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The Velazquez painting 'Las Meninas': An encyclopedia of artistic greatness

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010

IN MADRID -- There's too much great art out there. Giant exhibitions fill our eyes with hundreds of works. Our museums are constantly adding new wings. Television, the Web, magazines, coffee-table books - they spout so many art stars, we're drowning in them.

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The remedy: Choose a single work, as great as you can find. Stay with it as long as you can stand, and let it fill you with as many thoughts as it can trigger. Seek out the very greatest art work ever made, not for its price or status, but to see what it offers in a one-on-one encounter. Have an affair with a masterpiece.

I tried to do just that earlier this month, when I spent a whole week visiting a single work in the great Prado Museum. The encounter couldn't have been better: It left me convinced that "Las Meninas," the grand canvas of Spanish court life painted by Diego Velazquez in 1656, is the absolutely greatest work of art in the Western tradition.

It's not just me saying so. I have a reliable source: Don Diego Velazquez. He speaks for himself through his art, and he never gets anything wrong.

When Velazquez depicts an aging soldier, he aces every detail, from muscles starting to sag to a mustache that refuses to droop. When he paints a spinning wheel in motion, he captures the whir of spokes revolving at speed - using blur to render motion for the first time in history.

Velazquez, the great realist, also gives us perfect dogs and fools and beauties. Then, at the culminating point in his career, banking on his art to win him a knighthood, he takes on a new challenge: to capture what an unbeatable work of art looks like.

"Las Meninas" isn't just a single impeccable piece, such as all ambitious artists set out to make every time. It is like an encyclopedia of artistic greatness: It has a gorgeous surface, amazing space and light, a tantalizing cast and a complex plot; it is stunning as a whole but also when you're looking at a tiny detail in it; it gives instant pleasure as well as slow-burn philosophical rewards. Above all, "Las Meninas" never stops giving: Every time you think you're done, the picture insists that everything you've thought was wrong, and that you'll have to start over from scratch. And instead of putting you off, it makes you enjoy that relentless perplexity.

(LOOK: Explore a large image of 'Las Meninas')

A grand first glance

Even on the surface, at very first glance, "Las Meninas" presents itself as a certifiably "great painting." When you stand before it at the Prado, where it has lived since 1819, you have to be impressed by the huge canvas. It fills the better part of a wall at the far end of the museum's most imposing gallery. The room is often full, but the power of this work keeps its audience hushed. Even school groups settle down.

The painting's subject is grand. The little girl at the painting's center is the 5-year-old Infanta Margarita of Spain, the most recent heir to king Phillip IV, portrayed in her unsullied perfection. A decade earlier, the king had lost his only son and his first wife, so this child is proof of the fertility of his new bride, his niece Mariana of Austria. (When they married, he was 51 and she was 15, and she had once been the intended of the dead prince.) With the dynasty teetering, the little Infanta was one more heir to guarantee the royal line, and thus an obviously worthy subject for superlative painting. Margarita was also a valuable pawn in the diplomatic marriage game, which was how Spain built its empire and forged alliances. In 21st-century terms, the Infanta was the equivalent of a major arms or trade deal, all but signed. This portrait of her is also a picture of dynastic and political capital.

The Infanta is suitably, regally attended by her ladies-in-waiting - the "meninas" of the title. And her all-time-great portrait is appropriately set in one of the royal apartments of the Alcazar palace, hung wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with selections from the king's collection of pictures. Those works are the competition that Velazquez has to beat with "Las Meninas." And Velazquez depicts these works as so dark that they're entirely outshone - by "Las Meninas" itself.

The renovation, decoration and rehanging of the royal Alcazar apartments was supervised by Velazquez himself, whose art had earned him the position of king's chamberlain. The Infanta, though barely out of babyhood, is so eminent that even this royal chamberlain - also the official painter to the king - is in attendance, there off to the left with his brushes. He's apparently in the middle of painting this youngest member of the royal family.


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