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Diego Velazquez and his masterpiece painting "Las Meninas"
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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.
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.