Mark Harden's Artchive

"LAS MENINAS: The World's Best Painting"

by Michael Atlee

©2003 by the author
Permission granted by the author for inclusion in The Artchive

[Click on the thumbnail images to view the full-sized reproductions]
Diego Velazquez' monumental "Las Meninas" ("Ladies in Waiting"), measuring 10'5" x 9'5", is not only the best painting in the Western world but it is also one of the most puzzling. If one does only a superficial search into the history of art, one will find it on almost all of the "best" lists. The reasons given, mostly of a technical order, extoll Velazquez' discreetly intellectual art which, as art historian Enriqueta Harris states, is expressed in "superb color values and draftmanship, showing unique skill in merging color, light, space, rhythm and mass in such a way that all have equal value."

One will also find declarations that Velazquez is "possibly the greatest painter that ever lived"; that he is "the painter's painter" and even the "painter of truth." Manet regarded him as the greatest painter of all time, adding that he may have had a greater influence on European art than any other artist, especially on the Impressionists. Other notables unabashed in their admiration include Corot, Courbet, Whistler, Goya, Sargent, Millet, Degas, Renoir, Francis Bacon and even Picasso who painted over forty studies of "Las Meninas". Antonio Buero Vallejo wrote a play titled "Las Meninas"; Michel Foucault and Sir Kenneth Clark composed lengthy commentaries.

The enthusiasm doesn't stop there. Other paintings of Velazquez' are declared to be the best in their category: "Pope Innocent X" and "Juan de Pareja" for portrait; "The Surrender at Breda" for history; "The Rokeby Venus", "Bacchus" (Los Borrachos); "The Forge of Vulcan", "The Fable of Arachne" for classical mythology; "The Water Seller of Seville" and "Old Woman Cooking Eggs" for still life.

The purpose here, however, is not to speak of his work in toto but of the technical bravura of the puzzling "Las Meninas" and its thematic relationship to many other of his paintings. It has an uniqueness which sets it above other paintings in the Western world inasmuch as it is the only known painting in which an artist has achieved, with aesthetic mastery, a fusion of form and content. "Las Meninas", completed in 1656, is noteworthy for yet another reason. Its message propounds authentic democratic principles, making it a very modern work - way ahead of its time politically. Still and all its engaging content has most art historians scratching their heads.

Arthur C. Danto, the noted philosopher cum art historian from Columbia University, declares that he is not sure that any of Velazquez' puzzles "are meant to be solved so much as merely felt"; yet, he continues to dwell on the puzzles that to this day defeat what he calls "learned interpreters". If these interpreters had thought to look to Spanish literature of the early 17th Century for connections they would have spotted immediately the clues that Velazquez left in works antecedent to the unorthodox "Las Meninas".

In Velazquez' study of physical perspective lies his philosophical, or if you will, social perspective which is consonant with that found in Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE. It is a perspective which, to a significant degree, prefigures the French Revolution, and, by almost two centuries, the extreme humanistic positivism of Auguste Comte who went so far as to propose the worship of human beings instead of imagined gods.

Velazquez, who was born in 1599, spent his formative years in a world awash in the full tide of Renaissance thinking, a time when Shakespeare and Cervantes were writing their great humanist works. In spite of the fact that the English calendar and the one used in Spain differed by fifteen days, it is said that both writers died on the same day in 1616 when Velazquez was seventeen years old. Velazquez had been apprenticed to Francisco Pacheco (his future father in law) four years before. In Seville, where Pacheco enjoyed fame as an excellent painter, his home served as an informal intellectual academy where important artists and thinkers of that cultural city gathered to discuss art and ideas; undoubtedly those found in the enormously popular DON QUIXOTE. When the second volume came out in 1615, it had a tremendous impact on Spanish society, an impact which has not diminished even to this day.

It is evident that the perspicacious Velazquez, who lived with Pacheco, did not escape the influence of such humanist ferment. Indeed, a fast review of the books found in his library upon his death give testimony to his secular, humanistic, naturalist turn of mind. There were books on astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, mechanics, horsemanship, ballistics, archeology, philosophy (Aristotle and Plato), social theory, architecture and of course, art. Nothing on theology. Nothing on the lives of saints.

Under the tutelage of Pacheco and amidst that heady environment, Velazquez grew prodigiously to the point that he was able, at the age of nineteen, to paint the astounding bodegon (still life) "Water Seller of Seville" which is infused with his ardent humanism. It is evident that, very early, the artist Velazquez became a resolute democratic humanist, a resolution strengthened when he entered the service of the profligate, dissolute King Felipe IV where he lived, worked and painted for the rest of his life. There he observed first hand the decadent lives of the supposed superior "noble" classes which he could not help but compare and contrast with the great suffering of the Spanish people that he saw everywhere. With superbly subtle discretion he demonstrated obliquely, in almost all of his thematic works, a great sympathy for the masses and/or an antipathy for the ordered world of the classically orientated Catholic aristocracy which still has currency in Spain.

In this day of "the level playing field" it is difficult to imagine the rigid social hierarchical system under which everyone lived. To give you an example: Painters were mere artisans in the Spanish social hierarchy which was pyramidical in shape. For our purposes here, it is important to understand that this shape is the same as that achieved by formal linear perspectivism in painting, that is, the vanishing point created when orthogonal lines converge, creating on a flat surface a representation of three-dimensional space. It is the manipulation of this perspectivism in "Las Meninas" that beguiles the viewer, provoking the question: "What's going on here?"

Spanish society was structured like that of Plato's REPUBLIC. It was, however, Aristotle's principle of continuity in nature which, fused with Plato's idea, formed the dynamics of Western kingdoms during the Medieval Period. In his scale, for instance, all animals were ranked, according to their degree of perfection. For the criterion of rank in this scala naturae, he sometimes took the degree of development reached by the offspring at birth. There resulted, he proposed, eleven general grades with man at the apex and the zoophytes at the bottom, the zoophytes being invertebrate animals resembling plants. Eventually, Spanish society came to be conceived of in terms of the religious theory of emanation, a great staircase of light, if you will, leading up to the heavens and thence to God.

In this theory every living creature had a place, distanced from God ("...the Way, the Truth, the Light.") according to his lights, that is, his perfections or his lack thereof. For instance, the philosopher king, like Alfonso X El Sabio, rested atop the pyramid, nestled up against the base of heaven which also had its hierarchies as set forth by the Pseudo Dionysius. This lofty contiguity, therefore, naturally gave the philosopher king his "divine right". The members of nobility came in descending order. You know - a duke positioned after the king, and then a prince and so on until the broad based bottom where a baron found himself. And the hierarchies went on and on, down to the level where the least perfect were assigned. These - the deformed, the lame, the halt, the mentally deficient, the dwarfs, the slaves - were ranked directly above the animals which, in the darkest part of the staircase, had hierarchies all their own. And then there was materia prima. Hierarchies within hierarchies, seemingly ad infinitum. Consider the pecking order in the military, in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the European royal families where the rule of primogeniture - giving primacy to the first born male - is still rigidly observed.

In his art, Velazquez, following Cervantes' lead, very discreetly turned his back on this social value system, painting one thematic variation after another on his democratic view until the crescendo is reached in "Las Meninas" in which he included himself just like Cervantes did in both parts of DON QUIXOTE.

The first unmistakable indication that he had abandoned the medieval vertical for the modern horizontal is to be found in the two large paintings he, to the consternation of art historians, inexplicably did of old, physically unattractive pagans. Done probably in what is called his Middle Period, they were works, of all things, to adorn the royal hunting lodge, Torre de la Parada. Both choices, puzzling for such a project, were non systematic Greek philosophers: One, the obscure cynic Menippus, known as "the classical forerunner of Cervantes". Menippus had satirized systematic philosophers and had expressed utter contempt for such conventional social values as beauty, social status, lofty notions of propriety, and wealth, especially if it was spent on art such as sculpture instead of on food for the poor. To him, the most noble, virtuous life was living according to nature, the necessary and sufficient way to find happiness.

The other was of the fabulist Aesop who had had influence on Medieval Spanish literature and on that of Cervantes. He was another Greek non systematic philosopher whose homely fables brought philosophy back to earth, to everyday living, that is, away from esoteric ideas such as theology and metaphysics. He spoke up on behalf of the "ugly' and of the "deformed", demanding they be given the humane respect denied them. Another thing he did was to insist upon the separation of the human from the divine. It is important to mention here that both Menippus and Aesop were former slaves because one of Velazquez' most unforgettable portraits is that of Juan de Pareja, his mulatto slave whom he had taught to paint. In it, he endowed Juan, whom he freed, with a majestic presence, adorning him with a fancy lace collar, a luxurious form of adornment forbidden by the sumptuary laws of the time, especially to someone of his social category.

So now that the arrow is pointing from Velazquez back to Cervantes a few words must be said about the philosophical import of the first modern novel which has been called the "Bible of Humanity'. In it, Cervantes speaks out loud and clear for the humble, the oppressed, the peasants and the servant class, especially the girls. He went so far as to give Don Quijote's lowly squire the name of Sancho which means "holy', being derived from the Latin "Sanctus". And he also endowed the high sounding epithet, "Dulcinea", on the humble peasant girl, Aldonza - Dulcinea being, in my interpretation, a literary expression of Aristotle's notion of God, the Unmoved Mover.

Some of the novel's purposes were, through laughter, to ridicule St. Ignatius of Loyola for his contradictory notion of militant Christianity, to mock courtly love as well as to chide the ruling class for their mistaken ways. His major purpose, however, was to underscore the relativity of "reality", contrasting the sanity of the natural with the madness of the ideal thereby showing his support for the Aristotelians in their fight with the Platonists.

Cervantes and Velazquez, without abandoning the basic democratic human values inherent in primitive Christianity, like Menippus and Aesop, abhorred the notion, found in classical mythology and Christianity, of intermingling the human with the divine. If anything, extending Cervantes' lead, Velazquez, too, in his religious paintings, seems to be saying that - if the point is to be considered at all - the human IS the divine. With the exceptions of "The Adoration of the Magi" and "The Coronation of the Virgin" for which it is said that he used his wife and child as well as other members of his family as models, all of his divine figures appear to have stepped out of the lowliest of taverns. Just look at those "divine" figures, depicted with those great "human" qualities especially that of Christ. Not one is idealized.

Other indications that his intention was to reverse the scale of values:

  • Still life: In the 17th Century, this category enjoyed considerable vogue. Instead of painting beautiful expensive objects of the rich, lush fruit and gorgeous flowers in idealized arrangements like those in Zurburan, Willem Kalf or Jan Davidsz, Velazquez painted low and coarse objects in their natural setting and he included the humble workers who used them in the bodegon, an inclusion that was generally not done by others nor considered decorous at the time.

  • Still life with Biblical Theme:

    In two known paintings, he extended this unusual still life arrangement to incorporate religious scenes placed in the background. In both, the kitchen workers, objects of the spiritual lesson contained therein, show indifference by keeping their backs to the didactic scenes of "Jesus with Martha and Mary" and "Tavern Scene with Christ at Emmaus". The young girls - one a mulatto - seem to be saying "So? What's that got to do with me and my work?"

  • Classical Mythological Themes:

    Gone are the strong idealized images reflective of the high born such as those found in Titian and Poussin. In their place, one finds Bacchus, looking rather flabby and commonplace. In a detached way he celebrates with joyous peasants, crowning one with a wreath. And then consider Argus and Mercury. They are painted as spent figures that have seen better days. The same can be said of Mars. Rather than a robust, powerfully muscular God of War, he is portrayed, shield discarded, as a weary, ageing, out of shape warrior whose time has also come and gone. Perhaps the most startling diminished supernatural powers are those of Apollo in "The Forge of Vulcan". Instead of a handsome, virile, forcible youth (He was the Sun God, after all!) , he is depicted as a non-descript, underdeveloped, feckless boy compared to the vigorously healthy, beautifully muscled common workmen of the forge. The contrast is too telling.

  • Portrait painting: Mention has already been made of his magnificent unconventional portrait of the ex slave, Juan de Pareja. Like Menippus, Aesop, and Cervantes, Velazquez championed the least of us. What stand out are the portraits of dwarfs, buffoons, actors, sculptors, writers, et al, whose status was nugatory in the social scale. Like another humanist, fellow artist, Jose Ribera, he imbued them all with a sense of dignity and individual worth usually reserved for persons of distinction. It should be added here that for a court painter there is a paucity of the nobility in his oeuvre. It is not to the point at this time to speak of the superb portraits of nobles, religious figures nor of the royal family - with the exception of "Las Meninas" and "Felipe Prospero".
In the earliest portrait of Felipe Prospero, the prince rests his hand on the chair, symbol of royal status and power. In that chair, a sweet dog rests happily. Arthur C. Danto, the already cited professor of philosophy from Columbia, comments:

"Given the chair in the rigid semiotics of courtly etiquette in Spain, something is being conveyed beyond the fact that spoiled dogs climb into furniture in which courtiers would not dare to sit. Some metaphysical joke? Or the suggestion that dogs hold some rank in nature higher than slaves or even courtiers: All I know is that a dog in a chair is not innocent naturalism."

A metaphysical joke? Not at all. A suggestion? Nor that. It is something more. It's a metaphysical notion which Velazquez expands to a full blown definitive pictorial statement in "Las Meninas", expressed through the dazzling play of multiple perspectives in which he reverses the accepted scale of values once and for all.

I have precious little knowledge of the technical aspects of art to discuss with any competence the range of perspectives in "Las Meninas" There are three exceptions, however, that I am comfortable with, exceptions which even the most innocent viewer would perceive. The first two have to do with the unusual placement of the royal couple, and the third with that of Velazquez.

The king and queen are barely visible in the mirror in the background where they are rightfully situated at the apex of the vanishing point, atop the pyramid. The dwarfs and the dog come at the bottom where they belong. However, conceptually, Velazquez has turned the scale topsy turvy by giving more prominence to Princess Margarita and her ladies in waiting than to the royal couple and even greater importance to the dwarfs and to the dog by placing them in the forefront. He has turned the pyramid upside down. In the remarkable "The Fable of Arachne" he does something similar with the spinners and a cat, relative to the aristocrats. Consider who is placed where.

So, Arthur C.Danto was, indeed, on to something. Velazquez' naturalism gives a higher position to animals than he does to royalty. Everytime he includes those beloved beasts they are in a privileged position. Cervantes does the same with Don Quijote's "noble" steed. The decrepit Rocinante is one of the most important characters in the novel. Sancho's donkey is also beloved. Velazquez, like Menippus, Aesop, and Cervantes, loved nature and animals. I suspect, that if he had had his way, he, like those two Greek philosophers and Cervantes, would have preferred to have lived in nature, according to nature, the necessary and sufficient way for attaining happiness. But he was trapped in the ideal prison of aristocracy and he needed to survive and provide for his family which he did by his natural gifts because he was the fittest of painters.

Another consideration about the placement of the king and queen: When the viewer stands in the position that the king and queen occupy in order to be reflected in the mirror, the oft mentioned conceit is that the common viewer then, indeed, becomes royal - worthy of veneration and respect. Is that what Velazquez is saying? Yes, that and more: If you and I (The King and Queen) are at the top of the vanishing point, then - taking into consideration the position of the other figures in the painting and their supposed social importance - the conceit does not hold and the social pyramid collapses. This, I believe, is the meaning Velazquez intended to convey. It is a meaning that complements that of Cervantes. In chapter six of the second part of DON QUIJOTE, the knight speaks at length to his niece about the variations of the social pyramid making the point that true nobility is based on virtue, liberality and nothing more - certainly not birth.

And then, what is one to make of Velazquez' dominance in the painting, because he does dominate it in spite of the brilliantly lighted position of the princess. Manuel Duran of Yale in his excellent comparative study of "Las Meninas" with Vermeer's similar "Art of Painting" tells us that in medieval times no one signed a painting; that signing as such was a practice begun in the Renaissance. It is my view that Cervantes, Vermeer and Velazquez took it a step further by putting themselves in their works as a way to say that a particular piece was a powerful personal statement. Many learned interpreters have suggested that Velazquez was indicating - by commanding this unusual place in the painting - that this is the rightful position of the artist, Velazquez, in society. Some interpreters go on to lament the fact that we will never know with certainty if that was his intention. Well, whether or not that is what he consciously intended, it is of no consequence because that is the natural conclusion one comes to when the point is considered. Velazquez knew the worth of an artist relative to an aristocrat in any scale of values - as do we.

One last thing: You might ask how did he get away with it? Because of the oppressive power of the Church, he had to veil his intentions with the utmost discretion as Cervantes did through the use of metaphor. I suspect, also, that King Felipe and his minister, the Conde Duque de Olivares, were too besieged by military and economic disasters of catastrophic proportions to give considered thought to the issue. Besides, for the hapless Felipe, who, it is said esteemed Velazquez greatly, it must have been a much needed respite to spend time in his studio discussing art - certainly not suspected subversive motives of his court painter. By way of supporting the supposition of this high esteem, it should be noted here that there is a story that it was he, Felipe, an artist himself, who painted the red cross of the Order of Santiago seen on Velazquez' chest, a few years after the artist's death. One does have to wonder, however, whether a monumental work depicting the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from Spain was lost or deliberately destroyed. As for the nobility, well, they were so vacuous, so caught up in their vanities that sumptuary laws had to be passed to control their extravagances which, of course, means that they were too self-preoccupied to care, let alone to figure out, what he was doing right under their noses. Velazquez did not have noble status, symbolized by the red cross, until almost the end of his life. So why would they make much of him and his work? After all, he was just a painter.

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