Inner Life: Diego Velázquez and Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez painted Las Meninas four years before his death in 1660. The painting’s penetrating view of life in the Spanish court is matched by its profundity and mystery. It has been an object of fascination and scrutiny for scholars and artists ever since its completion. We spoke with Laura Cumming, author of The Vanishing Velázquez, about the painting, its origins, and its hard-to-grasp meaning.

<em>Las Meninas</em> reveals the candid, hidden side of Spanish courtly life.

Flickr. Las Meninas reveals the candid, hidden side of Spanish courtly life.

For the renowned art critic and historian Laura Cumming, there is no question when it comes to the greatest work of Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas, the late masterpiece that depicts an intimate, unguarded scene in the Spanish court.

Cumming’s love of this painting began by chance decades ago on a miserable winter afternoon in Madrid when she wandered into the Prado and saw the painting in all its glory.  “Large as life and fully as profound,” she says, “Las Meninas flashes up before you like the moment’s reflection in a mirror. Here is this little princess, her maids and servants and the artist himself, all gathered in a pool of sunlight below a heavy volume of shadow that instantly sets the tenor of the scene.” For Cumming, the painting offers endlessly extended ambiguities, literal and figurative shadows that resist interpretation. Not the least of which, of course, is its implicit statement about mortality: “The moment you set eyes on them in the Prado,” she says, “you know these beautiful people will die, that they are already dead and gone, and yet they live in the here and now, brief and bright as fireflies beneath the sepulchral gloom. And what keeps them here, what keeps them alive, or so the artist implies, is not just the painting but you.”

The painting is, indeed, an object rife with potent images. An aristocratic child, surrounded by her retinue (which includes two dwarves and a dog) directs an impassive glance at the viewer. Obliquely behind her stands a middle-aged painter — that would be Velázquez himself — at work on a large canvas which we cannot see. At the entrance of the room the painting depicts stands a court functionary. The girl in the foreground is, of course, the Infanta Margaret Theresa — daughter of of King Philip IV of Spain and his wife Mariana of Austria.

The painting is among Velázquez’s best-known — and among the best-known works in the figurative canon more generally. Deservedly so; it is the product of a mature artist who began powerfully and precociously and only deepened and intensified as he entered middle age. The so-called Siglo de Oro, the remarkable flourishing of the arts and sciences in Spain that roughly coincided with the rise and fall of the Habsburg dynasty there, produced many stellar talents: Miguel de Cervantes and Félix Lope de Vega in literature; Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera in architecture; in painting El Greco, Bartolomé Murillo, and Francisco de Zurbarán. But Las Meninas remains, perhaps, the most strikingly iconic painted work of the period. This is likely due at least in part to the painting’s complexity. From this still but somehow tense portrait of royal life innumerable interpretive avenues lead away. Consider, for example, Velázquez’s self-insertion into the painting. Is the work a comment on itself? On painting as a discipline? There is an echo of the famous self-inclusion Cervantes performed in the second volume of Don Quixote — and the painting’s mingling of light and shadow, clarity and obscurity, only adds to this tantalizing mystery.

This is just one of the many possibilities a closer look at Las Meninas, which dates from 1656, just four years before the painter’s unexpected death, provides. Indeed, one might argue that what separates Velázquez from the other court painters who pictured the lives of royals throughout early modernity is precisely this invitation to peer, to scrutinize, to think. Yet sussing out a specific intent somewhat misses the point, Cumming argues. Las Meninas is remarkable not because we can derive a philosophical or ideological schema from it — though of course many serious thinkers have. Cummings cites in particular the French cultural theorist Michel Foucault, who called the work the “representation of Classical representation.” But it was not postmoderns alone who saw the painting in this way: the Neapolitan Baroque painter Luca Giordano saw in it the “theology of painting.”

Whence this ultimate expression?  Diego Velázquez was born in Seville at the end of the 16th century. He began his artistic studies in his native city under Francisco de Herrera and Francisco Pacheco — both of whom he would go on to surpass. He established a major reputation in Seville by the end of his teenage years. Soon after, the fortuitous (for Velázquez) death of Philip IV’s court painter Rodrigo de Villandrado created a vacancy perfect for the Sevillean’s talents. Velázquez, already somewhat friendly with Philip’s prime minister Gaspar de Guzmán, was called in to paint the king. After a furious single-day session, Philip and Guzmán were sufficiently impressed to grant Velázquez their patronage, and for the rest of his life he worked for the Habsburg court in Madrid, painting Philip and Guzmán, their friends, spouses, and relations. That life — “sheltered,” Cumming calls it — is what allowed him the unawed, close-up view of the Infanta in Las Meninas. Indeed, it permitted him many equally powerful images both within and without the court. Consider his portrait of Pope Innocent X: it is hard to imagine someone unused to the rigid emotional and social postures maintained by the powerful in early modernity could have at once captured them and seen through them to the extent that Velázquez did with Innocent. The Pope is alleged to have remarked “Troppo vero!” on seeing the finished painting: “Too true!” A comment, we imagine, on its refusal to conceal the cold, proud, and even avaricious light in the Pontiff’s eyes.

Which is not to say that Velázquez needed the high and mighty of the world for inspiration. The work of his Seville period can attest to that. A glance at Old Woman Frying Eggs — which dates from 1618, from the very first years of Velázquez’s artistic blossoming — reveals that his perspicacity and his endless ability to find light in darkness and darkness in light, to marry the ephemeral and the permanent, worked just as strongly in those humbler surroundings. One of Cumming’s favorite elements in Old Woman Frying Eggs is the delicacy and control with which Velázquez depicts the albumen of the eggs turning to solid white in the night-black pan.

That masterful attention to quotidian detail — the ability to reveal whole worlds by means of it — characterizes Las Meninas as well. Whatever else it might be, Cumming points out, it is a record of  “the real and daily world of the painter. Here is the little princess paying a visit to the enormous room where he is working, accompanied by her young maidservants, two dwarves — Maria Barbola with hand on heart, Nicolas Pertusato nudging the sleepy dog with his foot — a nun, a bodyguard and the queen’s chamberlain in the doorway at the back. He was, curiously, called Jose Nieto Velázquez. The painter is Nieto’s direct counterpart as chamberlain to the king; you see the keys to the palace in Velázquez’s waistband. The painting was first displayed in the very room depicted on the canvas — imagine the effect!” Interestingly, despite the subject, Cumming believes that the painting was a private project for Velázquez, not another of the commissions that made up so much of his courtly work. “It feels,” she told us, “like the summation of everything he could do, and of everything he knew. It is a painting of our human mortality.”

Cumming’s insight here carries real weight. What, after all, is a greater mystery than death, than our impermanence? It is hard to observe the recession into shadow and penumbra that occurs as the eye passes from the foreground to the background of Las Meninas and not think of death. Cumming points out a telling detail here, that the closer you come to the painting’s surface, the less coherent it becomes — “You can no longer tell,” she says, “where a hand stops and the tray it is holding begins.” Much like the open-ended, suspenseful trance the painting itself holds the viewer in, its own inner constituents exist in a state of flux and unrest. This, says Cumming, is ultimately why she rejects more elaborate scholarly interpretations of the work: to believe that it is an esoteric “dialogue” between painter and king or between master and subject ignores its “compelling humanity.” There too, says Cumming, we can find connections between Las Meninas and Velázquez’s other works. (Her recent book The Vanishing Velázquez deals with quite another painting in its particulars but takes as its central theme the obsessive, possessive madness great art can inspire in its viewers.) She cites The Spinners, a similarly ambiguous work, which evokes at once the contest between Arachne and Athena and the much more earthly lives of threadmakers. And she points out the democratic tendencies of the painter as well, how the figures of the two dwarves and the chamberlain recall his other paintings of the “humble colleagues” of kings and princes, executed with the same sensitive intensity he used in his portraits of Philip.

For those in the U.S., Cummings recommends two paintings by Velázquez in the permanent collection of the Met. One is the famous portrait Velázquez made of his assistant and fellow painter Juan de Pareja; the other is the recently revealed Portrait of a Gentleman. But for her, Las Meninas is eminently worth the trip to Madrid and the Prado. Cumming says that at her first encounter with the painting on that winter afternoon, “it seemed to hold death back from the brink, even as it acknowledges our shared human fate. It shows the past, yet it also looks forward into the future — to our arrival. Because of Velázquez, these long-lost people will always be waiting for us in the Prado; they will never go away, as long as we hold them in sight. The picture is like a chamber of the mind, a place where the dead will never die."