Oil on canvas
10’5″ x 9’1″
Museo del Prado, Madrid
“Our first feeling is of being there. We are standing just to the right of the King and Queen, whose reflections we can see in the distant mirror, looking down an austere room in the Alcazar (hung with del Mazo’s copies of Rubens) and watching a familiar situation. The Infanta Dona Margarita doesn’t want to pose. She has been painted by Velazquez ever since she could stand. She is now five years old, and she has had enough. But this is to be something different; an enormous picture, so big that it stands on the floor, in which she is going to appear with her parents; and somehow the Infanta must be persuaded. Her ladies-in-waiting, known by the Portuguese name of meninas, are doing their best to cajole her, and have brought her dwarfs, Maribarbola and Nicolasito, to amuse her. But in fact they alarm her almost as much as they alarm us, and it will be some time before the sitting can take place. So far as we know, the huge official portrait was never painted.
“After all that has been written about the nature of art, it seems rather absurd to begin by considering a great picture as a record of something that really happened. I can’t help it. That is my first impression, and I should be slightly sceptical of anyone who said that they felt anything else. Of course, we do not have to look for long before recognizing that the world of appearances has been politely put in its place. The canvas has been divided into quarters horizontally and sevenths vertically. The meninas and the dwarfs form a triangle of which the base is one-seventh of the way up, and the apex is four-sevenths; and within the large triangle are three subsidiary ones, of which the little Infanta is the centre. But these and other devices were commonplaces of workshop tradition. Any Italian hack of the seventeenth century could have done the same, and the result would not have interested us. The extraordinary thing is that these calculations are subordinate to an absolute sense of truth. Nothing is emphasised, nothing forced. Instead of showing us with a whoop of joy how clever, how perceptive or how resourceful he is, Velazquez leaves us to make all these discoveries for ourselves. He does not beckon to the spectator any more than he flatters the sitter. Spanish pride? Well, we have only to imagine the Meninas painted by Goya, who, heaven knows, was Spanish enough, to realise that Velazquez’ reserve transcends nationality. His attitude of mind, scrupulous and detached, respecting our feelings and scorning our opinions, might have been encountered in the Greece of Sophocles or the China of Wang Wei.
“It seems almost vulgar to ask what he was like, he so carefully effaced himself behind his works; and in fact it is chiefly from them that we must deduce his character. Like Titian, he shows no signs of impulsiveness or non-conformity, and like Titian, his life was apparently one of unbroken success. But there the likeness ends. He lives at a different temperature. We read of no passions, no appetites, no human failings; and equally there are no sensuous images burning in the back of his mind. When he was quite a young man he achieved once or twice a poetic intensity of vision, as in his Immaculate Conception, but this passed, as it so often does; or perhaps I should say that it was absorbed into his pursuit of the whole.
“He was born in 1599, and commended himself to the King as early as 1623. Thenceforward he rose steadily in the Court service. His all-powerful patron, the Count-Duke of Olivares, was dismissed in 1643, and in the same year Velazquez was promoted to be a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, an Assistant Superintendent of Works and, in 1658, to the horror of the official classes, he was invested with the Order of Santiago. Two years later he died. There is evidence that the royal family regarded him as a friend, yet we read of none of the cabals and jealousies which distorted the lives of Italian painters of the same date. Modesty and sweetness of character would not have been enough to protect him. He must have been a man of remarkable judgement. His mind was occupied almost entirely with problems of painting, and in this, too, he was fortunate, for he had formed a clear idea of what he wanted to do. It was extremely difficult, it took him thirty years of steady work;, and in the end he achieved it.
“His aim was simply to tell the whole truth about a complete visual impression. Italian theorists, following antiquity, had claimed that this was the end of art as early as the fifteenth century; but they had never really believed it; in fact, they had always qualified it by talking about grace, grandeur, correct proportions and other abstract concepts. Consciously or unconsciously they all believed in the Ideal, and thought that art must bring to perfection what nature had left in the raw. This is one of the most defensible theories of aesthetics ever proposed, but it had no appeal to the Spanish mind. ‘History’, said Cervantes, ‘is something sacred because it is true, and where truth is, God is, truth being an aspect of divinity.’ Velazquez recognised the value of ideal art. He bought antiquities for the royal collection, he copied Titian, he was the friend of Rubens. But none of this deflected him from his aim, to tell the whole truth about what he saw.
“To some extent this was a technical problem. It is not very difficult to paint a small inanimate object so that it seems real. But when one begins to paint a figure in its setting ‘Oh alors!’ as Degas said. And to paint a whole group on a large scale in such a way that no one seems too prominent, each is easily related to the other, and all breathe the same air: that requires a most unusual gift.
“As we look about us, our eyes proceed from point to point, and whenever they come to rest they are focussed in the centre of an oval pool of colour which grows vaguer and more distorted towards the perimeter. Each focal point involves us in a new set of relations; and to paint a complex group like the Meninas, the painter must carry in his head a single consistent scale of relations which he can apply throughout. He may use all kinds of devices to help him do this – perspective is one of them – but ultimately the truth about a complete visual impression depends on one thing, truth of tone. Drawing may be summary, colour drab, but if the relations of tone are true, the picture will hold. For some reason truth of tone cannot be achieved by trial and error, but seems to be an intuitive – almost a physical – endowment, like absolute pitch in music; and gives, when we perceive it, a pure and timeless pleasure.
“Velazquez had this endowment in the highest degree. Every day I look at Las Meninas I find myself exclaiming with delight as I recognise the absolute rightness of some passage of tone, the grey skirt of the standing menina, the green skirt of her kneeling companion, the window recess on the right, which is exactly like a Vermeer of the same date, and above all, the painter himself, in his modest, yet confident, penumbra. Only one figure makes me uneasy, the humble-looking attendant (known as a guardadamas) behind Maribarbola, who looks transparent; but I think he has suffered from some early restoration; and so has the head of the standing menina, Dona Isabel de Velasco, where the shadows are a little too black. Otherwise everything falls into place like a theorem in Euclid, and wherever we look the whole complex of relations is maintained.
“One should be content to accept it without question, but one cannot look for long at Las Meninas without wanting to find out how it is done. I remember that when it hung in Geneva in 1939 I used to go very early in the morning, before the gallery was open, and try to stalk it, as if it really were alive. (This is impossible in the Prado, where the hushed and darkened room in which it hangs is never empty.) I would start from as far away as I could, when the illusion was complete, and come gradually nearer, until suddenly what had been a hand, and a ribbon, and a piece of velvet, dissolved into a salad of beautiful brush strokes. I thought I might learn something if I could catch the moment at which this transformation took place, but it proved to be as elusive as the moment between waking and sleeping.
“Prosaically minded people, from Palomino onwards, have asserted that Velazquez must have used exceptionally long brushes, but the brushes he holds in the Meninas are of normal length, and he also carries a mahlstick, which implies that he put on the last delicate touches from very close to. The fact is that, like all transformations in art, it was not achieved by a technical trick, which can be found out and described, but by a flash of imaginative perception. At the moment when Velazquez’ brush turned appearances into paint, he was performing an act of faith which involved his whole being.
“Velazquez himself would have repudiated such a high-flown interpretation. At most he would have said that it was his duty to satisfy his royal master with a correct record. He might have gone on to say that in his youth he had been able to paint single heads accurately enough in the Roman manner, but that they seemed to him lacking in life. Later he had learnt from the Venetians how to give to his figures the appearance of flesh and blood, but they did not seem to be surrounded by air. Finally, he had found a means of doing this too, by broader strokes of the brush, but how precisely this came about he could not tell.
“This is usually the way in which good painters speak about their work. But after two centuries of aesthetic philosophy we cannot leave it at that. No reasonable person can still believe that imitation is the end of art. To do so is like saying that the writing of history consists in recording all the known facts. Every creative activity of the human race depends on selection, and selection implies both a power to perceive relationships and the existence of a pre-established pattern in the mind. Nor is this activity peculiar to the artist, scientist or historian. We measure, we match colours, we tell stories. All through the day we are committed to low-grade aesthetic activities.
“We are being abstract artists when we arrange our hair brushes, impressionists when we are suddenly charmed by a lilac shadow, and portrait-painters when we see a revelation of character in the shape of a jaw. All these responses are wholly inexplicable and remain unrelated until a great artist unites and perpetuates them, and makes them convey his own sense of order.
“With these speculations in mind I return to the Meninas and it occurs to me what an extraordinarily personal selection of the facts Velazquez has made. That he has chosen to present this selection as a normal optical impression may have misled his contemporaries, but should not mislead us. There is, to begin with, the arrangement of the forms in space, that most revealing and personal expression of our sense of order; and then there is the interplay of their glances, which creates a different network of relationships. Finally there are the characters themselves. Their disposition, which seems so natural, is really very peculiar. It is true that the Infanta dominates the scene, both by her dignity_for she has already the air of one who is habitually obeyed_and by the exquisite beauty of her pale gold hair. But after looking at her, one’s eye passes immediately to the square, sullen countenance of her dwarf, Maribarbola, and to her dog, brooding and detached, like some saturnine philosopher. These are in the first plane of reality. And who are in the last? The King and Queen, reduced to reflections in a shadowy mirror. To his royal master this may have seemed no more than the record of a scene which had taken his fancy. But must we suppose that Velazquez was unconscious of what he was doing when he so drastically reversed the accepted scale of values?
“As I stand in the big Velazquez room of the Prado I am almost oppressed by his uncanny awareness of human character. It makes me feel like those spiritualistic mediums who complain that they are being disturbed by ‘presences’. Maribarbola is such a disturbing element. While the other protagonists in the Meninas, out of sheer good manners, take their parts in a sort of tableau vivant, she affronts the spectator like a blow from a muffled fist; and I remember the strange and poignant relationship which Velazquez had with all the dwarfs and buffoons whom he painted. No doubt it was part of his duties to record the likenesses of these Court favourites, but in the main Velazquez room of the Prado there are as many portraits of buffoons as there are of the royal family (nine of each). Surely that goes beyond official instructions and expresses a strong personal preference. Some of his reasons may have been purely pictorial. Buffoons could be made to sit still longer than royal persons, and he could look more intensely at their heads. But was there not also the feeling that their physical humiliations gave them a reality which his royal sitters lacked ? Take away the carapace of their great position, and how pink and featureless the King and Queen become, like prawns without their shells. They cannot look at us with the deep questioning gaze of Sebastian de Morra or the fierce sullen independence of Maribarbola. And I begin to reflect on what would happen to Las Meninas if Maribarbola had been removed and a graceful young lady of the Court put in her place. We should still feel that we were there; the colour would be as subtle, the tone as scrupulously correct. But the temperature would have dropped: we should have lost a whole dimension of truth.”