The masterpiece of western painting Las Meninas, "The Maids of Honour" (1656), by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), is a portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa, in the royal Alcàzar Palace, Madrid. Along with a Spanish mastiff dog, the blonde princess is surrounded by her "family" of courtiers/servants:
- Isabel de Velasco,
- María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor,
- Mari Bárbola,
- Nicolasito Pertusato,
- Marcela de Ulloa.
The figure of Don José Nieto Velázquez, the Queen's chamberlain, is highlighted standing on steps leading to an open doorway of the apartment. The mirror on the rear wall contains the image in reflection of Philip IV and his second wife, Maria Anna of Austria. The hall in which the actions is set, serves as a studio for Velázquez, who has included himself in the picture, sporting the red cross of the Knights of Santiago on his tunic, as he stands back from the easel. The cross was painted on following the completion of Las Meninas - Velázquez was inducted into the order in 1659, after the king obtained a dispensation from the pope. Velázquez carries a palette in his right hand and a brush in his left.
Palette determined by analysis:
- Velázquez mixed his colours to create greens, a distinctive feature of his work; and used blue pigments in combination with whites, ochres and yellows to create the green of the family costumes.
- Lead compounds: white
- Ultramarine: blue
Mirrors and Reflections
The art critic Théophile Gautier commented in respect of the painting's realism:
« Mais où est donc le tableau ?»
The mirror with its reflection of the King and Queen of Spain and the open door add the illusion of depth and provide perspective. Velázquez depicted light coming from three angles, the back, the right, and the front.
The painting is regarded as a masterpiece of the Baroque age, and has been much imitated. It has been critically examined as a work of Illusionism. Its themes and subjects are repeated in the works of artists including The Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), which similarly uses the device of a background mirror to add depth to the composition: as with a number of other 19th century French artists, inspired by the art of Velázquez, it was known to Degas only in reproduction. The first half of the 19th century gave rise to the Romantic Movement in art, for which, paintings from the Spanish Golden Age perhaps ought to have served as models. However, even after the great looting of the Napoleonic era, when Marshal Soult managed to take 173 of paintings home with him and installed them in his house in Paris, paintings from the Siglo de Oro were difficult to see in France. He did not have a Velázquez in his collection - to see Velázquez artists had to go to Spain. After the Prado opened, some of the work was easier to find. The man who possibly learned most from Velázquez was Édouard Manet, who travelled to Madrid in 1865.
"How happy it would have made you to see Velázquez, who all by himself makes the journey worthwhile," Manet wrote to a painter friend. "He is the painter of painters; he didn't surprise me, he enchanted me."
The painting has an affinity to the "The Spinners" c.1657, insofar as they are each, in a way, a contemplation upon the creation of a work of art.
The novel La Prisonniere by Marcel Proust, part of the sequence In Search of Lost Time, includes an allusion to the figure of Margarita Maria, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting.
- 1724 - Inventories of the royal palace, the Alcàzar, give some prominence to the fact that Velázquez "portrayed himself painting". A detailed description was published by Antonio Palomino in his biography of Spanish painters (1724).
- 24 December 1734 - Las Meninas was damaged in a fire that completely destroyed the Alcàzar Palace. The painting was restored by the court painter Juan Garcià de Miranda (1677-1749), and was subsequently moved to the Museo del Prado where it remains on public display. The painting was referred to in the inventories prior to 1819 as La familia de Felipe IV "The family of Philip IV" or more simply La familia in 1834.
- 19 November 1819 - Prado Museum opened to the public.
- 1843 - Las Meninas became the official title when printed in the official museum catalogue. In the 19th century public acclaim for the painting grew, such that its reputation gradually surpassed that of Las Lanzas as the finest work by Velázquez.
- 1966 - The first chapter Michel Foucault's Les Mots et les choses includes an analysis of the painting.
- March 2004 - 89 Seconds at Alcazar, a nine-minute, High Definition video tableau ripped from the painting, premieres in the United States at the Whitney Biennial.
- 13 January 2009 - Detailed view of Las Meninas on Google Earth.