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Diego Velazquez - Las Meninas

Critique by Judy Winters

Fact Box

Las Meninas 
Year: 1656
Author: Diego Velazquez
Technique: Oil on canvas
Genre: Portrait
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid (Spain)
Estimated value (2014): Up to $1 billion *Based on the sales of similar paintings and adjusted for inflation & value appreciation.
Popularity (polls): 84% liked, 11% disliked
Google Trends: Ranks higher than both Dora Maar au Chat (Pablo Picasso) and La Leçon de Ski (Joan Miró).

Background

Diego Velazquez is one of the most famous portrait painters of all time; this magnificent painting is considered by many to be his finest work. Las Meninas is a grand masterpiece, in the same league of Leonardo da Vinci's The Mona Lisa and Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night. The painting depicts a snapshot of King Phillip IV's household, with the Infanta Margarita as the central focus. This painting has inspired and influenced countless other works. Most notably, Pablo Picasso made a series of some 58 paintings dedicated to Las Meninas.

The Infanta Margarita (or child Margaret Theresa of Spain) was the subject of many Velazquez's portrait paintings including Las Meninas. She would grow up to become the Holy Roman Empress, but died at the young age of 21.

Composition

Unlike most of Velazquez's works, Las Meninas is a portrait within a portrait. The Spanish painter did not simply depict one single person but rather a composite of people, with the main subject as the central focus. The work is a perfect blend of realism and illusion. Note that the man who stands next to the large canvas is actually Velazquez himself. This means the painting was done in someone else's perspective. But whose perspective was it? Behind the Infanta and her kneeling maid is a fairly sized mirror. The mirror features two reflections -- a man and his wife. It happens that these reflections were those of King Phillip and his wife. The painting was done in the royal couple's point of view! This is the genius of Las Meninas and Velazquez.

In term of techniques, Velazquez was able to realistically depict the household scene with his masterful brushstrokes and expert uses of light and shadow. The scene is appropriately scaled and the atmosphere is natural.

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