My Daily Art Display painting of the day is Las Meninas (the Maids of Honour), an oil on canvas work by Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velázquez. He completed this painting in 1656 just four years before his death at the age of sixty one. It is often referred to as “a painting about a painting”.
In the painting, the setting of which is believed to be Velazquez’s high-ceilinged studio in Madrid’s Alcázar palace, the painter has just stepped out from behind the great canvas. At the centre of the painting is the five-year old princess Doña Margarita Maria of Austria, simply known as the Infanta, with her two maids of honour (las Meninas), Doña Maria Agustina on the left and Doña Isabel Velasco on the right. These girls, who were brought up to serve at court and come from aristocratic families, look respectfully at the Infanta. Various courtiers stand in the background. José Nieto the Queen’s Chamberlain stands in the doorway. Doña Marcela de Ulloa and a Guarda Damas (male escort for ladies of the court) stand directly behind the two Maids of Honour. In the foreground with his foot on the dog is the dwarf Nicolasito Pertusato and to the left of him is a second dwarf, Maribárbola
So who is the subject of the painting? Although the two maids of honour, are focusing their attention on the Infanta, almost all the other characters are looking out of the surface of the painting. So who are they looking at? If one looks carefully at the mirror on the rear wall, one can make out the fading reflection of the Infanta’s parents, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana. Are they whom everybody is looking at? Does this mean the king and queen were spectators watching the artist at work or in some way were they actually the subject of the painting on Velazquez’s easel? One interpretation of this faded reflection in the mirror is that Velazquez’s drew it thus in the belief that the fall of the Spanish empire would begin, and its power fade, once the king had died
The size of this painting, over ten feet tall and nine feet across place it in the noble convention of portraiture of the time and an exceptional example of the European baroque period. Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, wrote of the painting in his book Great Works of Art of Western Civilisation:
“… [it could] well be the most thrilling portrayal of humanity ever created, a combination of portrait, self portrait, illusion, reality, dream, romance, likeness and propaganda ever painted…”
Frederic Taubes, American artist and author, in his book The Illustrated Guide to Great Art in Europe, For Amateur Artists wrote of the painting:
“….the overall mastery in the use of pictorial means, the fact that it (Las Meninas) stands at the highest level any artist could attain, would not alone establish the painting in the galaxy of masterpieces. It is rather the imponderable that raises the realistic representation to the sphere of the transcendental….”