Art History 101

Everything You Must Know about Las Meninas

Zuzanna Stańska 13 January 2022 min Read

This is one of Velázquez’s largest paintings in which he worked very hard to create a complex and credible composition that would convey a ‘sense of life’. Las Meninas, which in Spanish stands for The Ladies-in-waiting, is one of the most famous masterpieces in art history. And one of the most mysterious ones!

Its enigmatic composition raises many questions and creates an uncanny relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. Because of all that, Las Meninas has been one of the most widely analyzed works in Western painting.

But there are a couple of things we know for sure. Here they come – everything you must know about Las Meninas.

1. Meet all the crew

diego velazquez las meninas
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Las Meninas was painted in 1656 in the Cuarto del Príncipe in the Alcázar in Madrid, which is the room depicted in the work. We can identify most of the members of the court service grouped around the Infanta Margarita, who is attended by two of the Queen’s meninas or maids-of honor: María Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco. We also see the artist himself working on a large canvas, the dwarves Mari Bárbola and Nicolasito Pertusato (it was typical for the courts of that times to have dwarves), a mastiff of the unknown name, and the lady-in-waiting Marcela de Ulloa who stands next to a guardadamas (attendant), while the chamberlain José Nieto stands in the doorway in the background. There are faces of Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, the Infanta`s parents, reflected in the mirror.  They are watching the scene taking place.

2. It’s NOT a royal painting

Although in the middle of the composition we see the Infanta and also the royal couple in the mirror, this paintings is not a royal painting. Royal portraits are traditionally formal, showing their subjects isolated. But here, the Maids of Honor for which the painting is named surround the young princess, as does a bunch of fellow servants. It is nothing else than a behind-the-scenes look at the Spanish court. Actually, it is more a genre painting but with some royal entourage.

3. You can see Velásquez himself here!

diego velazquez las meninas
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, Velázquez’s self-portrait, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Detail.

That was a courageous move for Velázquez to paint himself into Las Meninas. You needed to have a nerve to put your self-portrait into a royal commission. The artist can be seen on the left with a brush in his hand.

4. The painting was posthumously altered under royal command

While Philip IV had showered Velázquez with honors during his long service at court, he paid him his most lasting tribute after the painter’s death in 1660, one year after Velázquez had been inducted into the Catholic organization the Order of Santiago. To his honor, Philip IV commanded the order’s insignia be added to the chest of Velázquez’s Las Meninas figure. Some historians even claim it was the king himself who painted on this final touch but it sounds like a legend.

5. It has references to art history

diego velazquez las meninas
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, Mirror hung on the back wall, showing the reflected images of Philip IV and his wife, Mariana of Austria, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Detail.

There is an important reference of an art-historical nature that is expressed through the presence of the painter himself and the paintings hanging on the rear wall, while the inclusion of the mirror makes this work a consideration on the act of seeing. The reflection in a mirror is an ongoing art motif known since van Eyck.

6. The title of the painting was changed a couple of times

diego velazquez las meninas
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, Philip IV’s daughter, the Infanta Margaret Theresa, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Detail.

The first mention of the painting being called Las Meninas was found in a Museo del Prado 1843 catalogue, 24 years after Prado’s opening. In a 1666 inventory, it was referred to as Retrato de la señora emperatriz con sus damas y una enana (Portrait of the Empress with her Ladies and a Dwarf). Then, after a fire in 1734, it was called La familia del Señor rey Phelipe Quarto and was referred to as La Familia until the final name change.

7. It was and still is super-famous

Las Meninas has long been recognized as one of the most important paintings in Western art history. The Baroque painter Luca Giordano said that it represents the “theology of painting” and in 1827 the president of the Royal Academy of Arts Sir Thomas Lawrence described the work in a letter to his successor David Wilkie as “the true philosophy of the art”. We must admit –we love it too.

8. The problem with colors

In recent years the picture has suffered a loss of texture and hue (pigments in the costumes of the meninas faded) because of the exposure to pollution and crowds of visitors. The painting was last cleaned in 1984 to remove a “yellow veil” of dust that had gathered on its surface since the previous restoration in the 19th century. The cleaning, however, provoked some protests, not because the picture had been damaged in any way, but because it made the painting look different.


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