to by two girls: María Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco)? A new type of government that is emerging or being dwarfed? Or is she simply eyeing the viewer–tacitly asking us what we think is going on?
Personally, I do not have any answers to these questions, nor do I have much of an opinion. But it is not having answers or opinions for Las Meninas that makes it a special painting to me. For all answers lie in the eye of the beholder.