The painting at first glance seems to be a simple scene of a day in the life at the 17th Century court of Philip IV of Spain, however, the longer you look at it, the more questions arise.
The painting is a deliberate puzzle and one that cannot be solved as in The Da Vinci Code. There are no hidden clues, no information hidden in history, and no right answers. The painter, Diego Velazquez, knew exactly what he was doing: he wanted to confuse the viewer, and he has succeeded in doing so for over three centuries.
At the center of the scene is the five year-old Infanta Margarita, the eldest daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. On each side of her are her Maids of Honor, of whom one is kneeling and offering her a jug of water while the other curtseys. The masterpiece is named Las Meninas, (The Maids of Honor), and it is the most famous of all Spanish paintings. A later artist, Luca Giordano, famously said the painting shows the “theology of painting”.
The longer you looks at the painting, the more you notice incongruities: To the Infanta’s right, is the artist himself, shown painting on a very large canvas. But, what is he painting? The artist—like almost everyone else in the painting—is looking directly at you. Has he been interrupted while painting a portrait of the Infanta? Or is he painting a portrait of the King and Queen, and we are seeing him from the King's point of view?
Is that a large mirror at the back of the room and has Velazquez depicted himself in the act of creating this painting? He is working on an enormous canvas, and Las Meninas is the only painting of that size he ever created, but is the subject matter the Infanta, or the artist, or the royal parents?
Artists did not normally include themselves in royal portraits, and as the court-appointed portraitist, it would have been inconceivable for Velazquez to have done so without the prior consent of the king. A few years ago, the BBC referred to the artist's appearing in this painting as "the first photobombing"—some 175 years before the invention of photography!
The artist is holding a palette of the raw paint that he uses to create the image of the palette and the paint itself. This is the kind of anachronism we would expect in the surrealism of Magritte, but it is astounding in a 17th century royal portrait—or does this truly qualify as a portrait?
On the far wall is a ghostly image of the king and queen together. Is this a mirror showing the reflection of the monarchs as they sit for their portrait? At this point in history, monarchs were rarely depicted together in portraits. Velazquez was the royal portrait artist, yet this small ghostly image is the only painting he ever did of the royal couple together. Or is the slightly obscured image a window through which the monarchs are looking into the room where the portrait is being done?
One possible explanation is that the painting shows the world through the king’s eyes—what he sees as he sits for his portrait. Could it be that this is what the painting meant to Philip, since he hung the painting in his private study for the rest of his life?
Without a doubt, the painting does give us a glimpse of a dying empire. The Habsburg rule of Spain was quickly coming to an end that was a mostly self-inflicted death. Fearful of dividing the family wealth, the Habsburgs had been inbreeding for centuries. Whereas today, marriage between cousins is frowned upon, within the royal family of Spain, it would have been an improvement. Philip IV married his niece, effectively making the Infanta Margarita her own cousin. (And her father was her great uncle, her grandfather was her great-grandfather, her grandmother was her aunt, and so forth.)
If you engage in this kind of inbreeding, it is not very long before you produce offspring who sit quietly in the corner all day and lick their own eyebrows—which is exactly what happened in this case. The Infanta’s brother/cousin, Charles II (after only sixteen generations of inbreeding) was a complete physical and mental wreck who would accomplish nothing more than preside over the funeral of an empire murdered by his father/uncle. The family tree of Charles II shows one ancestor, Joanna the Mad, fourteen times.
Philip IV was a walking monument to superstition and indecision. Though he had inherited a vast empire upon which the sun never set, he had also inherited a religious war against an increasingly Protestant Europe—a war that was impossible to win even as it consumed the empire’s remaining resources. While a strong monarch might have salvaged the situation and saved at least part of the empire, Philip spent long periods in the family mausoleum, wracked in religious guilt for his 32 illegitimate children, his military defeats, and his failure to change the downward spiral of his empire.
Spain lost territories one by one, even while the increasingly strong British Navy robbed the treasure ships coming from the New World. Portugal and Holland split off, Caribbean islands were lost, and Spain was too exhausted militarily to recover her lost possessions. Perennially bankrupt, Spain kept raising taxes to fund a lost war to the point of economic collapse.
If you look carefully at the artist, you will note he wears the Cross of the Order of Santiago on his left breast. This was an honor added to the painting after Velazquez died (according to legend by the hand of the king, himself). While Velazquez had applied for the honor before he died, the background investigation had not yet concluded. Testimony was taken from 148 witnesses who testified that the artist was qualified to be a hidalgo, since he had never worked a day in his life for pay. It is not hard to imagine the fall of a country that honors the idle over the industrious.
By the time this painting was done, the royal residence could no longer come up with the cash to purchase enough firewood to last the winter. Even Velazquez was forced to withhold part of the pay of his staff to cover his bills.
And as Habsburg Spain slowly collapsed, protocol and ceremony at court actually increased. When all else is lost, there is always comfort in pointless ritual. Look back at that painting and notice how the two maids are kneeling and bowing—a necessity when anything was presented to a member of the royal family. The infanta is standing proudly, displaying no emotion. Her father was known to smile only twice at court in his entire lifetime.
The two dwarves to the Infanta’s left were part of a large contingent of court “monsters”, who were more numerous at the Spanish court than at other European Royal courts. While exempt from the rules of court protocol, their presence at court was both to amuse and to give everyone who saw them a feeling of superiority. It is not by accident that they are included with the mastiff.
The painting has fascinated generations of artists, each of whom created his own version of the masterpiece. Goya, Degas, Manet, Max Lieberman, Franz von Stuck, and Salvador Dali recreated the painting in their own styles. There is even a recreation of the painting in a sculpture garden that will allow you to "walk through the painting". In 1957, Pablo Picasso became so obsessed with the painting that he recreated it fifty-eight times in less than five months!
There is even a second version of this painting in England, on display at the Kingston Lacy Estate. This smaller version was done by either Velasquez himself, or by his son-in-law and successor, Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo. Some historians believe that this painting is the original, a model (technically a modelleto) to be used for the finished piece, and that the larger version (10.5 feet by 9 feet), on display today at the Prado in Madrid, is the copy.
In the rear of the painting, above the door and the images of the kIng and queen, are two paintings, done by del Mazo. If the Dorset copy of the painting was done by the son-in-law, then Mazo copied Velazquez’s copy of Mazo’s paintings. (And this is beginning to sound like something by Dr. Seuss.)
After centuries of careful research and study, today we believe we know the name of everyone in the picture. The guard, the Lady-in-Waiting, the Maids-of-Honor, even the two dwarves. We know the name and rank of everyone in the painting, except the dog. It is amazing that we know so much about a painting where the artist was deliberately enigmatic.
I confess to being fascinated by this painting, but I’m not exactly sure why. It is either what the painting tells me, or what the mysteries buried within it do not tell me.