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Las Meninas: Is this the Most Captivating Painting in the World?

by Kamna Kirti 4 months ago in art

An art piece filled with symbolism

Las Meninas. Source-Public Domain

Las Meninas (which translates to 'The Ladies in Waiting') is a 1656 painting by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Sheltered in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, it is the most documented and dissected art piece by historians.

This painting influenced contemporary artists like Picasso and Goya. The French philosopher Michel Foucault described the painting in meticulous detail and solely devoted the first chapter of his book The Order of Things to an interpretation of Las Meninas.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, a dramatist, and poet of the Spanish Golden Age wrote the play Life is a Dream which is considered the literary equivalent of Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas.

What is life? A frenzy. What is life?

A shadow, an illusion, and a sham.

The greatest good is small; all life, it seems

Is just a dream, and even dreams are dreams


The portrayal of eleven people in Las Meninas

This painting is believed to be painted in the main chamber of the Royal Alcazar of Madrid during the rule of King Philip IV of Spain. Velázquez was indeed the favorite court painter of the King who was promoted in salary and rank many times.

• In the center of the foreground is the five-year-old daughter of the King, Margaret Theresa, who was then the only living child of the King.

The five-year-old daughter of the King - Margaret Theresa

• The painting depicts a group of eleven people including the mirror images of the king and queen.

• The first thing to notice is the arrangement of characters in two's that would make you gaze at the painting for hours. The male and the female dwarf, the two chaperones, the king and the queen in the mirror, the curtsying maid and the palace official in the mirror, and Velázquez and the maid kneeling to offer a drink to the little princess. And notice that all are male-female pairs.

The painting is packed with symbolism

• The portrayal of king and queen in the mirror shows how Velázquez was inspired by the Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck, and his magnificent painting Arnolfini Wedding Portrait. Both king Philip and queen Marina are outside the painting and within it. The mirror puts the king and queen in the same position as the viewer, with the figures in the central image staring at us as we stare at them.

• One of the other engaging characters is the figure in the doorway. Scholars have identified him as Don José Nieto Velázquez who might be related to the artist. The vanishing point of the perspective is in the doorway.

Portrait of a Man (possibly Jose Nieto)

• The paintings on the upper half of the picture are identified as copies of art pieces by Peter Paul Rubens that represents the scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Both paintings depict that mortals are more skilled than gods. One shows goddess Minerva punishing Arachne for excelling in the art of weaving while the other shows god Apollo laying Marsyas for his superior flute playing. The purpose of these two paintings by legendary artist Peter Paul Rubens might indicate Velázquez reaching the upper echelon of artists. And the red cross emblazoned on the painter's chest shows the Order of Santiago.

Pallas and Arachne, Peter Paul Rubens

Last thoughts

Jon Manchip White notes that the painting can be seen as a résumé of the whole of Velázquez's life and career, as well as a summary of his art to that point.

Las Meninas is an extraordinary accomplishment of its time and gives the spectators all the time to redefine their interpretations of this timeless craft.


1. Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez: 10 Things To Know

2. Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?

3. Velázquez's Las Meninas: A detail that decodes a masterpiece


About the author

Kamna Kirti

Art enthusiast. I engage with art at a deep level. I also share insights about entrepreneurship, founders & nascent technologies.

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