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Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas

von Alexandra Tuschka

Now I guess it's time to smile and show some attitude! - because the famous Spanish painter Diego Velázquez himself is looking at us with a scrutinising gaze. He's already got his brush out, he's about to start painting! But wait a minute! Is he perhaps not painting us?

We are dealing with an almost life-size painting measuring 318 x 276 cm, on which our gaze must first find rest. We can see eleven people and a dog, and six people make eye contact with us. What have we got ourselves into here? Mentally, we can form groups of three: In front we see a little girl with two servants surrounding her. To the right we see a dwarf, a boy and a sleeping dog. Behind them are two people whispering and a man stepping through an open door. The painter himself stands at an oversized canvas on the left, and further behind we see the royal couple gleaming in the mirror. This snapshot-like confusion was very deliberately composed by the artist. In addition to the division into groups of three, the number of females and males is also balanced. These can be grouped into pairs - except for the remaining infanta, who then stands alone.

We are looking into an interior room of the Alcázar, the residence of the Spanish King Philip IV, presumably a studio or the exhibition room of the royal art collection. This room has high ceilings and is hung with large-scale works of art whose motifs are not easily recognisable. From the right, light falls through a large window and illuminates the young women in the foreground. They are "las Meninas" - "The Girls", which give the painting its title. The blond toddler is particularly brightly lit. It is the Infanta Margarita Teresa, seen here at the age of 5.

In 1656, when the work was painted, her father, Philip IV, was already 51 years old. The Spanish dynasty had to cope with heavy losses due to long periods of war, and Philip also suffered many setbacks in his private life. From his first marriage, 6 of the 8 descendants died in infancy, the only son and heir to the throne was not even 20 years old and had also died some years before. At that time, the infanta seen here was the king's only living child.

She is wearing a light-coloured dress to emphasise her pale skin and blonde hair. The slightly older maids, on the other hand, wear darker dresses and thus contrast with her. The dwarf and the boy who were at court as "hombres de placer" for the girl's amusement also underline this. Compared to the dwarf, the child appears even prettier and idealised. She looks the viewer directly in the eye and has assumed a pose that is quite representative. This reveals her flared skirt, which was made bulky and probably uncomfortable to wear by a "verdugado", a wide petticoat. The maid on the right is also posed in such a way that we can see this well.

Only the Infanta's right hand seems to be seduced by the offered "Búcaro de Indias". It was a fashion at the Spanish court to import aromatic pottery from Latin America, which could even be broken off and eaten. The kneeling maid offers the vessel to the Infanta at eye level. The other one, however, has spotted us and curtsies. Or does she not mean us at all? The constant confusion of the viewer is the great mystery of the painting, which has given rise to all kinds of interpretations. Is the artist painting us? But why is he himself in the painting and not in front of the canvas? We must be imagining a big mirror? But wait a minute! There is the reflection of the royal couple in the background. So are they standing in front of us and being painted?

The painter Diego Velázquez had already done many portraits and commissions for the king. At this point, the men were linked by a business relationship that had already lasted 30 years and increasingly became a friendship as well. The title of the painting, "The Family", which is well-known in palace circles, makes it clear that the painter here shows himself self-confidently belonging to his court. The symbolic keys of his court offices appear on his belt and the cross of the Order of Santiago on his doublet, which he was actually only awarded after this work. In 1734 the painting was damaged and slightly trimmed on two sides; today the work hangs in the Prado in Madrid.

It is debatable whether Velázquez wanted to emphasise his authorship as a creator through this work and to lift painting out of the perception of craftsmanship. This would be supported by the paintings in the background, which are unfortunately difficult to recognise. The following motifs can be seen: Athena and Ariachne competing, originally by Peter Paul Rubens, and on the right Marsyas and Apollo competing on the flute, originally by Jacob Jordaens; both motifs deal with the struggle between gods and mortals.

They can be associated with a number of fundamental questions of the time: Is the artistic gift also given by God or is it the result of many years of work? Is "inspiration" a value to be acknowledged, and does creative power not set the painter apart from the craftsman? These positions had not yet been clarified in public esteem at the time of their creation, even though they seem clear to us today.

Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas

Oil on canvas, 1656, 318 x 276 cm, Museo del Prado in Madrid

Peter Paul Rubens - Athena and Ariachne

Oil on wood, 1636, 26.6 x 38.1 cm, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

Jacob Jordaens - Apollo and Marsyas

Oil on canvas, 1636 - 1638, 180 x 270 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid


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