Exhibited in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Del Prado, Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656) has been considered by art historians as one of the most pivotal paintings in the progression of portraiture. However, to the common museum goer, the piece seems to be an ordinary oil painting of many figures; not standing out from the other Baroque style paintings depicting group portraits.
When I first saw the painting in the Baroque wing of the Museo Nacional Del Prado, I too had the same reaction. It looked like many other royal portraits of the Spanish and Dutch Baroque styles where there is a dark background of a portrait filled hall and a dark green palette to accentuate the dramatic light on the royal figure and his/her subjects. After reading Fred S. Kleiner’s Gardner’s Art through the Ages, I realized I was wrong to interpret the piece directly from one dimension. Kleiner recommends readers to focus individually on the relationships between the figures and the viewer, the portraits to the viewer, mirrors to the viewer, and mirrors to the figures (198). Or simply; see the painting not only from the perspective of a viewer towards a flat image, but rather from the viewpoints of the painted figures either in the scene or reflected in a mirror.
In an epiphany, the hidden meaning and significance of the painting became perfectly clear. Using one portrait, Velázquez had depicted the royal family and their subjects through multiple dimensions by implying this image could be seen from at least three different major viewpoints. Thus “dimension”, in this context, is determining who is looking at this image and from where.
For example when you look at the painting in a quick glance, the first thing you see is the brightly lit princess Infanta Margaret Theresa (who is the focal point) and a few of her meninas (ladies in waiting). The high contrast makes the darker figures behind the princess, especially Velázquez himself, obscured in the first glance. This assumes that you are simply looking at a flat image depicting a space and you are facing it, establishing the first dimension. When you look again, your focus will shift away from the princess to the figure of Velázquez standing behind an easel as if he is pondering his next brushstroke. This is crucial because it implies Velázquez, not you, is looking at a mirror reflecting the image. Thus the painting has transported you from looking at the painting in a museum to Velázquez looking at a reflection of the image in the hall of King Philip IV’s royal palace, creating the second dimension. After this minor discovery, the true epiphany is unveiled as your eyes wander to the background and see what at first seems to be a portrait of a couple but actually is a mirror’s reflection of King Philip and Queen Elizabeth of France inspecting the scene of Velázquez painting their daughter and subjects. This second mirror plunges you into the third dimension by implying you move from Velázquez’s perspective to the King and Queen’s view who are facing Velázquez. Thus with one flat image, Velázquez has transported your “conscience” from the museum to Velázquez’s viewport to the King’s perspective in his royal palace in 1656, creating an ultimate experience of multidimensional awareness.
While Velázquez’s painting is shockingly innovative for its time, Las Meninas was not the first to explore the concept of multiple dimensions but rather the visual epitome of the theme. In fact Velázquez was heavily influenced by Jan van Eyck‘s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), a painting he purchased for King Philip IV’s personal collection where the illusion of a second dimension is implied by a distorted reflection in a mirror placed between the two figures (Kleiner, 200). The idea of multi-dimensional awareness and illusion was also developing in Spanish literature of that era. For instance in Don Quixote , Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote (1615) the main character does not see the world for what it is and prefers to imagine that he is living out an imaginary story. Don Quixote’s imaginary story is based on famous tales to emphasize that he is living out his own story (Kleiner, 205). The multidimensional concept is also in plays such as Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream:
“What is a life? A frenzy. What is life?
A shadow, an illusion, and a sham.
The greatest good is small; all life, it seems
Is just a dream, and even dreams are dreams”
Besides being an apotheosis of its period, Las Meninas also influenced how art can be “Modern”. In his book The Order of Things, Michel Foucault explains that the painting started, “a new episteme, or way of thinking representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form” (31). This means that the painting triggered the Modern notion of depicting ideas or emotions separate from the realistic form. This is clearly evident because Las Meninas wasn’t famous for how accurately the human form is depicted but rather its ability to use an illusion to express an abstract experience.
According to Kleiner, Velázquez’s use of illusion and multidimensional awareness heavily influenced both Picasso’s work in Cubism and Dali’s in Surrealism. In Ma jolie (1911), Picasso combined visual and auditory dimensions by layering symbols of sheet music from his favorite song Ma jolie in a way that represents features of his lover (also nicknamed Ma jolie) depicted from different sides (345). Just like Las Meninas, Ma jolie seems physically flat from the layers of sheet music but expresses multiple dimensions abstractly.
Velázquez’s ingenious method of layering dimensions in a flat image is further explored with a new medium in Dali’s Surrealist photo series “In Voluptas Mors” (1951). In these photos, Dali positions himself in the foreground with an inquisitive pose and then placed 7 naked women in the background. These women are positioned to resemble a skull, creating an illusion between the 2d skull and the 3d women. Again just like Velázquez, Dali asks viewers to question their perspective of reality. In conclusion, Las Meninas is not only historically important for its novel ability to place expression of ideas above literal representation, but also its influence on the Modern notion of freeing expression from literal representation.
After seeing and then reading about Las Meninas, I have learned beyond why the painting is a masterpiece. It has showed me how to enjoy paintings by not only seeing them as compositions of forms, color, and textures, but rather as images of ideas. More specifically, paintings are not direct channels of information like diagrams, but rather enigmatic puzzles that both you and the artist try to piece together as you try to figure out what the painting means and the artist ponders the next stroke.
Calderón, de B. P, and Edwin Honig. Life Is a Dream: A Play. New York: Hill & Wang, 1970. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.
Gardner, Helen, Richard G. Tansey, and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. , 1996. Print.