Diego De Silva Velsquez was born at the very end of the 16 century,
in Sevilla, Spain. During the 16 century , Spain had established itself as
an international power. The Habsburg kings had built an empire that
encompassed Portugal and part of Italy. The more powerful and dominant it
became, the more other European countries increased the challenges to
Spanish hegemony. By the beginning of the 17th century, the Habsburg
Empire was struggling, and although Spain waged a very aggressive battle
during the Thirty Years’ War, by 1660 the imperial age of the Spanish
Habsburgs was over. In part, the end of the Spanish empire was due to
economic problems, which were exacerbated by the expensive military
campaigns undertaken during the Thirty Years’ War by Philip III and then by
his son Philip IV. The higher taxes that followed as a result, which were
placed on Spanish subjects, led to revolts and civil war in Catalonia and
Portugal in the 1640s.
Thus, at the beginning of the Baroque period in Spain, the country’s
leaders were struggling to maintain control of their diminishing empire.
Realizing as they did the value of visual imagery in communicating to a
wide audience, both Philip III and Philip IV were avid art patrons.
This empire was initially formed by Charles V, who had built the
empire through strong recognition and support from the Catholic church. To
keep this empire strong, Spain frequently battled Protestant nations. Thus
logically committed to Catholic orthodoxy, Spain focused on Counter-
Reformation issues, that is, they tried to keep people from abandoning the
Catholic Church or breaking up the established order. Thus, a Spanish
Baroque artist sought ways to move viewers and to encourage greater
devotion and piety. Particularly appealing were scenes of death and
martyrdom, which provided artists with opportunities both to depict extreme
feelings and to place those feelings in viewers. Spain was proud of its
saints, and martyrdom scenes surfaced frequently in Spanish Baroque art.
Velasquez lived most of his life (from age 24 to his death at 61)
inside the court of Phillip IV, his major patron. Thus, his paintings
reflected themes of Christianity, military victories, and aristocratic
life. However, Velasquez was influenced by the dark paintings of the time,
particularly Rivera and Caravaggio. Thus, he inclined towards naturalism,
while using an obscure style of lightning. He later traveled to Italy and
learned the rich chromatism of the Venetian school. He then began focusing
less on lighting and more on landscapes and the human body. Velasquez’s
paintings focused on making common people seem noble and important, while
he also tried to glorify Spain’s nobles and military victories. Also worth
noting is that Velasquez was not of noble blood, but through the friends he
acquired in high places due to his talent, he slowly became a noble
himself. He was made part of the Order of Santiago towards the end of his
life. This was a great desire of Velasquez, and something that he worked
In Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), Velasquez paints a group
portrait, depicting a scene inside the court. At the center is the blonde
young princess Margarita, daughter of Philip IV, standing in a tall dark
room, wearing a white dress with red flowers. She is staring at the
viewer. At her immediate sides you have her young maids of honor, in white
and black dresses, looking at her. To the right of the picture there an
overweight midget woman (presumably Margarita’s dwarf servant) who is
looking at the viewer, and a little girl who has a foot on a sleeping dog,
apparently trying to wake him up. Behind them, in less light, there is a
man and a woman, possibly the royal escorts, who appear to be talking.
Towards the middle in the background, in more lifht, is a man standing on a
staircase, possibly another escort or a chamberlain. There are two large
paintings above him. Almost on top of Princess Margarita’s head there is a
frame with the hazy picture of a man and woman, which might be a mirror.
And to the left of the picture, there is a painter, working on a very large
canvas, with a red cross painted in his chest, who is staring at the
viewer, and seems to be smiling slightly.
This is a visually complex painting. Velasquez employs and contrasts
“real” spaces, picture spaces, mirror spaces, and pictures within pictures.
He expands the depth of the painting in various directions. The doorway
in te back takes the viewer beyond the room of the painting. The mirror
and the outward glances of some of the subjects incorporate a space
happening in front of the depicted scene, possibly in the viewer’s space.
Velasquez’s use of light is noteworthy. There is light towards the front
and center, as well as in the door in the back, with the respective shadows
visible. Between the light and the dark colors Velasquez allows for some
shades of gray, adding a realistic visual effect. Adding to this illusion
of reality are the use of a loose brushstroke and blurred edges. As well,
the figures appear to be caught in the middle of their movements.
Particulalry noticeable is the girl on the right who appears to be moving
her foot to wake up a dog, which seems to be raising its head. The use of
space and proportion are also realistic. The faces seem to be of real
people. Except for the princess, the subjects do not appear to be posing,
rather, they seem to have been caught off-guard in an intimate moment. The
painting offers the typical baroque contrasts: light and strong darkness,
beauty and ugliness.
For the meaning of the picture, one has to pay attention to two
elements. The first is the image on the mirror in the center of two
people. They appear to be the king and queen of Spain. If it is a mirror
and not a painting, then they have to be standing in the viewer’s space.
The second is the painter, who seems to none other than Velasques himself.
Velasquez appears to not be painting the princess, who is barely behind the
canvas. Rather, he seems to be painting something from the viewer’s space.
Thus, Velasquez may actually be painting a portrait of the king and queen,
while they observe this scene. In other words, it appears to be that
Velasquez painted a painting about what happens on the other side of the
painting. Another possibility is that he is painting the princess
Margarita, who does seem to be posing. Then, Velasquez is imagining a
visit to his studio by the king and queen. He seems pleased and honored
that they are visiting. The fact that most characters are in mid-action
suggest that the visitors just arrived by surprise.
If the latter is true, then Velasquez is evoking the classical scenes
of visits of great emperors to great artists. Velasquez is showing how
honored he is to be visited by this king. Given the historical context,
Velasquez is comparing his king to the great emperors, and transmitting
that through his painting, as was necessary for the politically troubled
times. Philip IV would no doubt enjoy to have a painting which informs the
public that he is a great emperor, not a diminishing king.
Although this is the intepretation given by most scholars, there
seems to be one other message in the picture. Velasquez’s inclusion of
himself in the picture along nobles, and the use of the red cross on his
chest (the symbol of the Order of Santiago), suggest that Velasquez wants
people to know that he is part of the royal family. He does not seem to be
a foreign element in the picture, rather, he seems very at home in this
palace room. His face is the most graceful in the picture, after that of
the princess, and it is not hidden in the picture, unlike how other
painters ordinarily place themselves. As well, if this is a great king who
is visiting him, then it implies that he is a great artist, worthy of such
a visit. Velasquez is acheiving here his life-long goal of being a
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Kleiner, Fred S.; Mamiya, Christin J. Gardner’s Art Throughout the Ages,
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Present, 3rd edition, 1997, Prentice Hall.