Diego Velazquez and his masterpiece painting "Las Meninas"

Las Meninas, painted by Diego Velazquez in 1656.
Las Meninas, painted by Diego Velazquez in 1656. | Source

Diego Velazquez 1599-1660

One of the most highly viewed and analyzed paintings in Spanish history is the portrait painting by Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas. Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was one of Europe' s Old Masters painters from the Golden Age in Spain during the 17th century. He was mainly a portrait painter for the royal court of Spain under King Philip IV, and his portraits, today, are viewed as the best of the rest. Velazquez was as crafty and clever as Leonardo Da Vinci, when he left us the painting, Las Meninas, full of mystery and questions. To this day, art historiians view Las Meninas as a statement of reality vs. illusion. What is reality and what is illusion in this painting? But to get to the answers to this mystery and questions about this painting, we first must look at Velazquez's life and background.

Velazquez was a very individualist painter of the Baroque period. He mostly painted portraits during his career but also painted scenes of historical and cultural significance. His great masterpiece painting is Las Meninas, which he painted in 1656. His portraits were so great that he became a model for realist and impressionist painters, particularly Edouard Manet. His paintings also influenced Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Francis Bacon who each recreated several of his paintings as ways of learning his painting techniques.

Velazquez was born in Sevilla, Spain and as a young child had a good education and training in languages and philosophy. At an early age he showed an early gift and great promise for art. As a child, he studied art under Francisco de Herrera who disregarded Italian art influence of the early Sevilla school. When he was 12 years old, he left Herrera's tutelage and apprenticed under Francisco Pachero, an artist and teacher in Sevilla. He studied with Pachero for five years learning proportion and perspective in painting from him. Velazquez also learned to express a simple, direct realism in contradiction to the style of Rafael, the Italian painter, that was taught at the time.

By 1620, Velazquez's position and reputation as a painter was greatly deserved in Sevilla. While still living here in Sevilla, he married and had two daughters, one that died in infancy. In 1622 he went to Madrid with letters of introduction to Don Juan de Fonseca, also from Sevilla, who was the chaplain to King Philip IV. When the king's favorite court painter died, Count-Duke of Olivares requested that Velazquez come to Madrid and paint the king. In August 1623 - King Philip IV sat for Velazquez and he painted him. The King and Olivares were pleased with his sketches and pre-paintings and Velazquez was asked to be the royal court painter and move to Madrid. Velazquez did so in 1624 and remained there at court as the royal court painter until his death.

Velazquez did make two trips to Italy, one in 1629 and the other in 1649 to paint and learn new painting techniques there. Both trips were crucial to his development as a painter. It was only four years before his death that he painted his masterpiece, Las Meninas, and it has gone down in history as one of the greatest Spanish paintings ever painted.

Close-up of La Infanta Margarita Teresa in the painting, Las Meninas
Close-up of La Infanta Margarita Teresa in the painting, Las Meninas | Source
Self-portrait of Velazquez in Las Meninas.
Self-portrait of Velazquez in Las Meninas. | Source

Las Meninas - The Maids of Honor

Las Meninas, Velazquez's masterpiece, has been an enduring mystery throughout the ages. The subject of the painting is La Infanta Margarita Teresa, the eldest daughter of the King Philip IV and his Queen Mariana. La Infanta is surrounded by an entourage of maids of honor, chaperone, bodyguard, 2 dwarfs and a dog. Velazquez, himself, a self-portrait, looks outward beyond the pictorial space. The King and Queen are also painted in the portrait, reflected in the mirror in the back of the painting. What has made this painting a mystery are the questions surrounding it. Who exactly is the focal point of the painting? Is it La Infanta Margarita, Velazquez himself, or perhaps the King and Queen reflected in the mirror?

The painting is one of the most widely analyzed works of art in Western painting. It raises questions about reality and illusion. Is the portrait, in fact, a mirror from the perspective of the King and Queen? Is this why their reflection can be seen in the mirror on the back wall? Since children are "little mirrors of their parents," perhaps this is what Velazquez meant when he put the King and Queen as reflections in the mirror or the whole portrait as a reflection of a mirror. Much is still speculated today about the questions of reality vs. illusion. Velazquez presents nine figures, eleven with the King and Queen, and occupy only the lower half of the canvas. The upper half is bathed in darkness. There are three focal points to the painting:

  • La Infanta Margarita Teresa
  • the self-portrait of Velazquez
  • the reflected images of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana

Though the accurate handling of light and shade, Velazquez brings these three figures to the front as the focal points. The room in the painting gives the appearance of natural light within the painted room and beyond. There are two sources of light in the room: One, is the thin shafts of light from the open door and two, the broad streams coming through the window on the right. Velazquez uses light to add volume and definition to each form, but also to define the focal points of the painting.

Light streams in from the right and brightly sparkles on the braid and golden hair of the female dwarf, who is nearest the light source. However, her face is turned away from the light and in the shadow so as not to be a focal point. The light glances on the cheek of the lady in waiting near La Infanta, but not on her facial features. La Infanta is in full light and her face is turned toward the light source even though her gaze is not. Her face is framed by pale blond hair and sets her apart from the rest of the painting. Her decorative clothing and the lighting make her the focal point of the painting.

In the self-portrait of Velazquez, the viewer sees his face is dimly lit by a reflected light rather than direct light. His total face is looking out, full-on to the viewer and draws attention to him and shows his importance. The triangle of light on his sleeve reflets on the face.

The elusiveness of the painting suggests to the viewer that art and life are an illusion. The relationship between reality and illusion was an important concern in Spain in the 17th century. This dichotomy between reality and illusion also comes up in Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes, the great Spanish novel from Spain's Golden Age and in the Baroque form.

Pablo Picasso's rendition of Las Meninas.
Pablo Picasso's rendition of Las Meninas. | Source

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Comments 16 comments

Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this. very informative.


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

You have found yourself a niche. The old masters really captured their subjects.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter99: Thank you for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed this. I enjoyed writing this.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

mckbirdbks: Thank you so much! I think I miss teaching this in my Spanish classes, so the world is now my classroom. lol So glad you stopped by,


ChristyWrites profile image

ChristyWrites 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

So much information here to share with us, a useful hub.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

ChristyWrites: Thanks so much for stopping to read this. I appreciate the comments. Thank you!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Although I love to paint with oils on canvas, I am woefully unaware of the intricacies of the masterpieces. Your piece is the first critical analysis I have ever read and I enjoyed it completely. Thank you for the brilliant critique of the lighting that puts the spotlight on the focal points. Extremely well written and interesting article, suzettenaples.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: Thank you so much for your comments. I am so pleased this was helpful to you. I'm not an artist, but I love art history, and I love viewing all these paintings. I have been so fortunate to view them in person and they are amazing. When I look at a painting I always look at lighting and color first. For me that is the most important part of the painting.

How interesting and that paint with oils. You must do an article on this sometime. I would love to see your work. I promise I will NOT critique it! lol. The talented people on hubpages amazes me! Thanks so much for stopping by!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I am still saving to purchase a digital camera so I can put my paintings online here, suzette. Actually, I would love your critique, although my art is not anywhere near the masterpieces you are accustomed to viewing. I have two of my paintings on hubpages, one titled "No one likes goodbye" and "Tell me your Secrets". I painted with oils on canvas and wrote my own take on the paintings with my poetry. Thank you, suzettenaples, for your magnificent article and your generous expression of interest in my work.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: Thanks for stopping by again and good to hear from you. I know what you mean by waiting to buy a digital camera - I have been in the same boat! I will go to your paintings and poems with eagerness. I love all kinds of art and paintings, althought I just happen to be on a master's kick right now. Thanks for telling me of your works, I am going there right now!


Life of an Artist profile image

Life of an Artist 3 years ago from Huntsville, AL

Hi Suzette!

I was excited to see your hub about Velazquez' Las Meninas :)

I have linked your blog to one I just completed about M.Louise Stanley's triptych "The Functional Family (after Velazquez)," which appropriates "Las Meninas."

Feel free to stop by and check it out if you'd like :)


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Life of an Artist: Thank you so much for visiting and reading this. I certainly will check out your blog. Thanks so much for the link. I will try to reciprocate, but I must tell you I am very technologically challenged! lol But, I will try. Your article sounds interesting.


Better Yourself profile image

Better Yourself 3 years ago from North Carolina

Very interesting! I remember studying this piece in an art history class years ago so it was interesting to rediscover. Great hub!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Better Yourself: Thank you so much for reading this and for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed this. I think I am an art history wannabe! lol I love art and it is something I find so interesting and soothing and peaceful to view. Thanks for your visit - most appreciated.


grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

We used to talk about this when I was young. We had a copy, and my oldest sister would talk of the midget, the painter and the mirror. But this is the first time that I came to understand all the elements with coherence. Wonderful article!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

grand old lady: Hi again! This is one of the most famous from Spain and the most famous of Velazquez. I have always admired it and it is so unusual with the midgets/dwarfs in it. I never realized how popular and important they were to the royal circles in Spain. I am so glad this hub explained the painting and the history and situation behind it.

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