Las Meninas by Velázquez


Philip IV (1605-1665) was king of Spain (1621–65) and Portugal (1621–40), during the dwindling of Spanish world power. He was a patron of the arts, especially of Velazquez, and a poet in his own right. 

Philip's valído for the first two decades of his reign was Conde-Duque de Olivares who was intent on the restoration of Spain's power in Europe. He allied with the Hapsburg dynasty and partly financed by its South Amercan empire, re-engaged battle against the Dutch in 1621, after a truce of twelve years. Spain won against the Dutch at the battle of Breda (1626) but the Dutch fought back by capturing the entire New Spain silver fleet in 1628. Spain defeated the Swedes and Weimarians at Nördlingen (1634), however, France then declared war in 1635. Olivares' financial administration led to bankrupcy and his attempts to get the provinces to finance wars resulted in the rebellions of Catalonia and Portugal. The latter gained independence in 1640.

Philip sacked Olivares in 1643 and retained a new valído until 1661. After that the king relied on a political and spiritual advisor called María de Ágreda, a nun. At the end of his reign Spain had been weakened by military, political and economic adversities and no longer held its previous hegemony.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) was born in Seville and rose to the position of court painter during the Spanish Golden Age. He was a Knight of the Order of Santiago whose red cross sword insignia he is seen wearing in Las Meninas (1656).

It was Count-Duke Olivares who introduced the painter to the court and he established himself there for the rest of his life by painting the monarch's portrait.

Velazquez travelled to Italy on two occasions and his painting techniques evolved around these visits. His early works were constructed on a canvas primed with a red-brown base. He used pigments similar to his contemporaries: azurite, vermilion, lead-tin-yellow, ochres, and red lake.

On his first Italian trip he began to use light-gray grounds and continued with these for the rest of his life. This added brilliance to his artworks and gave them a cold silver appearance. 

In 1650 on his second trip to Italy, Velazquez was commissioned to paint the portrait of Pope Innocent X. The dramatic effect of the painting is due to the predominant use of two colours, red and white, which are darkened or lightened in shade to show folds in the Pope's clothing.

It is a very realistic portrait and recognised by the Pope as true to form. It contrasts with the prevalent softer portrait paintings of the time and incorporates the contemporary Baroque tenebrist style.

Commentary on Las Meninas

In the dim light of the Royal Palace chamber there is a variety of characters. On the left side of the artwork Velázquez’s selfie stares out, part of the subject that he is busy capturing on an enormous canvas in front of him. He is painting a painting-within-a-painting. In the foreground, looking beyond her portrait, stands King Philip IV's daughter Margaret Theresa accompanied by attendants, the ladies-in-waiting (meninas), who give the title to the composition: Isabel stands on the princess's left, ready to curtsey. María Agustina kneels before her and offers her something to drink on a tray.

On the right a mastiff lies under the foot of the Italian dwarf, Nicolasito Pertusato, and another dwarf, the German, Maria Barbola, seems to look the viewer in the eye. Behind the dwarfs the princess' chaperone, Marcela de Ulloa, decked in mourning, confides reservedly, with a bodyguard.

The queen's chamberlain José Nieto is glancing back from a doorway to which the viewer's eye is pointedly drawn through the perspective lines of the painting. He becomes a centrepiece of the canvas while he is in fact exiting the scene.

Margaret Theresa is looking at a couple reflected in the mirror at the back of the room: the figures of her parents King Philip IV and the queen, Mariana of Austria. The shimmer of the Royal figures in the ghostly glass mirror encourages the viewer to inquire beyond the reflections.

It is a scene of mirrors and images, possibly influenced by Jan Van Eyck's enigmatic Arnolfini Portrait, painted in 1434, which hung in Philip IV's palace, and so was very probably seen by Velázquez:

In Velazquez's snapshot of time where shadows, mirrors, gazes, exits and confidences collect to intrigue the viewer, a small red clay pot is almost hidden at the centre of the canvas.

At the centre of all these sensorial intrigues there appears a modest red jug which one of the meninas is offering the princess on a silver platter. It is a búcaro brought back to Spain from the New World by the Spanish explorers. It has been traced to Guadalajara, Mexico, where natives spices were kilned into clay ensuring that any liquid it held would be flavoured.

The búcaro was also used for another, surprising purpose, apart from making water fragrant. There was a fashion among young aristocratic women in the 17th. century Spain of nibbling the rims of the búcaros until they had eaten them entirely. The chemistry of the clay gradually lightened the eater's skin quite dramatically until she appeared ghostly. Light skin had been established as a sign of beauty throughout Europe and it was also proof of affluence in sunny areas, showing that you did not perform manual labour outside. It is noticeable in Velazquez's painting, for instance, that princess Margaret has the most ghostly palour, underscored by her white dress. The red búcaro indeed represents otherworldiness, in more than one way.

Ingesting the imported clay did have its side effects. It provoked a dangerous depletion of red blood cells and could paralyse muscles and destroy the liver. Hallucinations were another possible consequence, such as the narcotic effect described by a contemporary painter and mystic, Estefanía de la Encarnación, whose autobiography records that after snacking on búcaros for over a year she began to have visions where she was able “to see God more clearly”.

The ghostly pale Infanta of the painting has her hand on the red búcaro as if she was about to drink, or nibble at it and, as her shoes are not visible, appears to levitate rather spookily due to the floor shadow around her dress. The king and queen's mirrored images, placed directly above the búcaro, appear like spirits from another dimension. Velazquez's paintbrush, too, is pointing at a red on his palette of a similar hue to the jug. 

The apparent snapshot begins to suggest something more meaningful: a meditation on the inevitable evaporation of the material world and of self-identity itself. In his forty-year service in court Velazquez had been a witness to the gradual slipping away of Philip V's empire. The dissolvable búcaro was a practical symbol of dwindling imperial power. Behind its solid redness it offered dangerous, hidden physical, psychological and spiritual threats to those who used it. Just like the crumbling Empire.



It was Caravaggio (1571-1610) who introduced the Baroque painting technique of chiaroscuro, also known as tenebrism. This was the use of dramatic differences between light and darkness in canvases. It helped isolate certain figures, such as Princess Margaret in Las Meninas, and dramatically centre the viewer's eye on her white form. 

To appreciate the tenebrist play of light and shadow in Velasquez it is recommendable to view his paintings from a distance, since close up the backdrops look fuzzy. From a step back the brighter figures in the foreground stand out against the darker background.

Alla Prima

Velazquez worked fast in his painting. The portrait of Innocent X, for example, was painted in one sitting. This rapidity of depiction may in part be due to his alla prima (first attempttechnique which, instead of painting in several dry layers, pasted wet-on-wet layers. This fast technique encourages the painter to simplify and summarise which appears to be the way Velazquez worked. This may explain Velazquez's evolution as a painter because the alla prima technique forces the painter, instead of repeating mistakes on the same canvas, to start a new one with the lessons learned from the previous one.

Baroque art

The prominent 17th. Century art and architecture design was named Baroque, possibly from the Latin baroco which described anything that appeared as absurdly complex. The trend began in 16th. century Italy and spread to the rest of Europe. 

Baroque architecture was used as consolidation by absolute monarchies. Centralised States built monumental palaces in a display of power, exemplified in the royal Palace and gardens at Versailles, located away from the parisian capital, forcing the body politic to travel to pay court to the King at his magnificent residence. 

The Royal Palace in Madrid is another example. Philip II made Madrid his capital in 1561 and renovated the Palace in Baroque style, with new additions. Philip III and Philip IV added a long southern façade between 1610 and 1636.

The rise of a powerful middle class which patronised artists also promoted a taste for realism, seen in Velasquez as well as French and Dutch painters.


Baroque art was encouraged by the Catholic Church as part of its Counter-Reformation drive, begun at the Council of Trent (1545–63). At the end of the 16th. century the refined Mannerist style in art was deemed unfit for the new era of Church propaganda which aimed to stimulate religious faith. To this end the Church adopted an artistic programme based on emotional and sensory appeal. The Baroque style fitted this goal, despite being sensuous as well as spiritual. The artistic movement's naturalism, combined with its dramatic representation, were meant to stimulate piety faced with the splendour of Baroque divine images. This effect was particularly evident on church ceilings which depicted colourful views of the hereafter, directing the faithful's thoughts to heaven.

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