Velázquez's Las Meninas Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8 in. (318 x 276 cm), (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) For more art history videos, visit smarthistory.org
Velázquez's Las Meninas
- [music playing]
- We're in the Prado in Madrid, and we're looking at the great canvas by Velázquez, "Las Meninas."
- Did you mean "great" in terms of size? Because it is a very large painting.
- Actually, it's a painting with a very large painting inside it . . .
- That's the same size as the painting it is.
- In fact, some art historians have suggested that the painting that Velázquez -
- - because notice there is a self-portrait of Velázquez in the act of painting -
- is in fact painting the painting that we're looking at.
- Did you follow that?
- I did. It is very complicated.
- So what we're seeing here is, in the center, the princess attended by the maidens of honor,
- a dwarf, her governess, and some other attendants.
- And on the back wall a mirror,
- which is the sort of puzzle in a way of the painting.
- We know it's a mirror because unlike the canvases on the back wall,
- this is a much more reflective surface.
- We can see the beveled edge of the glass,
- and of course in that frame, we see a reflection of the King and Queen of Spain,
- Philip IV and his wife.
- And some art historians have suggested that we must be them looking into the mirror
- and seeing our own reflection.
- Others have suggested that in fact, the mirror is reflecting the image
- that is being depicted on the canvas by Velázquez,
- and then even other art historians have suggested, yes, the mirror is reflecting
- what's on the canvas, but the king and queen are still standing before us.
- Which is why the princess is looking out at us,
- and even the dog is, in a sense, taking notice.
- And why there is just sort of general attention being very much focused
- on where we are in front of the painting.
- Perhaps we're in the space of the king and queen,
- and this painting was meant for the study of the king,
- who would have been the person looking at it.
- So it's very much meant for his gaze.
- That issue of looking, of gaze, is I think for me really one of the central keys
- to this painting.
- It seems to me to be a conversation of glances,
- a conversation of people reacting to each other's glances, of looking itself,
- a kind of essay on the way in which we see.
- To me it's more of paying attention.
- I think that's exactly right, and that would make sense.
- This is the king and queen of Spain, one of the most powerful countries on the face of the Earth
- at this moment.
- Yeah, you would have to pay attention to them if they walked in the room.
- You would ignore them at your own peril.
- And we can see it when we see the artist, Velázquez, who is first painter to the king
- looking out to the royal couple.
- He would have had, of course, the best job that an artist could have in Spain at this moment.
- I'm interested, though, in the sort of sense of naturalism, the sense of spontaneity,
- the sense of informality, which is so unexpected in a royal portrait.
- That's the amazing thing about this painting, I think, that makes it so hard
- to say what it is and makes it so compelling is that it's not a "portrait."
- Because we know what portraits look like.
- They're on the walls all around us.
- And they're very formal portraits of the royal family kind of posing
- and looking powerful, and that's not what this is.
- So there is a kind of informality, like a genre painting,
- like we're looking at something like a day in the life of the painter's studio,
- but that's not what it is, either, because it is also a portrait.
- So it sort of straddles this weird line of being both those things.
- It's like an intimate portrait.
- It's a portrait that gives you a kind of access to, in a sense,
- the real moment, the real life within this palace.
- In fact, some art historians have suggested that the painting is in part
- a way for the artist to promote himself and to show his importance
- and in a sense his value to the court.
- The idea that as a painter, he's not just a craftsman,
- but an intellectual.
- So here's the irony.
- If Velázquez is in a sense trying to support this notion
- of the artist as intellectual, and not the craftsman,
- not the man who works with his hands,
- the painting is a bravura example of painting.
- We can never get away from the fact that this is fantastic painting;
- because although there is a tremendous sense of naturalism amongst these figures,
- the painting is also nothing but a series of strokes of paint.
- And I think that's most vividly witnessed in the sleeves of La Infanta,
- of her attendants, or especially that lightning bolt of stroke of white
- that goes down the artist's own sleeve and actually leads our eye to the palette.
- And here's the sort of most wonderful conundrum.
- The palette is a representation in space of the raw paint
- which is, of course, the very stuff that the artist is using
- to create the depiction of the thing that it is.
- What I find so interesting, though, also, is that there is a time when the reverse happens.
- Look at the way that his hand holds the paintbrush.
- That is raw paint that almost dissolves, almost refuses to be fingers on a hand.
- So that he's in a sense playing on that edge.
- I can make very loose strokes of the brush feel clarified and come together
- and feel like cloth in motion, right?
- Reflective light, taffeta, what have you.
- Or I can actually dissolve forms that you expect and allow the thing
- to become just the act of painting as well.
- Just the paint.
- I think what adds to this is the fact that we don't see what he's painting.
- There's a kind of mystery about the alchemy of painting,
- about how you take medium and solvent and pigment and turn it into reality.
- I would say that it's not just reality he's after.
- I think he's after a kind of condensed reality.
- I think he's after a kind of heightened experience of looking,
- a kind of heightened experience of the intimacy of this family, of this moment.
- And I think that he is doing something that is actually quite poetic and quite philosophical.
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