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Velázquez, Las Meninas

Velázquez's "Las Meninas" is a unique painting that blends portrait and genre styles. It captures a moment in the Spanish royal court, featuring the princess, her attendants, and the artist himself. The painting explores themes of gaze, attention, and the role of the artist, while showcasing Velázquez's mastery of naturalism and paint strokes. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 125 1/4 x 108 5/8 in. (318 x 276 cm), (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[music playing] We're in the Prado in Madrid, and we're looking at the great canvas by Velázquez, "Las Meninas." Did you mean "great" in terms of size? Because it is a very large painting. Actually, it's a painting with a very large painting inside it . . . That's the same size as the painting it is. In fact, some art historians have suggested that the painting that Velázquez - - because notice there is a self-portrait of Velázquez in the act of painting - is in fact painting the painting that we're looking at. Did you follow that? I did. It is very complicated. So what we're seeing here is, in the center, the princess attended by the maidens of honor, a dwarf, her governess, and some other attendants. And on the back wall a mirror, which is the sort of puzzle in a way of the painting. We know it's a mirror because unlike the canvases on the back wall, this is a much more reflective surface. We can see the beveled edge of the glass, and of course in that frame, we see a reflection of the King and Queen of Spain, Philip IV and his wife. And some art historians have suggested that we must be them looking into the mirror and seeing our own reflection. Others have suggested that in fact, the mirror is reflecting the image that is being depicted on the canvas by Velázquez, and then even other art historians have suggested, yes, the mirror is reflecting what's on the canvas, but the king and queen are still standing before us. Which is why the princess is looking out at us, and even the dog is, in a sense, taking notice. And why there is just sort of general attention being very much focused on where we are in front of the painting. Perhaps we're in the space of the king and queen, and this painting was meant for the study of the king, who would have been the person looking at it. So it's very much meant for his gaze. That issue of looking, of gaze, is I think for me really one of the central keys to this painting. It seems to me to be a conversation of glances, a conversation of people reacting to each other's glances, of looking itself, a kind of essay on the way in which we see. To me it's more of paying attention. I think that's exactly right, and that would make sense. This is the king and queen of Spain, one of the most powerful countries on the face of the Earth at this moment. Yeah, you would have to pay attention to them if they walked in the room. You would ignore them at your own peril. Exactly. And we can see it when we see the artist, Velázquez, who is first painter to the king looking out to the royal couple. He would have had, of course, the best job that an artist could have in Spain at this moment. I'm interested, though, in the sort of sense of naturalism, the sense of spontaneity, the sense of informality, which is so unexpected in a royal portrait. That's the amazing thing about this painting, I think, that makes it so hard to say what it is and makes it so compelling is that it's not a "portrait." Because we know what portraits look like. They're on the walls all around us. And they're very formal portraits of the royal family kind of posing and looking powerful, and that's not what this is. So there is a kind of informality, like a genre painting, like we're looking at something like a day in the life of the painter's studio, but that's not what it is, either, because it is also a portrait. So it sort of straddles this weird line of being both those things. It's like an intimate portrait. It's a portrait that gives you a kind of access to, in a sense, the real moment, the real life within this palace. In fact, some art historians have suggested that the painting is in part a way for the artist to promote himself and to show his importance and in a sense his value to the court. The idea that as a painter, he's not just a craftsman, but an intellectual. So here's the irony. If Velázquez is in a sense trying to support this notion of the artist as intellectual, and not the craftsman, not the man who works with his hands, the painting is a bravura example of painting. We can never get away from the fact that this is fantastic painting; because although there is a tremendous sense of naturalism amongst these figures, the painting is also nothing but a series of strokes of paint. And I think that's most vividly witnessed in the sleeves of La Infanta, of her attendants, or especially that lightning bolt of stroke of white that goes down the artist's own sleeve and actually leads our eye to the palette. And here's the sort of most wonderful conundrum. The palette is a representation in space of the raw paint which is, of course, the very stuff that the artist is using to create the depiction of the thing that it is. What I find so interesting, though, also, is that there is a time when the reverse happens. Look at the way that his hand holds the paintbrush. That is raw paint that almost dissolves, almost refuses to be fingers on a hand. So that he's in a sense playing on that edge. I can make very loose strokes of the brush feel clarified and come together and feel like cloth in motion, right? Reflective light, taffeta, what have you. Or I can actually dissolve forms that you expect and allow the thing to become just the act of painting as well. Just the paint. I think what adds to this is the fact that we don't see what he's painting. There's a kind of mystery about the alchemy of painting, about how you take medium and solvent and pigment and turn it into reality. I would say that it's not just reality he's after. I think he's after a kind of condensed reality. I think he's after a kind of heightened experience of looking, a kind of heightened experience of the intimacy of this family, of this moment. And I think that he is doing something that is actually quite poetic and quite philosophical.