In this post, I take a closer look at the remarkably sophisticated Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. There is a lot of information surrounding this painting, but I will try and keep it simple.
Key Facts and Ideas
Las Meninas has been the focus of scrupulous research and commentary. It has taken me hours to filter through all the "noise" and I don't want to add to it.
So, here are some brief facts and ideas about the painting that I have personally found interesting. If you want to dive deeper, I suggest you take a look at some of the resources linked at the end of this post.
- The painting depicts a large room in the Royal Alcazar of Madrid, Spain.
- There are several figures in the painting, most notably Infanta Margaret Theresa, the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain. She is featured in several of Velázquez's paintings, such as Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress, shown below next to a close-up of her in Las Meninas.
- The other figures in the painting are listed here.
- Velázquez boldly included himself in the painting on the far left-hand side, standing brush-in-hand in front of a large canvas. His inclusion amongst royalty embodies his accomplishments as an artist. At the time he created Las Meninas, he had painted for the royal household for around 33 years.
- If you look in the mirror in the background, you can see the reflections of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana. Velázquez's decision to depict the King and Queen in this way—blurry reflections in the background—is the topic of much speculation. Was Velázquez making a statement about their roles? About his role? Or maybe Velázquez is painting the King and Queen on his large canvas? There are no answers here, just questions to ponder (perhaps that was Velázquez's intention).
- There are several interpretations of what Velázquez is painting on the large canvas. The most common seems to be that he is painting the King and Queen. Under this interpretation, we (the viewer) see the room from the perspective of the King and Queen as if we are being painted by the man himself. The other common interpretation is that the King and Queen are standing to the side, and Velazquez is painting what we see as Las Meninas. There is no concrete evidence either way, so you get to choose how you interpret it. Me? I see him painting the King and Queen.
- In 1734, Alcazar was destroyed by fire. Las Meninas was damaged in the fire but survived (500 other paintings were not so lucky). It was later restored and trimmed on both verticle sides.
This is a very sophisticated composition, with nine people, a dog, mirror reflections of the King and Queen, paintings on the wall, etc. Yet, there is a sense of organization and cohesion across it all.
The painting is large, coming in at 3.18 m by 2.76 m (I'm not sure if this is before or after it was damaged and trimmed). It has the dimensions of a portrait, but, if you cut-out the "quiet" top half, it has a distinct horizontal theme. So from a big picture standpoint, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the portrait dimensions of the painting and the horizontal theme within the painting.
There is also a pleasing sense of balance in the painting, with the "quiet" but large area balancing against the "busy" but relatively small area. This is even more evident in the grayscale image shown later in this post (Color and Light section).
As for the focal point, it appears to be the young girl, Infanta Margaret Theresa. Velázquez used some clever and subtle techniques to draw attention to her amongst such a busy scene:
- She is illuminated as she faces towards the main light source on the right-hand side of the painting. Most of the other figures are facing away from the light.
- There are several implied lines pointing in her direction (in yellow below). These are lines that do not physically exist but are merely suggested or implied. Leaning, motioning, looking or facing in a certain direction—these are implied lines.
- On the right-hand side of the painting, notice how most of the people and the dog are facing inwards. Infanta Margaret Theresa is the first to break this theme, creating a point of conflict or impact. (Composition is all about creating a sense of flow or expectancy, then making powerful statements by breaking it).
For the most part, light dictates where your eyes are drawn. But, I will leave that for the next section, Color and Light.
Now, let's talk framing. To refresh your memory:
Framing as a painting technique refers to the use of elements to contain your attention within a certain area. The idea is much the same as why we physically frame our paintings.
This painting features several frames: the frame of the room in which they are all standing; the frames of the paintings on the wall; the frame of the painting Velázquez is working on; the frame of the mirror; and the frame of the door in the background (refer to the image below).
These frames provide a strong linear and geometric theme to the painting; you get a feel of structure and organization. Then you have all these interesting, organic shapes created by the people and dog within this framed environment—a pleasant contrast between rigid and organic; straight and curved; stillness and movement.
Color and Light
As mentioned earlier, light seems to dictate your attention in the painting. Where the light goes, your eyes follow. Below is the painting in grayscale to give you a clear idea of the value structure:
In general, the colors are restrained, featuring mostly grays, browns, blacks, and other weak colors. But there are several vivid red accents scattered throughout the painting. These small bursts of color help draw your eyes around the painting towards key points of interest.
There is a feeling of warmth throughout the painting, with mostly red, orange, and yellow tones used (mirrored by the palette in Velázquez's hand, below). The actual colors used by Velázquez were lead white, azurite, vermilion, red lake, ochres, carbon black. This is based on a study by Museo Prado in Madrid around 1981 (source).
In the background, you can see a man in the open doorway, coming or going. This is a small but powerful area, with a striking contrast between one of the lightest values next to one of the darkest values (refer to the grayscale image shown earlier). The use of hard edges in this area creates even more impact (hard edges—more clarity and impact).
Also, notice how in isolation, the focal point (the man) is dark and the background is light. This goes against the overarching theme of the painting as a whole, being dark background with light focal points. This creates a clever and subtle point of contrast.
Brushwork and Technique
(Surprisingly, I have been unable to find much concrete information on exactly how Velázquez worked. So, the following is mostly just my assumptions based on what I can see in the painting, and from the information I have been able to find).
The painting looks to have been done alla prima (wet-on-wet), which typically involves completing a painting within a single session whilst the paint is still wet. However, I doubt Velázquez—no matter how masterful he was—would have been able to complete a painting of such size and grandeur in just a single session. Smaller portraits, sure, but not Les Meninas.
I assume he would have worked on this over several sessions. This presents a logistical problem—how does one retain the "alla prima look" if the painting cannot be finished whilst the paint is still wet?
I can think of several approaches:
- You could segment the painting and allocate one painting session to each segment.
- You could get as much done as possible alla prima, then make touchups later, usually over dried paint.
- You could add a tiny amount of linseed oil over the dried paint, then work fresh paint over the top. This will feel similar to painting alla prima, but of course, there would be no mixing with the dried paint.
Whether or not Velázquez used any of these approaches, I'm not sure. If I had to guess, I would say he took the second approach—working as fast as possible alla prima, with touchups later.
My closer inspection of the painting suggests some use of scumbling, which is typically done over dried paint and would align with my assumption (see below, particularly around the hair). But again, I am just speculating.
From a big picture standpoint, the painting is beautifully rendered to a fine and delicate finish. But, as you look closer, you can see the confidence and looseness of his strokes. (It is always a big tick from me if a painting is both rendered to a fine finish and it looks like the artist had fun doing it).
Here are some other close-ups, starting with the delicate dresses and vivid red accents. Notice the glimmering highlights and deep black outlines. I get the sense Velázquez blocked-in the general colors and forms, then went over the top with illustrator-like details.
I wouldn't be surprised if you missed these people altogether. The man, in particular, only just emerges from the dark shadows. It is amazing how much information Velázquez could capture with so little detail.
Finally, here is a close-up of the royal dog. Notice the painterly brushwork, soft edges, and simplified detail. This ensures the dog does not draw too much attention.
- For complex and sophisticated compositions, try painting on a larger scale. You will be able to "fit-in" more detail as needed.
- Some questions are best left unanswered. This will have people pondering over your art, like they do with Las Meninas.
- Think about how you can create an overarching theme or expectation, and how you can break it.
- Your focal point doesn't need to "shock-and-awe". It just needs to have more impact than other areas in the painting. Take advantage of subtle techniques to draw attention towards the focal point, like the implied lines used in this painting.
- Framing is a powerful technique for containing attention within certain areas and for creating a sense of structure.
- Our eyes are very sensitive to changes in light. Use that to your advantage.
- Working alla prima on such a large scale presents a logistical problem of being unable to finish the painting within a single session whilst the paint is still wet. I provided three approaches to combat this.
(You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on what color is and how to use it effectively in painting.)
Sources and Additional Readings
Wikipedia - Las Meninas (You can also download a VERY large photo of the painting. It literally crashed my computer several times; it is that large. Download it for yourself so you can "zoom-in" on the detail).
Examining Velazquez by Gridley McKim-Smith, Greta Andersen-Bergdoll, and Richard Newman
Velázquez (Complete Works) by José López-Rey and Odile Delenda