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

By Blake Gopnik
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.

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 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 royal subject and setting and maker of "Las Meninas" are matched by its glorious, and glorifying, execution. Its sense of air and space, of light and surfaces, is unrivaled. But instead of spelling out every detail, as a lesser realist might, Velazquez prefers vagueness, from blurred fingers to the mysterious flash of pink behind the Infanta's right wrist. He dutifully makes clear the world's illegibilities - a paradoxical goal that's worthy of the world's greatest painter.

Reproductions can barely hint at the experience of actually standing in front of the picture. It's as though Velazquez had deliberately set out to make a picture so supremely powerful that it could command a pilgrimage from any art lover. Engravings or descriptions - or in our day, color photographs - are rendered almost useless by the painting's subtlety and might.

When you're in front of the picture, standing "alongside" its courtly crowd, you also get a palpable sense of light entering the Infanta's space, pouring through a window that's just beyond sight. It takes genius to use light to make us feel a window we can't even see. And then we watch that light bounce from dog fur to velvet, from silver embroidery to silver tray, from the polished red of a Mexican pot to the gold in a hair clip - across all the necessary markers of luxury and taste. And as the light bounces across the room, we imagine Velazquez's brush flying across the canvas to portray that sparkle: Light, and Velazquez, both reveal the world to us in all its glorious particularity.

Space itself is among the subjects of this painting. Its perspective lets us understand where all the walls stand, as well as the layout of every object and figure among them. In "Las Meninas," the accuracy of that scheme was testable by all its courtly viewers, who'd hung out in the room it depicted. The painting still passes the same test: Surviving plans and inventories of the Alcazar, which burned down in 1734, show a perfect match between what was really there and what Velazquez showed.

All this virtuosic realism certainly makes "Las Meninas" a truly great painting. It doesn't come close to making it the greatest ever. Its realism fulfills cliches of excellence; Velazquez needs to reinvent what excellence could be. He takes a base of realism, and piles subtleties and convolutions on it.

'The Theology of Painting'

The oldest comment about "Las Meninas" comes a few decades after its making, from the mouth of Luca Giordano, a splashy Italian painter. Seeing the picture for the first time, he was said to have proclaimed it "The Theology of Painting" - as much ahead of other art as theology is ahead of every other kind of knowledge. And like a fine theologian, Velazquez leads us into depths that are bafflingly deep.

our side of the canvas. The only people who could command that kind of rapt attention, even from the Infanta and the king's own painter, would be the king and queen of Spain themselves. And there they are, glimpsed in a mirror on the back wall behind their favorite artist. We need to imagine them standing pretty much where we are as we take in "Las Meninas."

So now we have to test a new story line to explain what we see: The picture must revolve around a moment when the royals are passing through to get a peek at Velazquez painting a portrait of their daughter.

With this story line, we realize that Velazquez has not merely captured a portion of space. He's frozen a moment in time, and the passing flow of life. Showing off yet again, he's also made a painting that's all about the visit of a king and queen but that barely lets us see them - much as he gives us window light without a window.

Or might the story line be more decorous and formal than that, and more regal? Maybe Velazquez isn't working on a portrait of the Infanta, even though she's front and center in the picture that's hanging on the wall at the Prado. Maybe she's the one who has stopped by, with her little retinue, to watch her royal parents sitting for the court painter. The mirror doesn't show the royals passing through, but arrayed for the grandest of court portraits, being recorded on the huge canvas on the painter's easel. And what's still more fun is that Velazquez makes that couple us. As you look at this painting, you take the royals' place on this far side of the painter's easel, just where they would have stood as Velazquez painted them. We observers look into the mirror on the picture's rear wall to check out what we look like, but instead of seeing our own lowly mugs, we see ourselves as royalty.

Except that can't be right, either. In this painting, every time we think we're smart enough to know what's going on, Velazquez tells us he's smarter still. Looking deep into "Las Meninas" reveals that the whole scene is being observed from far over to its right. We're not looking at the room from its center, facing the mirror; we're facing its brightly lit rear door. Which means that, if we're not looking at the mirror from in front but from our skew position, then it can only be reflecting something farther over yet to the left. The faces we glimpse in the mirror can't be of a royal couple looking at it; they can only be those painted royal faces Velazquez has already set down on his canvas, off to the mirror's left.

Last year, when Stork and Furuichi prepared their computer re-creation of the painting's space (first publicized in these pages), they mapped out the layout of all the objects and people in the room in "Las Meninas." That led them to discover that the easel and its canvas block the view of the mirror to anyone standing directly before it: The royals could never have used it to see their own faces.

Through the looking glass

So now we've figured it out: "Las Meninas" shows Velazquez painting a picture of the royal couple. It's a plausible reading - and it gets things wrong, once again, as all the others have. As we watch Velazquez at work at his easel in "Las Meninas," his greatest painting and his claim to ultimate artistic repute, the only thing he could be painting is a picture of himself.

If we're looking at a painting by Velazquez and we see Velazquez in it (there he is in "Las Meninas," holding his brushes), then what else can it be but a self-portrait? It's the latest in a line of paintings of artists peeking past their easels as they paint themselves.

And what are those artists always peeking at? Their own view in a mirror, obviously, or they couldn't see to paint their own portraits. So it turns out that, as we look at "Las Meninas," we're not in the position of its royal observers, as we thought. We can only be in the position of some big mirror that we imagine Velazquez using to study himself, with the Infanta and her retinue looking on from the side. (We know the Velazquez estate included 10 mirrors, and Velazquez had used lots more in his redecoration of the Alcazar.) Standing before the picture at the Prado, you can easily imagine that the figures in the painting aren't staring out at you; they're staring at themselves.

Or maybe we shouldn't think of ourselves as standing in front of this scene at all, whether as its royals or as Velazquez's mirror. What is in a mirror is always seen from the viewpoint of the person looking into it. That means Velazquez has put anyone standing in front of his painting into his own shoes, while he portrays himself.

When we stand looking at "Las Meninas" at the Prado, we see what Velazquez saw in that mirror, as he stood at his easel laying down an image of himself and everything around him. In other words, the mirror view that's sitting on his easel has to be identical to that glorious mirror view we know as "Las Meninas."

You could say that Velazquez, art's magician, allows his picture to be in two places, and two eras, at once: It is the real finished canvas whose front we're examining, as we gaze in wonder at the illusions produced by "Las Meninas" in 2010; it is also the fictional picture, still in progress, whose back we see sitting on its easel in a room at the Alcazar in 1656.

If only it were that simple. (As your courtship of this painting starts clocking up the hours, you start wishing you were dealing with some easygoing genius such as Michelangelo, van Gogh or Duchamp.)

Didn't we say that the view in the mirror that hangs on the back wall could only be of a fancy royal portrait sitting on the painter's easel? And if it's those royals that Velazquez is brushing onto his canvas, how can he also be depicting himself?

And there's still another reason why "Las Meninas" can't present Velazquez portraying himself and his surroundings, much as we might prefer that simple solution. We decided, early on, that we're staring at this palace hall from somewhere in front of its brightly lit rear door. And that, of course, is nowhere near where Velazquez is standing as he paints, over at far left. If he were truly rendering this scene from a mirror set in front of him (as we presume he must be, to paint his own portrait), the picture he is working at - "Las Meninas" itself - would show its scene to us from that spot where he is standing.

This is one more of this picture's irresolvable contradictions, and like all the others, it must be deliberate. It may also carry meaning.

Maybe we need to think of Velazquez as deliberately sidelined in the world that he creates. And maybe he wants his entire painting to read as a celebration of his neutral view from that sideline, taking in the passing world with an impartial eye. You could say that Velazquez has built a looking-glass universe where he's at the center of that instant, sidelong looking: He's off to the side, but he's also bigger than anyone else in the painting, and in some sense is its central subject. (He's the only person in it really doing much of anything.)

Velazquez is letting us in on the exemplary realist moment, where a great painter gives his all to capture the single view that sits before his eyes - basically, it's the moment of the live portrait sketch, which was a Velazquez specialty. By using the format and manner of a grand history painting - the kind of painting normally reserved for great moments in war or religion - he turns his humble scene of a painter at work into a kind of apotheosis of portraiture. The artist's glance can change the world and redraw boundaries as much as a miracle or battle would.

The true subject of "Las Meninas" is the heroic moment of its own making, recorded "live," in a real place, as no history painting had ever been before. We might want to change the title to "The Immaculate Reflection" - it is the "mirror of nature" that theorists had long asked painting to be.

One other thing: "Las Meninas," the greatest realist painting by the greatest realist painter, can't have ever had much to do with the realistic, portraitlike moment it touts. For all its hard-won snapshot feel, the picture must have taken months to make, with trips up and down a ladder to get to its top.

Paradox piled on contradiction piled on impossibility. The confusion has to be on purpose: Velazquez, the great realist painter setting out to show what the greatest painting ever might really look like, has decided that to be truly great, it needs to surpass any single reading we might use to pin it down.

"Las Meninas" is a painting that keeps 10 balls in the air at once - more than enough to keep an art critic scratching notes onto his pad for days in a row, and wishing at the end that there were more days of scratching ahead. Part of its point is to show how much more unendingly fertile it is than any mind that takes it in.

Velazquez labored to make "Las Meninas" the ultimate puzzle-picture. (It didn't get that way by accident.) And that head-scratching is balanced by the beauty of untroubled realism - by the comforting perfections this story started out describing.

Paradox starts feeling like the normal state of things.

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