Who the hell are Las Meninas?
Large sculptures of meninas, paying a tribute to Velázquez’s famous Ladies-in-Waiting can once again be found hidden in plain site around the streets of Madrid. The initiative, which is celebrating its third edition this year, features 1.80m high sculptures designed by renowned artists, actors, chefs and sports personalities including the likes of Modesto Lomba and Paul Oteyza. The collection also features Ladies-in-Waiting that pay tribute to the Spanish Health Care System – to thank everyone for their extraordinary work over the past few months – as well as to childhood and diversity.
Those of you unfamiliar with "Las Meninas", we are talking about the spanish painter, Velázquez’s famous masterpiece dating back 1656.
Family portraits often aren’t the most exciting paintings. However, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velázquez, managed to turn one household portrait into one of the best-loved and most widely analyzed paintings in western art history.
Painters as diverse as Goya, Manet, Sargent and Picasso have been inspired to create copies and adaptations.
While the painting packs in a wealth of action, close examination reveals that it doesn’t seem to follow the rules of perspective. Its complex and enigmatic composition raises questions about reality and illusion, and creates an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. Let's take a look at the details portrayed:
- Set in Velázquez’s studio space at the Royal Alcázar of Madrid, the painting stars the 5 year-old princess Doña Margarita Maria of Austria, the first child of Philip IV and his second wife Mariana. But to your surprise, the word “menina” doesn't refer to her. In fact they address the two ladies beside, Doña Isabel de Velasco and Doña María Augustina Sarmiento, accompanying the princess in her daily routine, hence the meaning “Maid of Honour”.
- Hanging on the room’s far wall are copies of works by famous painters such as Peter Paul Rubens.
- Further to the right stand the dwarf Maribárbola and court jester Nicolasito, who rests his foot on a large, gentle dog, which some have identified as a mastiff.
- Just behind the meninas is a nun, Doña Marcela de Ulloa, who appears to be caught mid-discussion speaking with an unidentified guard. To the left, we see Velázquez himself, peering out from behind a large canvas.
- In the center of the back wall stands an open door where Nieto Velázquez, the queen’s chamberlain, is either ascending or descending a staircase and looking towards the viewer.
- On the mirror to Velázquez’s left, the backlit reflection of the couple are in fact King Philip and Queen Mariana.
Given this, the theories to comment on the composition include:
- King & queen were standing where we, the viewers, stand, while Velázquez painted their portrait. Las Meninas, then would portray a moment when the princess and her entourage walked in during the portrait-painting.
- The king might have been dropping by the artist’s studio, as he was known to do, during a portrait session with Margarita.
- Or perhaps the princess had refused to join the family portrait, and the painting shows her being persuaded by one of the meninas.
Today, it’s widely been understood that the scenario we see is an imagined one. The painting was kept in the royal palace until 1819, when it was moved to the Prado Museum. Do pay a visit the museum to enjoy the original artwork.