In Diego Velázquez's painting Las Meninas, what does the iconography of the images tell the audience?

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Las Meninas is an image of the five-year-old Infanta Margarita Theresa surrounded by her ladies in waiting, chaperones, dwarfs, and a bodyguard. Also present is a dog, Velázquez working on a painting, Jose Nieto Velázquez in the doorway, and a reflected image of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of...

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Las Meninas is an image of the five-year-old Infanta Margarita Theresa surrounded by her ladies in waiting, chaperones, dwarfs, and a bodyguard. Also present is a dog, Velázquez working on a painting, Jose Nieto Velázquez in the doorway, and a reflected image of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Austria in a mirror.

The mirror is likely the most important iconographic element of the painting. In medieval art, mirrors were often associated with vanity, but this would soon change. For example, in Jan van Eyck's 1434 painting The Arnolfini Portrait, a mirror behind the young married couple reflects the scene from that perspective, perhaps representing the omnipresent gaze of God. The mirror also expands the "scene" of the painting, showing what is not immediately visible within the confines of the frame.

In Velázquez's painting, the mirror reflecting the king and queen suggests many things. Firstly, its position in the center of the frame emphasizes the social dominance of the king and queen themselves in the Spanish court. Secondly, the king and queen come to represent the gaze of the spectator, since like the spectator, they too are looking in on the little infanta and other courtiers gathered in the chamber.

There is also an emphasis on frames. The painting itself is within a frame, the chamber in the painting has its walls covered in framed paintings, the king and queen are framed within the mirror, and Jose Nieto Velázquez is framed by the doorway. These frames add a linear theme to the painting, but they also serve to draw attention to their subjects.

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Diego Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas currently hangs in the Museo del Prado, where anyone can view it during the museum’s open hours. This artwork’s audience was not the public at the time that Velázquez painted it, as it was made for Philip IV, the king of Spain, while the painter was in his employ. One of the features on which analysts often comment is the incorporation of the painter into the work—thus emphasizing the importance of the artist during an era when their status was not high—as part of a group that includes King Philip and Queen Mariana as well as their children.

As the painter is depicted with his palette and brush, those objects identify him as both a creative and a working person. Another important object is the painting itself, which is visible only from the rear. This perspective communicates that the images depicted in a painting constitute an illusion, while the painting itself can be reduced to wood and canvas. The contrast between illusion and reality is emphasized by the mirror, in which the king’s and queen’s images are reflected.

The studio also contains numerous other artworks by different artists. While these may simply represent the artist’s preferences and accurately correspond to what was actually in his studio, he may have placed them in the canvas for particular associations. There is a set of works depicting images from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; their classical mythological themes indicate an affinity with the ancient world. They also seem to be copies of specific works by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, thus marking Velázquez’s respect for him. Two other important works also have classical themes that are associated the goddess Minerva, who would be important to the painter for her traditional representation of wisdom and the arts.

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