Las Meninas is a truly great meta-painting, a painting about paintings. A meta–painting may represent itself, the process of its creation, its materiality, the conventions of art, the gallery where it is hung, the artwork around it, and the place of art and artist in society.
At this point I count at least 23 meta aspects. Take a look at the painting yourself and see how many you can identify:
A meta-painting is a painting about paintings, a painting about painters, a painting about the process of painting, a painting that reminds viewers that they are looking at a painting rather than real objects, a painting that breaks the conventions of painting, a painting that obscures its borders or plays with levels of reality. Las Meninas does all these things.
First of all, the scene is set in an art gallery (1). As Velasquez was painting, he must have expected the commissioned work to be hung in a gallery similar to the one depicted, maybe even the very same room, which was probably in El Escorial, the somber royal palace of the Spanish monarchy. In other words, he was representing the place where his own canvas would be displayed. The picture refers then to the space outside itself, thereby blurring its boundaries and playing with levels of reality.
Blurring of boundaries and playing with levels of reality are separate aspects, because the obscuring of borders extends outward from the painting, along the same plane, namely the wall, while playing with levels of reality occurs perpendicularly to the painting, moving outwards from the painting (the unreal) towards the viewer and the art gallery (the real). (We will just have to imagine the gallery as we look at the digital reproduction, framed not with wood but by the text of my blog, the metapaintings on the right, your browser and computer screen.)
Velasquez’s masterpiece is a painting which represents paintings inside itself (2), but it would be incomplete if it were displayed by itself in an empty room. Surrounded by other art works, it now hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The walls both inside and outside the frame are full of pictures. Las Meninas refers to the other works beside it on the wall (3), again extending its limits and troubling levels of reality. For the pictures in the painting are paintings and, of course, they are real (we can see them), yet they also exist in the unreal space of the painting. They are at once real and imaginary.
One of the frames on the wall frames a mirror, rather than a canvas. With a bit of reflection,we recognize that the mirror is not a mirror, but a painting just like every other painting on the wall, a painting of a mirror (4), again blurring levels of reality. According to mimetic theory propounded by Plato and Aristotle (from “to mime something”), art reflects reality. Therefore, we have a mirror (the work of art) reflecting a (painted) mirror, a mirror of a mirror. (There may be another meta aspect we can tease out of this paradox; it’s difficult to tell since meta often gets us running in circles.)
The mirror is the only image on the wall we can see clearly, all others are in shadow. The paintings in the painting are obscured so that we see only what Velasquez himself painted. In other words, the artist is not merely recording the scene objectively, but actively directing the viewer to the parts of the composition that are his own. Therefore, the painting is pointing to itself (5), yet at the same time hiding parts of itself that were not painted by the artist, even though everything inside the painting was obviously painted by Velasquez (6). This sixth aspect is meta because the artist is saying, “I didn’t paint these paintings which I painted here.”
The mirror on the back wall also helps us make sense of the most meta elements of all. The artist represented himself (7), presumably looking into a mirror. Portraits don’t include the artists because portraits are about the subject. Royal portraits especially would never include the artist, who was of a lower class. Velasquez’s inclusion of himself in the family scene was a radical act (as was the inclusion of the infanta’s attendants). Whenever an artist or a writer includes themselves in their work, they are reminding us that the work is the artificial creation of an individual, rather than a natural object.
Everything is as it appears from Velasquez’s perspective, how it appears to the eye of the trained artist. We can’t help noticing the representation of perspective, which is exaggerated to the point that the technique becomes obvious, even a bit forced (8). The figures are placed at six or seven different levels from the dog whose paw is almost touching the plane of the picture to the figures reflected in the back mirror. The line between wall and ceiling, wall and floor, direct the eye to the vanishing point through the open door behind the figure who looks like another self-portrait of the artist (9), because the clothing, the bald head, and the facial hair is so similar, but the figure (also) represents the queen’s chamberlain, Don Jose Nieto Velasquez, possibly a relative of the artist, who is part of the painted scene and outside it, merely observing rather than participating (10).
A similar duplication takes place with the nearly identical ladies-in-waiting, the meninas of the title (11), who seem to be the same person represented in different positions at different moments. Because of its title, the painting seems to be about them rather than the traditional subject of such a portrait, the princess herself who is after all the central figure. This breaks a fundamental convention of portrait paintings (12). Exaggerating conventions, like that of perspective, or breaking conventions, as with the title, are meta elements because they make us aware of how an artist works on a painting.
Velasquez’s painting of himself captures the moment of creation itself, a painting about the process of painting (13). Note, however, that the brush is not touching the canvas, but is suspended above the pallet. He is depicted specifically at the moment of looking at himself and the scene. A painting which is meant for viewing captures the moment of looking (14). The canvas he is working on must be Las Meninas itself, so the painting is included within itself (15). Other artists had made self-portraits that showed themselves in the act of painting, but the internal paintings were always of another subject, rather a portrayal of the painting itself, until Velasquez. The painting is turned away from us, otherwise we might get one of those endless series of a painting that includes a picture of itself which includes a picture within itself receding into infinity.
When I recognized that Velasquez must be looking into a mirror, I wondered why he did not include a frame for the mirror, but of course the mirror does have a frame. The frame (which we must imagine here) is both the picture frame and the frame of the mirror Velasquez is looking into, again blurring levels of reality (16). The artist is looking at the viewer of the painting, catching our eye, as are some of the others, including the infanta and one of the dwarfs, which breaks the fourth wall (17) since the subjects seem to be looking out of the painting into the real world, a common convention in portraiture.
This complicates the reading of the painting as a mirror, because the viewer of the artwork is not reflected in the painting. On the other hand, we should ask ourselves who the first viewers of the painting were. The painting was commissioned by King Philip and Queen Mariana, who are in fact represented within the little mirror on the back wall (18). These first viewers are both included in the painting and outside the scene represented because they only appear in the mirror, both there and not there (19). The viewer must give up his place in front of the painting to imagine the king and queen standing there or the king and queen must disappear to allow the viewer to picture himself before the painting (20).
The painting captures a moment both carefully composed and spontaneous, as in a snapshot (21). The staggering of the figures throughout the picture, in terms of depth and from left to right, suggests that the painting was carefully staged, and yet some figures look like they were caught unaware as in a snapshot. The lady-in-waiting on the left is offering a red cup, a bucaro, to the little girl, making her comfortable for the long modeling session and the other seems about to curtsy, as if she is about to leave the scene, as would be expected if the princess was to have her portrait painted.
Actually the moment represented seems to be one of preparation for the painting, not the moment that was being staged, a picture of the process of preparing for a portrait rather than a straightforward portrait (22). The bored mastiff is falling asleep and the male dwarf is playfully nudging it with his foot to keep himself entertained, both totally unaware the moment of the picture has come. Behind them a chaperon and bodyguard are talking as if killing time until things get started. In contrast, the female dwarf looks a bit surprised to be caught in the picture. The princess, Velasquez, the figure in the doorway and the king and queen are looking steadily out of the picture, as with the knowledge that they are being painted (and therefore must hold still). Models are often comfortably situated in paintings, lying on a couch for example, because the process of painting is going to take some time. A painting normally represents not a moment (keep in mind, this was before cameras) but a span of time of several hours, several days, or even several weeks. This painting portrays both a span of time and a particular moment.
Yet when the painting was finished, it wasn’t finished. The red cross on his breast was painted three years after when Velasquez received the Order of Santiago and he changed the tilt of his head from right to left, challenging the assumption that a painting is a final product and cannot be altered (23).
Why did Velasquez paint the picture this way? The mimetic theory, as we said, claims that art represents reality, but in order to do so, it must erase the act of creation, to pretend that the moment of creation does not affect the process of representation. A more realistic portrayal then would depict the artist and the process involved in the creation, but this undercuts the naturalism, the illusion of reality. Naturalism is fake. Meta is real.
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(Thanks to Alejo Sauras for drawing my attention to Las Meninas as a meta-painting.
Read more about meta-paintings in my posts Abstract Paintings are Meta-Paintings, If Not a Pipe, Then What? Magritte’s Meta-painting, Halfway: A Meta-Painting by Tofu St. John, and The Lack of Blank Spaces: Cage’s 4’33” and Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings.”
Read about meta-murals in these posts: The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City: Diego Rivera’s Meta-Mural, A Meta-Mural on Clarion Alley: Lo Llevas por Dentro by Jet Martinez, Repainting the Tenderloin: Mona Caron’s Meta-Mural “Windows Into the Tenderloin.”
Read these excellent posts from Museo del Prado: Meta-Painting: A Journey to the Idea of Art and Steffan Shaffeld: Part Three: Exercises 3.3: Meta-Pictures, and read the book The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting.)