In this occasional series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week: Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas.”
 
With a title that translates as “The Ladies-in-Waiting,” Diego Velàzquez’s remarkable group portrait “Las Meninas” is, perhaps, the most well-known example of a painting communicating much more than it initially seems to. Indeed, the massive painting, which visually centers around the delightful Infanta Margaret Theresa and her maids of honor, also creates a series of complex ulterior narratives surrounding the painting’s production, the viewer’s relationship with the characters, and so much more. That’s why “Las Meninas” is almost certainly one of the most widely analyzed paintings in the history of art.
 
Painted in 1656 during the reign of King Philip IV of Spain, “Las Meninas” was one of the first paintings ever to capture the production of, arguably, itself. Standing along the left edge of the painting and staring out upon the viewer is Velàzquez himself. The large canvas before him —cut off by the painting’s cropping — is believed by many to be that of “Las Meninas” itself. This remarkable inclusion creates a great deal of uncertainty when considering the viewers and their relationship to — and possibly within — the painting. More typically, the viewer assumes the position or vantage of the artist, who captures the scene that lies in front of him. However, Velázquez’s position within the scene would make this impossible. In the background, a mirror reflects the visages of the Queen and King, suggesting perhaps it is their viewpoint that we, the viewer, occupy.
 
Indeed, no interpretive consensus has ever been reached among scholars except for the remarkable nature and importance of the painting. Some have suggested the painting is a perfect representation of popular concerns of the Spanish Baroque, namely the relationship between illusion and reality — which also figures largely in the best-known work of Spanish Baroque literature, Don Quixote.
 
Renowned scholar and philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, “We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a while complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject.”(1) Continuing, Foucault argues, “Now he (the painter) can be seen, caught in a moment of stillness, at the neutral centre of his oscillation. His dark torso and bright face are half-way between the visible and the invisible: emerging from the canvas beyond our view, he moves into our gaze; but when, in a moment, he makes a step to the right, removing himself from our gaze, he will be standing exactly in front of the canvas he is painting; he will enter that region where his painting, neglected for an instant, will, for him, become visible once more, free of shadow and free of reticence. As though the painter could not at the same time be seen on the picture where he is represented and also see that upon which he is representing something.”
 
To be sure, hundreds of books, articles, essays, and other writings have attempted to successfully and succinctly encapsulate “Las Meninas” and all of its philosophical potential. Through all of its uncertainty, what remains certain is that the painting is a striking example of how one man — with canvas, paint, and brushes — can create a work of profoundly beautiful art that forever captures the hearts and minds of connoisseurs and enthusiasts.
 
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.
 

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