Velazquez, a royal artist in service to his reputation

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 8:07 PM

The greatness of "Las Meninas" may have had its roots in base impulses. Diego Velazquez desperately needed his picture to excel. Since 1650 at least, when he was a half-century old, Velazquez had been angling like mad for a spot among the knights of Santiago, a quasi-military, semi-monastic association that offered huge prestige. One thing stood in his way: It was only open to people of noble descent who had not sullied their hands by crafting objects to be sold. Velazquez came from a family of down-at-heel aristos, so he was fine on that front. To get his cherished knighthood, however, Velazquez had to prove that his pictures were liberal-minded works of the spirit, done for the sheer pleasure of their virtuosity, rather than manual labor performed to earn a living.

That is precisely what he achieved with "Las Meninas." It is a work of such intellectual panache that we barely notice it's made by hand. Complaining about the brushes Velazquez wields is like complaining that a noble author wrote his words by hand with a pen.

And "Las Meninas" as a bread-winning product? It is so idiosyncratic that it is hard to imagine a market for it at all. Could a couple of blurred faces in a mirror make it count as a royal portrait worth buying? If it's supposed to sell as a dynastic homage to the Infanta, why are we being so distracted from her by two dwarves, a pair of curtsying meninas and a sleeping dog? Those are all subjects from the quite different field of "genre" painting, and the market would have wanted them to stay there. And if we're looking at what is basically the self-portrait of an artist, who would care about some servant-painter enough to shell out big for a giant picture of him?

What this picture proves, more than anything, is that the aristocratic Velazquez is nobody's servant. For the moments anyone is looking at it, he's the absolute master, with absolute powers. Velazquez raises you to royalty, gazing at yourself in the mirror as you're painted - then makes you feel a fool for thinking yourself so. You're just some peon over at the right, by the dwarf and the dog, looking in on the show.

Even if you happen to actually be a royal - the finished painting went to live in the king's private study, just upstairs from the room it depicts - you don't get off more lightly: Your court painter pretends to put you into his greatest picture, only to leave you almost entirely unpictured in it. The painting that you're so nearly absent from is, in fact, a self-portrait of its tyrannical maker and a statement of his own special excellence. In its depiction of that achievement, it is perfectly realistic: It captures the simple fact that, because of "Las Meninas" and a few other pictures, Velazquez ended up mattering far more than the mediocre king who employed him.

Anyone looking at this picture, even the king, is made to seem small and beneath Velazquez's notice - literally. The viewpoint in "Las Meninas" is designed to be only 4 feet 7 inches off the ground. Scientists David Stork and Yasuo Furuichi made that calculation for us, but you can eyeball how low the viewpoint is, even in reproduction: You can feel that your gaze is level with the eyes of the Infanta and her kneeling menina. That means that we onlookers, however grand we think ourselves, are actually in the position of a little princess or of one of the ladies kneeling before her- we're almost turned into them, looking in the mirror at themselves - while Velazquez stands tall and proud above. He, after all, is the man who had the power to assemble all these important people just so they could feature in his demonstration of his excellence. (A strange fact: Velazquez has depicted the 5-year-old Infanta as being as tall as a modern 10-year-old. And an unfortunate fact: At the Prado, the painting is hung too high to let your eyes actually fall at the painting's natural viewpoint.)

It's not just Velazquez who stands out from the crowd in his art. "Las Meninas" depicts a room full of fancy paintings, and yet all of them are dark and unseeable, stacked up high like products at Wal-Mart. As we look at "Las Meninas," that leaves only one painting to declare its presence and brilliance: "Las Meninas" itself.

And the single clearest detail in that limpid picture? The Cross of Santiago on the painter's chest, added by Velazquez, in lieu of a signature, once the world's greatest picture had at last won him the honor he craved.

- Blake Gopnik

© 2010 The Washington Post Company