VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)

Las Meninas or The Family of Philip IV

Oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

"Las Meninas" is a Portuguese word used to name the Maids of Honour of the Royal children in the 17th century.

Las Meninas or The Royal Family is one of the great problem pictures in the history of art. An almost infinite number of interpretations have now been proposed for the scene it shows. At first sight, however, Las Meninas seems to present no problems at all, and indeed appears perfectly straightforward in its sober geometry and good-humoured clarity.

It is set in a room in the Alcázar, equipped by Velázquez as a studio, and shows the heiress to the throne, the Infanta Margarita, with her court. Palomino names all those present. The queen's maid of honour, Dona Maria Agustina Sarmiento, one of the meninas, is kneeling at the Infanta's feet, handing her a jug of water. The other maid of honour, Dona Isabel de Velasco stands behind the princess, and beside her we see the grotesquely misshapen female dwarf Mari-Bárbola and the male dwarf Nicolasico Pertusato; the latter, as Palomino points out, is placing his foot on the mastiff lying in front of the group to demonstrate the lethargic animal's good temper. Further back, almost swallowed up in the shadows, are a man described only as guardadamas - a guard or escort to the ladies - and the lady in waiting Doña Marcela de Ulloa.

Velázquez is standing with brush and palette in front of a tall canvas; we can see only the back of it. There are some large pictures hanging on the back wall of the room. Two of them were painted by Velázquez's son-in-law, Mazo, from models by Rubens, and show scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, one of them another version of the punishment of Arachne. The princess's parents, the king and queen, appear in a dark frame below these pictures, probably the glass of a mirror. To the right of the mirror, on a flight of steps leading up to a doorway and a brightly lit adjoining room, stands Jose Nieto, the queen's palace marshal.

There are several basic questions that have been asked again and again about this picture. What is Velázquez painting on the front of the canvas that is hidden from us? Where did he stand in order to paint the scene and himself in it? What is the source of the image in the mirror - that is, just where in the room must the royal couple have been standing for their reflection to appear? And finally, is there any significance in the fact that the red cross of the Order of Santiago is prominently applied to the artist's clothing?

It was long thought that Velázquez was creating a picture without any metaphysical or speculative reference, and was merely recording a fleeting moment in permanent form, as if in a snapshot. According to this theory the subject was no more than an ordinary scene of palace life.

A different hypothesis is put forward by art historians, who believe that intellect and keen perspicacity, as well as the artist's eye and hand, were involved in the painting of Las Meninas. The largest number of interpretations have been put forward for the mirror on the back wall, sometimes also thought to be a painted canvas. Much learned industry has also been applied to the question of location: in which room in the palace is this scene taking place?

Despite the riddles hidden in the painting of Las Meninas we must not overlook its artistic mastery, particularly as expressed in the figure of the Infanta Margarita surrounded by people of lesser birth. For it was on the princess that the dynastic hopes of the Spanish Habsburgs rested after the death of Prince Baltasar Carlos.