Why is Las meninas one of the most important paintings in western art history?

Expert Answers info

elattarulo eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2013

write5 answers

starTop subjects are Social Sciences and Arts

 Las Meninas is considered a masterpiece by Diego Veláquez, one of the most accomplished Spanish painters.

The entire theme and composition of the work has intrigued art lovers for centuries. Veláquez has painted a portrait of the Spanish royal family that is characterized by an exploration in naturalism.

19th century critics predicted this work as a predecessor of the camera due to its uncanny ability to capture a "snapshot" view frozen in a moment in time and space.  The more modern critics have remained astonished at the artist's ability to construct what is considered to be a perfect composition. Observe how the artist creates a "mirror" through which he paints his own image, as if inviting the viewer into the room!

Las Meninas seems to be more about "...the nature of painting, the artist's control over representation, and the status of Velázquez as a court artist."

Witness the effects of spontaneity and informality of the group in the foreground. The daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, is the central figure in the front of the scene.  She is not exactly in the center and this was unlike any other painter had done before. She appears slightly off-center, not something the royalty generally approved of!!! Velazquez also represents a light source coming in the window on the right that draws attention to the pretty little girl. The figures around her are her "ladies in waiting" and those that would serve her. While their attitude is one of respect, it also serves to draw us mysteriously into the painting. It is a spontaneous and natural pose, especially by representing a startling contrast of what was considered at the time a little "grotesque," in the figure of the dwarfed servant.  This was unheard of in works of courtly painters. Who obviously wanted their court painters to make them look good!!!!

Seven of the nine figures stare out. The viewer takes on the role of both the observer and the observed.  This characteristic is revealed by the mirror image just over the Infanta's right shoulder. The representation of the King or Queen of Spain explains the respect of the servants around the Infanta. The relationship of the Infanta to the royal couple is attained by positioning her closest to the mirror image in the scene.




The result of the king and queen reflected on the mirror on the back wall (Do you see that?) underscores the artist taking control of an illusion. The mirror is not reflecting exactly what is in front of it. In royal paintings of that time, there was no illusion, but Velázquez is a master here of altering perspective. From that point of view the reflection could not be of the King and Queen, but it would be the reflection of the image of the royal couple in the painting.  Many have asked if this was intentional on the part of Velázquez so the viewer would ask whose image is reflected in the mirror.  And as if to tease us, we also see the artist paint his own image at the canvas. 

Sheer genious!  We are left asking ourselves, "Are we looking at the reflection of art or nature?"In spite of the artist's rejection of common artistic tendencies, we know that Veláquez was very good friends with the king of Spain and he was therefore allowed a great deal of artistic license to do things his way!!!

Surely a work of a master creator and a true work of art!

Dr. Elena


check Approved by eNotes Editorial

Unlock This Answer Now