Daily Dose of Europe: Velázquez’s Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez spent 30 years painting formal portraits of the Spanish king. Then, deciding to switch things up, he painted his most famous and greatest painting. Instead of showing the king, Las Meninas captures the behind-the-scenes action as the king’s portrait is being painted.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Velázquez stands at his easel, flicks his Dalí moustache, raises his brush, and looks directly out toward the people he’s painting — the king and queen. They’d be standing right where the viewer stands. In fact, you can even see the royal couple reflected in the mirror on the back wall. We’re seeing what the king and queen would have seen: their little blonde-haired daughter Margarita and her “maids,” or meninas, who’ve gathered to watch the sitting.

Velázquez (1599–1660) was a master of candid snapshots. Trained in the unflinching realism of his hometown of Seville, he’d made his name painting wrinkled old men and grimy workers in blue-collar bars.

Here, he catches the maids in an unguarded moment. Margarita is eyeing her parents, while a maid kneels to offer her a drink and another curtsies. To the right is one of the court dwarves, and a little boy playfully pokes the family dog. Just at that moment, in the background, a man pauses at a doorway to look in on the scene. The moment is frozen, but you can easily imagine what these people were doing 30 seconds before or 30 seconds later.

This seemingly simple painting was revolutionary in many ways. Velázquez enjoyed capturing light, and capturing the moment, just as the Impressionists would two centuries later. Also, if you look close, you’ll see that the girls’ seemingly detailed dresses are nothing but a few messy splotches of paint — the proto-Impressionist use of paints that Velázquez helped pioneer.

Velázquez creates a kind of 3-D dollhouse world and induces you to step inside. The figures are almost life-size, and the frame extends the viewer’s reality. The eye unconsciously follows the receding lines of the wall on the right to the far wall, and the painting’s vanishing point — the lighted doorway. The painting’s world stretches from there all the way back to the imaginary space where the king and queen (and the viewer) would be standing. And you are part of the scene, seemingly able to walk around, behind, and among the characters. Considered by many to be the greatest painting ever, this is art come to life.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at our online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find clips related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Prado.