“Las Meninas” is an oil-on-canvas painting measuring 3.18 by 2.73 meters, painted by Diego Velázquez in 1656.
Velázquez was one of the most important Spanish baroque painters of the 17th century, often dubbed the Golden Age. In his early years he was influenced by Caravaggio’s work and focused on depicting ordinary people.
But beginning in 1623, Velázquez worked as the official court painter for Philip IV of Spain, painting royal portraits.
“Las Meninas” is considered his masterpiece, completed at the peak of his career, when Velázquez was the most famous and celebrated of all Spanish painters.
“Las Meninas,” or “the Maids of Honour,” is a very large canvas and portrays a scene set in Velázquez’s studio. The Infanta of Spain, the king’s daughter, stands in the middle of the composition, surrounded by two maids in waiting, a few court dwarves and a dog. On the left-hand side, the artist himself can be seen, painting an enormous canvas of which we can only see the back side. The characters in the painting are looking out at the spectator.
The light is crafted so that it loses intensity the further back one looks into the space depicted in the painting. The only source of light is an open door on the dark back wall. Two rows of paintings hang on the walls, including well-known works by Flemish masters Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.
A mirror hanging on the back wall, a clear allusion to the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, sets up complex visual echoes inside the painting. The mirror reflects images of Philip IV, the king of Spain, and Mariana of Austria, who appear to be the mysterious subjects of the painting Velázquez is working on in “Las Meninas.” Their real positions would coincide with the spectator, the point towards which the gazes of the characters in the painting are directed.
The viewer breaches the so-called “fourth wall” and is directly involved in the painting. This is not atypical of the baroque flair for conceiving of figurative arts as a form similar to theater.
The writer Théophile Gautier is famous for having noted the illusion of actually participating in the scene. While looking at “Las Meninas,” he reputedly asked: “Where is the painting?”
In 1957, Pablo Picasso paid homage to Velázquez with a series of paintings inspired by “Las Meninas.”
“Las Meninas” is currently on display in the main hall of the Prado Museum in Madrid.