Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656)
Velazquez's Las Meninas is one of the greatest pictures in the history of art and one of its greatest puzzles. It makes no sense reading it like a photograph but if Velazquez is a Realist painter, as some art historians still claim, it should. Velazquez stands at his easel in a large room with the Infanta and her attendants. However, since the king and queen are in the mirror on the far wall, they must be standing in our space in front of the picture, having just entered the room. That's why, as the conventional explanation goes, the Infanta looks up as though about to curtsy and why some of her attendants have not yet noticed the royal couple. If they had, they would be standing upright facing them. There is a problem, though, with that understanding: what is Velazquez painting? If the king and queen are in our space, he must be painting the monarchs though, as far as we know, he never portrayed them together. Nor could he be painting the Infanta who faces away from him. Besides the only picture he ever painted the size of the depicted canvas was Las Meninas itself. How, then, can we resolve the problem? There is a way if we think through Velazquez's own eyes.
Imagine the entire canvas as a mirror. Velazquez thus composed the painting as though the Infanta is preening in front of a giant looking-glass. She is not looking at her parents but has the look of a small girl eyeing her own reflection.1 Velazquez, meanwhile, behind the Infanta sees exactly what we see: Las Meninas. The painting is the mirror of his mind....and a magical construction.
A major perceptual issue still remains though: the king and queen. The scene suggests that they are standing where the artist's eye was when he was in front of the canvas painting the picture. They are images in his "eye", as any alchemist of the time might have recognized. Royalty, especially king and queen, are alchemical symbols of the creative mind in spiritual perfection, united androgynously, male and female.
See continuation below
More Works by Velazquez
The magic of visual illusion was not an invention of the Surrealists; it has been an integral part of art for centuries.
See how Velazquez's king in The Frick Collection, New York, is not a "portrait" of the king
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 18 Dec 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.