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ysbel 12-11-2005 08:16 AM

Infanta Margarita and the World's Greatest Painting
Paintings of royals in general have not been considered great art. Before the age of photography, television and newspapers, painted portraits of royals were the only tool of propaganda that monarchs possessed to enhance their image and power in their kingdom and beyond. So the court painter had a lot of political considerations to deal with. Also an artist under an absolute monarchy did not exactly enjoy artistic freedom but some artists excelled in pushing the boundaries of art while at the same time satisfying the whims of their royal patrons.

The one painting breaks the mold of safe paintings of royals is Las Meninas by Diego Velasquez. Many artists consider this the best painting in the world.

Las Meninas (Portuguese-Ladies in Waiting)
(Original title, Family of Philip IV)
painted 1656
Diego Velázquez de Silva (1599-1660)
Museo del Prado, Madrid

image source: Web Gallery of Art

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:17 AM

Las Meninas is the portrait of the young Infanta Maria Margarita of Spain, the daughter of Philip IV and Mariana of Austria who was Philip's niece. Her half-sister, Maria Theresa, married her first cousin Louis XIV of France and her brother was poor Carlos II the Bewitched, the last Spanish King of the Hapsburg line. The Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs had intermarried so much at this point that the health and longevitiy of the Spanish royal line was severely weakened and eventually died out with Carlos. They continued this practice even with Maria Margarita; she ended up marrying her uncle who was, you guessed it, a Hapsburg.

Las Meninas was painted in the Castle Alcazar when Maria Margarita was five years old. Her father in his letters referred to her as his little rascal. Here, though, the little princess is on her best behavior and the mood in the court is one of respectful attention. She is dressed in the most elegant fashions of the time, big hooped flat topped skirts and her hair is pulled to the side in the style of the time although her hair is not as extreme as in portraits of other infantas who wore rows and rows of braids to one side.

The painting provides a rare glimpse of the court of the Spanish monarch as they would appear in court. Maria Margarita is flanked by her ladies-in-waiting, Maria Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco. Maria kneels attentively towards her little charge yet Isabel bows cautiously towards the viewer.

Here is another painting of Maria Margarita by Velasquez. You can see more clearly the court dress of the time. Even children wore adult fashions. Notice her hair is a bit darker and parted on the other side. Painters took artistic license to please their patrons. This portrait was commissioned by Maria Margarita's uncle who was already engaged to her at the time! Maybe he didn't like blond hair! Or maybe her hair got darker over time.

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:18 AM

The dwarf Maria Bárbola is also in attendance with a stern face. The keeping of dwarfs in the Spanish court is for the amusement of the monarch seems cruel to us in modern times. In general dwarfs were painted to make the royals look even more beautiful but Velasquez broke from tradition and depicted them with a humanity that hadn’t been seen before. In fact, many of his greater paintings are of the dwarfs and mentally disabled attendants at the royal court. Some of them are so accurately painted that modern doctors can diagnose the person’s condition. Velasquez had a lot of opportunity to study and paint these unique subjects. At that time, painters sat with the dwarfs at royal banquets.

The little boy Nicolasito Pertusato is the only one who breaks the solemnity of the occasion by kicking a dog! This also seems unnecessarily mean to us (luckily the dog is so big not to mind) but brutality against animals was considered normal back then too.

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:19 AM

Others in attendance are the duenna or chaperone Marcela de Ulloa and a gentleman whose name we don’t know.. Duennas were ever present in the company of unmarried Spanish women until recently to guard their mistresses reputation. In the back the Queen’s Master of Household, D. José Nieto de Velázquez is just walking out the door, his head respectfully turned towards us.

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:21 AM

Although lamps burn from the ceilings, the main sources of light are the open door in the back and a door or window to the right of Maria Barbola and Nicholasito Pertusato. Even kings lived in relative darkness indoors during this time before electricity and the major source of light was sunlight.

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:22 AM

A painter stands at the left working on a painting. The painting he is working on is HUGE! Unlike modern painters, he is painting directly on wood. Wood was more commonly painted on than canvases at that time. You can see the cross beams nailed on the back to support such a large work.

The painter is Velasquez’ self-portrait. He wears the current fashion of the day and very stylishly wears his hair at just above shoulder length with a modest moustache. He is also intently looking out at the viewer. One wonders what he is painting and when we stop to look we wonder what the court is looking at so respectfully and attentively.

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:23 AM

The answer can be found in the mirror in the back of the room, just to the left of the Queen’s Master of Household. Barely discernable in the mirror is a couple – a lady and a man who do not appear in the rest of the painting. Although the details are fuzzy, they are obviously the King and Queen.

And so the mystery of Las Meninas is solved. Las Meninas is a painting of an audience of King Philip IV and his second Queen Mariana of Austria as the scene would look through the King and Queen's eyes.. Rarely do we see a royal court from the point of view of the King himself and so intimately immortalized in painting. It makes us wonder who these people are and what part they played in the royal court at the time.

For practicality, a royal audience is a good time for a painter to paint a King and Queen because they are standing on their dignity on the throne and less likely to move around much.

Here are King Philip IV and Queen Mariana as they appeared in regularly commissioned portraits. Notice the rows and rows of braids on the side of her hair. This was the top fashion of the time! These were also painted by Velasquez. When he came to court, Velasquez was given a monopoly over all the royal portraits. No other painter was allowed to paint the royal family. In addition, the King had destroyed all paintings of him that were commissioned before Velasquez became his court painter. A truly great honor!

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:26 AM

We know more about Velasquez and his political aspirations than we do of the others. He came from a solid artistic background but was first considered a skilled laborer. His greatest aspiration was to gain the status of gentleman and be awarded the cross of Santiago – Saint James. At the time of this painting, Velasquez had not yet attained the order but the cross of Saint James is painted clearly on his chest. How it got there is a matter of speculation. Some say that Velasquez painted it on himself to nudge the King to give him the actual award. Others say that the King himself later painted it on when he decided to give Velasquez the order.

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:28 AM

At the time, Velasquez was better known as the marshal of the royal household. As the marshal, he managed the royal quarters but more importantly he planned major ceremonies.

In 1660 Velasquez marshalled his last and greatest ceremony--the wedding of the Infanta Maria Theresa to Louis XIV of France. Spain pulled out all the stops to impress the French and Velasquez worked night and day. Sadly, Spanish resources had been depleted from the heady days when gold from the Americas flowed almost constantly to Spain and France under Louis XIV was just coming into its greatness. The Spainards were sorely outshone by the Sun King and his court. Worn out from these labors, Velasquez contracted a fever from which he died on August 6.

Artists consider Las Meninas the greatest painting in the world for Velasquez’ mastery of a complex scene that didn’t sacrifice the quality of each individual subject. Mass scenes like this are very difficult to pull off artistically; its very easy for the viewer to become overwhelmed. But Velasquez masterfully used the effects of light and perspective to guide our eye through the painting. We are first captivated by the Infanta and her ladies in the center of the painting where the greatest lights are; then our eyes are led to the dog, boy and dwarf. From them, we are led to the duenna and her companion barely discernible in the dark background to the brightly lit Master of the Queen’s Household silhouetted in the doorframe. Finally our eyes fall upon the brightly lit mirror and then the painter and his work in semi-shadow. Thus Velasquez takes us around slowly till we see all the pieces of this magnificent puzzle.

ysbel 12-11-2005 08:28 AM

Because the subject of Las Meninas is so unusual, there are a number of theories of what it really means. Mark Harden, of, states that Velasquez used the painting to propagate democratic ideals in opposition to the rigidly hierachical view of society at the time. The reasons for that is that the King and Queen, the apex of society are barely seen in the picture and the dwarfs and the dog are nearest to us and take more prominence. I think he’s stretching that reasoning a bit too far, but its undeniable that Velasquez was immensely interested in all his subjects from the lowest to the highest in the land. Their individuality stands out over three hundred years later.

A better reason might be in the decline of the Spanish empire starting with Philip IV. Philip ascended the throne at the age of 16 and his reign was dominated by his court - first the Count-Duke of Olivares, who brought Velasquez to the King's attention, and then later the nun and mystic, María de Ágreda. His reign was marked by several losses and of the several children he fathered with his two wives, only 3 survived him. Velasquez in his unique position was a first hand observer to the slow decline. The prominence of the Infanta Margarita and her attendants at the expense of the King and Queen who are but shadowy figures in the painting either intentionally or unintentionally puts the emphasis on the future in the body of Maria Margarita and her young ladies. In a few years, Philip IV would die, leaving his throne to the disabled and sterile Carlos II. Carlos tried to leave his throne to Margarita's son but the young man died before Carlos. His throne was left to a descendent of Louis XIV and the line of Hapsburgs Kings ended.

Although he traveled to Rome and painted Pope Innocent, Velasquez was not well known outside of Spain in his lifetime. The rest of the world’s first taste of Velasquez came when Napoleon’s armies invaded Madrid and they discovered these great works of art. Manet was the first artist to actively study from Velasquez but several others visited Madrid and studied from the master. John Singer Sargent, the great American-British 19th century portrait painter, made a stunning copy of Las Meninas and in the 20th century, Pablo Picasso painted several copies of Las Meninas in his own inimitable style.

Picasso's Las Meninas from the Museo Picasso in Barcelona

ysbel 12-11-2005 07:17 PM

I hope you all enjoy it! :)

adelaide 12-11-2005 07:24 PM

Yes, it's a very good subject.

Ennyllorac 12-11-2005 07:39 PM


Thank you for the information. It truly is fascinating. I have been fortunate to have been able to see the actual painting. However, I was a teenager back then and really didn't pay too much attention to what was explained to me back then. Makes me want to go back to Spain just to see the painting again.

ysbel 12-11-2005 09:05 PM

Thanks Ennyllorac and adela. :)

I went to Madrid back in the eighties and I didn't remember a lot of what I saw back then but recently the Met Museum in New York had an exhibition of all the painters inspired by Velasquez and I saw the original Las Meninas alongside other artists copies of it.

It was really majestic upclose and big - the painting was about 8 feet x 9 feet. I liked the way he made the dresses sparkle with little dabs of paint. Up close it just looked like dabs of white paint but further back you could see the pattern of whites made the dresses shimmer. You can really see it in the other painting of the Infanta Margarita and on the dress of Queen Mariana.

Elsa M. 12-12-2005 07:23 AM

Thank you very much for this thoughtful guidance, through Vélazquez painting, Ysbel; this is certainly one of my favourite XVII century works.
I would like to add a little contribution on the matter, since it’s not visible from the pics you were so kind to share with us. I would thus repost a lighter photo of Las Meninas (1656).

As we can see, there is a series of paintings hanged on the walls of the room, where this portrait is being done. Palomino in his account of Las Meninas identifies the two major pics that are above the mirror are two large mythological stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses, painted by Rubens: the one on the left is Minerva Punishing Arachne and the one on the right is Apollo's Victory over Marsyas.
These two works were interpreted by some experts as an attempt to approach the long discussed subject of the superiority of the intellectual over the manual, or to be more specific, the superiority of painting over the other arts.

ysbel 12-12-2005 10:00 AM

Thanks for sharing the lighter version, Elsa. :) Hmm, the images look a bit darker on my computer at work. I should lighten the pics a bit so everybody can see the detail.

Yes, the paintings on the back wall are very suggestive. Velasquez sought to promote painting as one of the higher arts. The curious thing is whether the paintings were actually on the back wall or if he just painted them in. Although we know it was painted in the Alcazar, I haven't found any information about which room it actually takes place in.

King Philip IV sent Velasquez to Italy several times to buy old master paintings. They could have been part of the royal collection. Or more probably Velasquez painted them in to further drive home the point. Putting himself so prominently in this painting shows his flair for self-promotion, don't you think? :)

Elsa M. 12-12-2005 10:26 AM


Originally Posted by ysbel
The curious thing is whether the paintings were actually on the back wall or if he just painted them in. Although we know it was painted in the Alcazar, I haven't found any information about which room it actually takes place in.
King Philip IV sent Velasquez to Italy several times to buy old master paintings. They could have been part of the royal collection. Or more probably Velasquez painted them in to further drive home the point. Putting himself so prominently in this painting shows his flair for self-promotion, don't you think? :)

Good question! As far as I've read, after the death of Philip IV, the painting is listed in a semisubterranean room in the Alcázar that was designed for the personal use of the king, but it doesn't mean it was made there... and even least that the paintings were actually hanged on the walls of the room...

lula 12-12-2005 11:22 AM

The Alcazar where the picture made up suffered a fire, it remain destroyed and the pictures were saved from miracle. Later Felipe V orders to construct the current Royal Palace. Most of the pictures that were in the Alcazar are today in day in the Prado Museum.

ysbel 12-12-2005 11:32 AM

It is a mystery, Elsa and lula.

I checked my notes and the Prado site states the painting was painted in Alcazar.

They may be wrong, pictures of interiors of the current castle of Alcazar don't look anything like the room in Velasquez' painting but if the castle was rebuilt after the fire maybe that explains it. Here are some pics of the current castle.

I guess it would be interesting to find out if Philip IV ever held residence in Alcazar.

One of the things I like about this painting is the combination of formality and informality. Maria Agustina is bending down attending to the little Maria Margarita and the little boy is kicking the dog while around them everyone is at respectful attention. And Velasquez is almost looking at the King as an equal, that must have been unheard of in the Spanish court at the time.

It makes you wonder about the relationships of all these people but unfortunately I couldn't find much info on the rest of the characters here except for Velasquez.

Elsa M. 12-12-2005 11:53 AM

Anyway knowing whether the paintings were actually part of the scenery or not it’s a bit secondary. It seems more or less evident that in the first painting, Arachne (who believed herself as the greatest spinner on earth and, for that reason, she decided to compete with Minerva) ends up being converted into a spider. So, no matter how good we may judge ourselves, one shouldn’t want to be equalled to God. Regarding Apollo's Victory over Marsyas, it represents these two personages before the presence of the ignorant Mides, who’s going to judge the faun better than the god. That is to say, those who have a corrupted judgment always consider the terrene things (Marsias) better than the celestial ones (Apollo).
What some experts have said is that both myths may thus ultimately be interpreted as the triumph of the spirit (and the intellectual) over the manual, what would make of Las Meninas the product of a mental concept (and there’s all the perspective game), rather than the result of merely manual abilities…

But that is perhaps trying to go too further on the interpretations...

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