The mysterious world of Las Meninas

The Prado in Madrid is free to all from the hours of six to eight every evening. If you’re a visitor fresh from England, this provides a wonderful opportunity. Let’s say you got the 11.30 flight from Gatwick. You arrive around three, what with the time difference. You navigate this longest of all airports to get to the metro, and the metro finally kicks you out into the city as five approaches. There’s enough time to drop your bags, stumble out onto the streets and join the queue at the Prado. At six you can experience that wonderful expectant hush that falls on great art galleries when evening sets in and people have called by on their way home from work. Something to do with the imminence of locking up, I think: the day has been long and hot, or long and very cold, and soon these magical objects are going to be shut away to spend the night in creaking darkness. But before that happens, you get to wander, drawn inevitably towards room 12 where the Prado’s treasure of treasures hangs. It’s so delicate it can never leave this building ever again. But it does not look delicate. It’s 10 feet tall, filling a wall, and its paint is as clear, its vision as peculiarly unhurried as it was in 1656 when it was made. It’s busy and yet it’s serene. You can only see it for the first time once, which is obvious and a stupid thing to mention, yet it becomes a rather unsettling thought as room 12 looms and you finally round the corner. Here goes…

I came to Las Meninas late, just a few years ago when I bought Laura Cumming’s book, The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez. This book is a marvel. I have never read anything as filled with insight and as shaped by love. Cumming’s central plot revolves around a 19th century bookseller who encounters what he believes to be a priceless Velazquez portrait at an auction, and then spends the rest of his life trying to prove its worth and hang onto it. It’s an unsettling tale, but the book itself is boundlessly rich, a study of this enigmatic and brilliant Spanish painter, and a broadside making the case that he is the greatest painter there has ever been. By the end of it, I was thoroughly convinced. And I was addicted, in my own stupid way, to Diego Velazquez and his work.

The cliche about Velazquez is that he is a bit like Shakespeare – it is so much of a cliche, that it’s a cliche to point it out even. Still, as many have noted, beyond the fact that they were both alive at roughly the same time, bringing the light of art to the early 1600s, the rich humanity of their work – the depths of their understanding of people – stands in contrast to how little we know about them as individuals. More: Velazquez, like Shakespeare, can seem tremendously small-minded in the few surviving details. No second-best bed or whatever it was, but he’s obsessed with his standing at the court and desperate to prove his nobility. Matthew Collings, an art historian with a rare talent for bringing the past into focus in a way that makes sense to modern readers, finds him “unpleasant”. Others see him as cold, or have simply argued that there’s so little to go on, who could really know what he was like?

A Spanish Gentleman, by Diego Velazquez. I really think this is one of the best pictures I have ever seen in the flesh.

Cumming’s argument is that the man is graspable in the paintings, and the paintings are alive with empathy and human understanding and a desire to give every one of his sitters their dignity – a desire to allow everyone to retain and protect their inner life despite the potentially invasive and judgemental business of portrait painting. She also argues that Velazquez did something truly astonishing with his portraits: he found a way for art to allow the dialogue to flow in both directions. What she is saying is that, if you stand in front of Velazquez’ portrait of a Spanish Gentleman in Apsley House in London, say, you are observing the Spanish Gentleman, but he seems to be observing you, too. And it’s not about the eyes following you or any of that optical jazz. It is something else, uncanny and thrilling. Velazquez paints intelligence but also cognition, and perception. In his portraits he captures people in the act of perceiving. To study a Velazquez portrait is to be studied by the sitter. This moment opens up that contains both parties. And this culminates in Las Meninas.

Oil paintings are not very much like games, are they? Their action is fixed, held at a distance. They capture a single moment. They are not commonly seen to be interactive, I guess. But sometimes, as another cliche runs, they are puzzles. And sometimes they are so much better than mere puzzles. Sometimes they create a world that you can’t stop thinking about, that you find yourself returning to and perhaps slipping past the frame to explore. I think you could spend your entire life reading about Las Meninas, and reader, I sort of intend to. But for today, let’s set aside the storied theories, and set aside the busy history of the painting itself which involves escape from fire and war. Let’s look at it as a piece of world-building. What a thing it is.

(A quick note here: all of what follows is based on my reading of a number of books on Velazquez’ art, which I have listed at the end.)

Velazquez worked for most of his life in the court of Philip IV of Spain. Philip ruled Spain at a time when the country’s empire was starting to crumble. He was losing money, losing costly wars, and pretty much drowning in bizarre levels of ritual in the court, which meant that simply walking down a hallway could take the king the best part of an afternoon. One of the main reasons we remember Philip these days is because he loved art so much and because he hired Velazquez as the painter to the king. Velazquez lived in Philip’s palace, the Alcazar, a former fortress in Madrid. He painted Philip and his family, he painted the dwarfs and other courtiers and servants who worked with him, and he climbed the ladder. He was so busy at the court that he painted relatively little. It’s often noted that Rubens, at the generous end of the scale, left 3000 canvases or something like that, while Velazquez leaves us around 120.

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez.

Las Meninas was painted in 1656, which makes it one of his last works. Its current name, which translates to ‘The Ladies-in-waiting’, I gather, is not its original title. It may not have had one. Each title the painting has had over the years, as Collings points out, has shifted the focus, and that’s because this picture with its surprisingly large cast, makes a central game – or so it seems – of trying to work out what the focus actually is. It’s very odd. The first time I saw this picture, reduced in size to a page of Cumming’s book, it almost didn’t register at all. It seemed…haphazard? Casual. It seemed like a painting of people getting ready to be in a painting.

Look closely – or in my case, I was fortunate to read the work of people who have looked closely – and you will see how wrong this is. Look at the angles of the heads. Collings notes that as some of the people in the painting lean in one direction or another, they mirror each other in a sort of pattern that breaks across the canvas. This is order, artifice, in pursuit of capturing a pleasing kind of disorder, a cheery rabble. Who are these people? The most obvious focus is the Infanta, the little girl with the blond hair. She’s the daughter of Philip IV – his only surviving child at the time Las Meninas was painted. Around her are her maids, two dwarfs, who were entertainers at the court, celebrated for their quick wits and sharp humour, a chaperone and a guard, the only person in the painting whose identity is unknown. At the foreground is a mastiff, allegedly the descendant of a dog gifted from England. At the very back of the painting, at the vanishing point, is the queen’s chamberlain, who is also the Spanish Gentleman you can now see in Apsley House. Part of his job was to open the doors for the queen when she moved through the palace. (Velazquez eventually had the same job, but for the king.) And behind the giant canvas, leaning out, setting off this chain of angled heads, is Velazquez himself. Las Meninas is his only confirmed self-portrait.

One of the most striking things Cumming has to say about this painting is that it is attentive – it is distinctly alive to the viewer’s presence. “You are here,” she writes as she explains that everyone in the painting has stopped to see you. This is Velazquez’s strange power again. The sense of dialogue. We study this giant canvas, and the people study us in return. When I first went to see the Spanish Gentleman in Apsley house, what struck me as I stared at him was that his head was about the size of my head. We were meeting as equals – at least equals in terms of space. The same is true of Las Meninas. This trick with size. There’s a picture of the painting taken in 1937, during the Spanish Civil war when Las Meninas was moved out of Madrid. People are standing next to it, and they are roughly the same scale as the people in it. It is very strange and exciting to look at it like this, I think. The boundary not just between art and the real world, but between the past and the present seems temporarily meaningless. (Another thing Cumming mentions, and it’s a banger, is that of all masters, Velazquez paints people who still feel like our contemporaries. They feel immediate, recognisable. We can imagine the things we might say to each other if we met. We can imagine them thinking as they talk.)

Las Meninas in Valencia in 1937. What a photograph.

Where is the king? By this point, Philip no longer wanted to be painted by Velazquez. He feared the verdict of his friend’s brush. But the king is in here, with his newish wife – reflected in the mirror at the back of the room. Some people think Las Meninas is an elaborate attempt to represent a…

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