Late in his life, in 1656, Velázquez painted what is his acknowledged masterpiece, “Las Meninas” or the “Maids of Honor”. Here he provided his own original essay on the nature of reality by fusing several subjects. The group portrait, the “genre” (scenes of everyday life) theme, the self-portrait, the artist in the studio and the interior… have all come together in a new and distinctive form.
“The Maids of Honor” is, in fact, a series of portraits within portraits. It isfirst a portrait of a room: the artist's studio…. Gathered in the room are the Infanta Doña Margarita (born 1651 to Phillip IV…), a pair of attendants, and two dwarfs. Margarita looks out of the picture…. ignoring the tray of refreshments and the artist to her right and the two attendants to her left. Even the young dwarf, who angrily kicks the family dog, has failed to capture her attention. A group portrait has seldom been shown with greater spontaneity or informality. Whom the Infanta looks at has been the subject of much debate. It is possible she is looking at her parents whose faces are reflected in the mirror behind her head. Logic dictates their presence in the viewer's space. They, in fact, may be the subject of a double portrait being painted on the canvas upon which Velázquez shows himself working – the artist in his studio has been woven into the scene.
“Las Meninas” hung in Phillip's private office, a sure indication that it was special to him. Here, in a single image, much that was important to Phillip was ingeniously brought together. His family, his retainers (servants), his newly knighted painter, and above all, his beautiful daughter are gathered in the room that belonged to his dead son and heir.
In an image both charming and melancholy, Velázquez has captured the waning years of the Spanish Hapsburgs. Velázquez died only four years later, and Phillip died in 1666. During the years…