VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)
Las Meninas (detail)1656-57
Oil on canvas
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Velázquez himself is seen standing with brush and palette in front of a tall canvas which we can only see from behind. In a dark frame beneath the pictures hanging on the back wall can be seen - presumably in a mirror - the parents of the princess, the royal couple. To the right of the mirror, on a staircase leading to a door and a brightly lit room to the side, stands Jose Nieto, the queen's chamberlain.
The artist has stepped back slightly from the front of the canvas and paused, looking forwards out of the picture evidently to fix in his mind what he was currently working on in the painting. The painter is looking out of the picture, and is turning the beholder into an accomplice in the picture's effect mechanisms. In this process, a central role is played by the mirror on the rear wall and the metaphors associated with mirrors. The answer to the question of whether the mirror in the background shows the royal couple just entering the room, in the position occupied by the beholder, has been answered in the negative by geometrical analyses. Rather, the mirror must be reflecting a detail of the canvas that Velázquez is working on. Even the earliest commentators resolved the problem by deciding that the mirror must be reflecting the painting and not the king and queen in person. The persons in the picture are looking into a mirror and seeing themselves - the theme is an allegory of painting, or more precisely portrait painting.