Tag Archives: Diego Velazquez

Picture Perfect

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez (1656) -- Museo del Prado, Madrid

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez (1656) — Museo del Prado, Madrid

There is a lot of suffering in the Prado, and I’m not referring to how your feet feel after walking for hours through Madrid’s world-class art museum.  The collection includes Goya’s famous Third of May 1808, which depicts Napoleon’s soldiers firing point-blank into a group of captured rebels.  The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel, isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy.  The Prado has many images of the crucified Christ, too — a popular theme for artists during the Counter-Reformation.

But pain and suffering are by no means all that the Prado has to offer; there are also portraits and landscapes and genre scenes that are likely to evoke appreciative smiles.  Foremost among these is a towering artistic achievement located in room 12 of the Museo Nacional del Prado:  Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.

The late Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, included it on his short list of the greatest works of Western Civilization.  Australian art historian Lisa Beaven wrote, “This painting has been described as the most over-interpreted painting in the history of art.”  It is certainly among the most widely admired by art experts.  (Las Meninas is reproduced above; click on it to look more closely, then hit the “back” button to return to the text.)

So what’s the big deal about it?  At first glance, you see an elaborately dressed little girl who appears to be about five years old.  She’s being fussed over by a couple of ladies-in-waiting, or “meninas”.  But why is the painting named for them?  They don’t seem to be the subject matter; in fact they’re almost the only people in the painting who aren’t looking straight at… whoa.

Most of the people, and maybe even the dog, are looking straight at the viewer of the painting.  You.

It’s as if you just stepped into this room in the royal palace, interrupting whatever it was they were doing.  There’s a painter on the left — it’s Diego Velázquez himself, who probably didn’t look this young when he painted Las Meninas in 1656; he was in his late 50s by then.

Anyway, Velázquez has an enormous canvas he’s working on, but he can’t be painting the Infanta Margarita (that’s the little girl’s name) or her entourage, because they would be facing him, not us.

As you study the painting for clues, you notice a couple reflected in the mirror on the back wall.  They are the king, Philip IV, and Queen Mariana.  OK, so is that a reflection of the canvas — a portrait of the royal couple that Velázquez has basically finished?  Or… are the king and queen currently posing for him, in effect standing in the space we occupy?  If that’s the case, that suggests that we are seeing the room through the eyes of the monarch.

That might also explain all the activity around the Infanta Margarita.  As art historian Lois Fichner-Rathus speculates, “Is the princess being given a few finishing touches before joining her parents in a family portrait?”  In other words, is she about to be placed in the space we occupy?

That’s what is so fascinating about Las Meninas:  in a sense, the viewer completes the picture.  Not to brag, but one day in the Prado, I was the star of that painting just by standing in front of it.  Then I reluctantly stepped out of the way and let a German tourist have his moment of glory in one of history’s greatest paintings.


Joan Miro, "The Lightning Bird Blinded by Moonfire" -- Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

Part of the experience of visiting an art museum is squinting at those little plaques beside the artworks.  As you know, they have a lot of information in tiny type:  The artist’s name, when the work was done, what materials were used, and so on.  It also includes the title of the work, which can often be helpful.

Oh, if you’re looking at a painting of a baby in a stable you can probably guess the subject matter without looking at the title, but if you’re looking at a group of men wearing tights, it’s reasonable to wonder who the heck they are.

Let’s say the plaque informs you that the title of this Velázquez painting  is “The Surrender of Breda”.  Unless your major was Spanish History, you may still wonder what you’re looking at, but at least you have a hint.  It’s possible to surmise what the artist was intending to convey;  how we, as viewers, are encouraged to see it.

To put it another way, there’s a reason that Velázquez titled one of his other paintings “Philip IV on Horseback” and not “Paco the Horse with Some Guy Riding Him”.  It’s primarily about the king, not his transportation.

What I’m suggesting is that the title of a painting or sculpture can provide clues to what the artist was hoping to communicate, and it’s my view that art is — or should be — a way of expressing thoughts and emotions and experiences, a means of inviting the viewer to share the artist’s insight.

That may have been easier to do when painting was representational.  As noted before, in religious scenes or portraits of royalty, visual cues were supplied.  In the era of abstract art, however, it’s more difficult to know what’s on the artist’s mind.  That’s why it annoys me when the little plaque next to a canvas or sculpture says “Untitled”.

Painters like Picasso and Miró, who were pioneers in the new style of art, still gave us titles.  Some of them were doozies, too — Miró called one of his “The Lightning Bird Blinded by Moonfire” (see above).  You’re not likely to look at it for five seconds and say, “Oh, sure, I get that,” but it at least gives you a point of departure.

Let’s face it — an artist who calls a work “Untitled” is just being lazy.  I’m aware of the argument that by not naming a piece, the artist is allowing the viewer the freedom to interpret it any way he or she wants.  To which I say, “C’mon, artist, you must have been thinking about something  while you were creating it.  What was on your mind?”

Perhaps there are artists, though, who simply have trouble thinking up titles.  That’s why I’ve come up with the following suggestions, which are available to any painter or sculptor who is stuck for a title.  Help yourself; these are free of charge, and just might express what you were hoping to communicate during the act of creation:

Flow Chart of the Entire Universe

Ex-Girlfriend with Mustache and Blacked-out Tooth (a.k.a. “That Bitch”)

If Smoke and Shadows Were Orange

Stuff I Found in the Trunk of My Car

First Attempt at Homemade Tattoo

Victory March of Trapezoids Down Michigan Avenue

A Dream — Or Was It?

PTA President Thanks Cafeteria Workers, 1957

Squiggly Lines, Part Four

Grandma Calls Them Her “Girls”

What Might Have Been

King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velazquez (1644) -- Frick Collection, New York

Had he not lost almost five years to military service at the peak of his baseball career, Ted Williams’ batting statistics would have surpassed every player in history.  That’s how the conversation goes with some fans, anyway, and they may have a point.  In a similar vein, art lovers sometimes speculate that Diego Velázquez would be recognized as the world’s greatest painter if he hadn’t “sold out” and become court painter to King Philip IV of Spain.

That argument is even more hypothetical than the one about Ted Williams, and it should be noted that a lot of artists and experts — including Manet and Picasso — already consider Velázquez to be the all-time best.  You can’t help wondering, though, what he might have produced if he hadn’t taken the job with King Philip at the age of 24.

Velázquez was born in 1599, and by his teens he was producing paintings of astonishing beauty; they were of everyday subjects, often with still-life elements.  An outstanding example is The Waterseller of Seville, which has, among other masterstrokes, exquisitely rendered water condensation on the side of a foreground jug.

His skill caught the attention of one of the king’s ministers, and Velázquez was soon brought to Madrid.  He was an ambitious young man, and when the king offered him the court-painter gig, Velázquez accepted the offer to be rich and famous.  Hey, who wouldn’t?

The problem, from an artistic standpoint, was that the job basically involved painting portraits of the king and his family, and King Philip was… well, not what you’d call handsome.  The king wasn’t a very good subject, you might say.  His forehead was a vast, empty expanse, and he had the distinctive Habsburg facial structure:  Generations of royal inbreeding had resulted in a prominent underslung jaw.  (As bad as Philip’s was, his son and successor Charles II was so disfigured, the poor guy was unable to chew.)

Velázquez accepted the challenge, though, churning out portraits of Philip in closeup, Philip full-length, Philip seated, Philip standing, Philip on horseback, and so on.  We may look at the results now and say, “oh, dear”, but the king was delighted.  That’s how bad it must have been — Philip found the likenesses flattering.  He developed a friendship with Velázquez, and gave him additional responsibilities.  Diego became an event organizer, furnished the royal apartments, and even handled the occasional diplomatic mission.

In 1649 Velázquez was sent to Italy to buy some paintings for King Philip’s collection, and he scooped up some masterpieces that are now among the most important pieces in the Prado museum.  While abroad, Velázquez also had the opportunity to paint the unforgettable portrait of Pope Innocent X, whose expression seems to be commanding you to kneel.

The most famous picture Velázquez painted was almost his last.  It’s now called Las Meninas (The Ladies-In-Waiting), although the picture centers on the Infanta Margarita, a little girl in a ridiculously large dress.  As you study the painting, you notice that Velázquez has put himself in it, standing at his easel.  The king and queen are reflected in a mirror on a back wall, as though they are posing for Velázquez at the spot where we are standing.

If he hadn’t taken the job as Court Painter, we can only speculate what else Velázquez might have produced, but he certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to paint Las Meninas.  Could he have gone on to paint even greater works?  Who knows?  It’s enough that he was among the best who ever lived.  For that matter, so was Ted Williams.