Diego Velàzquez was called the "noblest and most commanding man among the artists of his country." He was a master realist, and no painter has surpassed him in the ability to seize essential features and fix them on canvas with a few broad, sure strokes. "His men and women seem to breathe," it has been said; "his horses are full of action and his dogs of life." Because of Velàzquez' great skill in merging color, light, space, rhythm of line, and mass in such a way that all have equal value, he was known as "the painter's painter," as demonstrated in the paintings Las Meninas, Sebastiàn de Morra, and Baltasar Carlos and a Dwarf.
Las Meninas is a pictorial summary and a commentary on the essential mystery of the visual world, as well as on the ambiguity that results when different states or levels interact or are juxtaposed. The painting of The Royal Family also known as Las Meninas has always been regarded as an unsurpassable masterpiece. According to Palomino, it was finished' in 1656, and, while Velàzquez was painting it, the King, the Queen, and the Infantas Marìa Teresa and Margarita often came to watch him at work. In the painting, the painter himself is seen at the easel; the mirror on the rear wall reflects the half-length figures of Philip IV and Queen Mariana standing under a red curtain. The Infanta Margarita is in the center, attended by two Meninas, or maids of honor, Doña Isabel de Velasco and Doña Marìa Sarmiento, who curtsy as the latter offers her mistress a drink of water in a bùcaroa reddish earthen vessel on a tray. In the right foreground stand a female dwarf, Mari-Bàrbola, and a midget, Nicolàs de Pertusato, who playfully puts his foot on the back of the mastiff resting on the floor. Linked to this large group there is another formed by Doña Marcela de Ulloa, guardamujer de las damas de la Reina attendant to the ladies-in-waitingand an unidentified guardadamas, or escort to the same ladies. In the background, the aposentador, or Palace marshal, to the Queen, Don Josè Nieto Velàzquez, stands on the steps leading into the room from the lit-up door.
Las Meninas has three foci: The figure of the Infanta Margarita is the most luminous; the likeness of the Master himself is another; and the third is provided by the half-length images of the King and the Queen in the mirror on the rear wall. Velàzquez built the composition on live diagonals, anchoring it, as it were, on the two which intersect at about the spot where the Infanta stands, and encompass at one end the shining mirror and the lit-up doorway and at the other the expanse of light which fans out in the foreground. The interlocking of these luminous areas is the more vivid as the middle distance is cut off by the shadows which spread across the floor. The depth of the chamber is stressed by the alternation of window jambs and picture frames on the right-hand wall, the stretcher of the large canvas on the left foreground, and the perspective sequence of the empty lamp hooks on the ceiling, which mark as central the spot in the rear wall where the King and the Queen are seen reflected in the mirror. In no other painting has Velàzquez rendered space in so architectural a manner as in this, the only work in which he has depicted a ceiling. Neither is there any other composition of his that is so vividly keyed to the space lying out of the picture frame.
Recent studies of Las Meninas, inspired by the ideas of Michel Foucault, have paid considerable attention to the seemingly novel relationship between the scene on the canvas and the spectator. These ideas tacitly assume that the picture was meant to be seen by the public-at-large, as if it were hanging in an important museum, as it is today. (They also exaggerate the novelty of the way in which the spectator is involved in the picture.) However, the original placement indicates that this is not the case. In 1666, the year after the death of Philip IV, Las Meninas was...
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