The Power, and Art, of Painting
The alluring enigmas of Velázquez's 'Las Meninas'
By MARY TOMPKINS LEWIS
A picture of an artist's studio is an invitation to enter his private realm, to ponder his perception of the creative process and to marvel at the extent to which art, at its most profound, can transcend the limits of its historic moment and constructed space. Diego Velázquez's "Las Meninas" (1656)—marked by a massive scale, unremitting technical virtuosity and centuries of critical analysis—is a tour-de-force studio painting and one against which legions of later artists, including Goya and Picasso, have measured themselves. Countless writers have debated the work's seductive visual riddles: its transparent naturalism yet strangely inaccessible subject, its striking combination of a captured moment and staged studio portrait, its meticulously wrought but, in the end, ambiguous perspective. Perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the Golden Age of Spanish art, it has been heralded as a summation of the painter's illustrious career and enduring quest for nobility in an age and culture that did not sufficiently esteem its native artists. In the waning decades of the Hapsburg empire in Spain, Velázquez's "Las Meninas" also offered a telling glimpse of the world of the aging Philip IV, where artifice and illusion often masked, to dazzling effect, an increasingly dismal reality.
Velázquez's first biographer, Palomino, identified the painting's cast of characters, all of them part of the royal household. At center stands the exquisite Infanta Margarita, whose radiant innocence is captured in sheer, scintillating strokes and framed by the solicitous handmaidens (or meninas) who attend her. To the right appear two dwarfs who served, in keeping with court custom, as playmates to the princess; one of them, Nicolasito, teases a sleepy mastiff. Just behind, a lady-in-waiting to the queen chats with an unnamed gentleman, while beyond and silhouetted in a luminous doorway, the queen's chamberlain pauses to look back. And poised at left before his easel, with palette lowered and paintbrush frozen in midair, the artist himself gazes intently out, most likely at Philip IV and his wife, Marianna of Austria, whose likenesses are captured in a shimmering, distant looking glass. It is here that the painter's paradoxes begin.
The royal couple seem to be not only physically present before Velázquez, but to stand on this side of the painting with us, the viewers. And where, we might ask, stands the artist, if he is studying his own visage too in reflection? The towering, unseen canvas at left, its ragged border edged with palpable strokes of paint, draws us further into his elaborate visual conundrum. It may hold a life-size portrait of the Infanta, or perhaps "Las Meninas" itself—an ingenious conceit that would make the real painting a metaphoric mirror of its own creation—or, more likely, depict the king and queen who have assumed a formal portrait stance beneath a florid red drapery. Yet if they are posing in the studio, why is their presence only beginning to be acknowledged? The arrested glance of the Infanta (Picasso would find it tantalizing), whose head turns left even as she, like the chamberlain, looks back, suggests that they have just arrived. That realization seems to have a ripple-like effect on her companions across the room. Their captured, candid postures and growing awareness of Philip and Marianna stand in marked contrast to the monarchs' static stares, or to the searching scrutiny of the painter. No mere, teasing narrative, "Las Meninas" encapsulates in magnificent form the power, and art, of painting itself.
Scholars have often argued that the canvas was a deliberate effort by Velázquez to acquire admission to the noble Order of Santiago, a titled rank he had long sought that was enjoyed by Spanish poets and philosophers but rarely by Spanish artists, who were judged as lowly craftsmen. Velázquez sets his enigmatic scene in royal quarters once occupied by Prince Baltasar Carlos (who had died a decade before), rather than in his own adjacent workshop, and includes on the now-darkened back wall mythological paintings that hung there and alluded, persuasively, to the pre-eminence of painting as a liberal art. Yet he holds fast to the studio paradigm here as well. As recounted by Pliny, ever since Alexander the Great visited his painter Apelles, the presence of a king in an artist's workspace was a treasured sign of conferred noble stature. In 1659, Velázquez's wish was finally granted. According to Palomino, Philip ordered the red cross of knighthood painted on the artist's doublet shortly after Velázquez's death in 1660.
Despite its monumental scale and commanding position today in a long, octagonal and often teeming room in the Prado, "Las Meninas" was originally painted for an audience of one. It first hung in the king's private office in his summer apartment, testimony to Velázquez's achievements and to his own munificent patronage, but also a brilliant divertissement from the disastrous domestic state and crumbling colonial empire that was Philip IV's late reign.
When the 17th century opened, Spain was the greatest power in Europe, the Hapsburg empire surpassing even that of ancient Rome. By 1656 Philip had watched its Castillian population dwindle, its European holdings diminish, its American colonies and silver industry erode, its primacy as a monarchy, and even as a people, fall prey to doubt and defeat. In both his art and in the theatrical spectacles he devised for the royal court Velázquez toiled to veil that ineffable decline, and his artistic production in these final years contracted under the weight of such an arduous task. Although a few late portraits of Philip IV exist, he was famously reluctant in his world-weary old age to be portrayed by his percipient court painter, something Velázquez may subtly acknowledge here. But even more, in "Las Meninas" Velázquez shares with his greatest patron the mutable stage of his studio, offering him not only immortality but a place and moral lesson in history, where reality could be as fragile, fugitive and illusory as the painting itself.
—Ms. Lewis, who writes frequently about the arts, teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W11