The more powerful and dominant itbecame, the more other European countries increased the challenges toSpanish hegemony. By the beginning of the 17th century, the HabsburgEmpire was struggling, and although Spain waged a very aggressive battleduring the Thirty Years’ War, by 1660 the imperial age of the SpanishHabsburgs was over. In part, the end of the Spanish empire was due toeconomic problems, which were exacerbated by the expensive militarycampaigns undertaken during the Thirty Years’ War by Philip III and then byhis son Philip IV. The higher taxes that followed as a result, which wereplaced on Spanish subjects, led to revolts and civil war in Catalonia andPortugal in the 1640s.
Thus, at the beginning of the Baroque period in Spain, the country’sleaders were struggling to maintain control of their diminishing empire. Realizing as they did the value of visual imagery in communicating to awide audience, both Philip III and Philip IV were avid art patrons. This empire was initially formed by Charles V, who had built theempire through strong recognition and support from the Catholic church. Tokeep this empire strong, Spain frequently battled Protestant nations.
Thuslogically committed to Catholic orthodoxy, Spain focused on Counter-Reformation issues, that is, they tried to keep people from abandoning theCatholic Church or breaking up the established order. Thus, a SpanishBaroque artist sought ways to move viewers and to encourage greaterdevotion and piety. Particularly appealing were scenes of death andmartyrdom, which provided artists with opportunities both to depict extremefeelings and to place those feelings in viewers. Spain was proud of itssaints, and martyrdom scenes surfaced frequently in Spanish Baroque art.
Velasquez lived most of his life (from age 24 to his death at 61)inside the court of Phillip IV, his major patron. Thus, his paintingsreflected themes of Christianity, military victories, and aristocraticlife. However, Velasquez was influenced by the dark paintings of the time,particularly Rivera and Caravaggio. Thus, he inclined towards naturalism,while using an obscure style of lightning.
He later traveled to Italy andlearned the rich chromatism of the Venetian school. He then began focusingless on lighting and more on landscapes and the human body. Velasquez’spaintings focused on making common people seem noble and important, whilehe also tried to glorify Spain’s nobles and military victories. Also worthnoting is that Velasquez was not of noble blood, but through the friends heacquired in high places due to his talent, he slowly became a noblehimself. He was made part of the Order of Santiago towards the end of hislife.
This was a great desire of Velasquez, and something that he workedfor dearly. In Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), Velasquez paints a groupportrait, depicting a scene inside the court. At the center is the blondeyoung princess Margarita, daughter of Philip IV, standing in a tall darkroom, wearing a white dress with red flowers. She is staring at theviewer.
At her immediate sides you have her young maids of honor, in whiteand black dresses, looking at her. To the right of the picture there anoverweight midget woman (presumably Margarita’s dwarf servant) who islooking at the viewer, and a little girl who has a foot on a sleeping dog,apparently trying to wake him up. Behind them, in less light, there is aman and a woman, possibly the royal escorts, who appear to be talking. Towards the middle in the background, in more lifht, is a man standing on astaircase, possibly another escort or a chamberlain. There are two largepaintings above him. Almost on top of Princess Margarita’s head there is aframe with the hazy picture of a man and woman, which might be a mirror.
And to the left of the picture, there is a painter, working on a very largecanvas, with a red cross painted in his chest, who is staring at theviewer, and seems to be smiling slightly. This is a visually complex painting. Velasquez employs and contrasts”real” spaces, picture spaces, mirror spaces, and pictures within pictures. He expands the depth of the painting in various directions. The doorwayin te back takes the viewer beyond the room of the painting. The mirrorand the outward glances of some of the subjects incorporate a spacehappening in front of the depicted scene, possibly in the viewer’s space.
Velasquez’s use of light is noteworthy. There is light towards the frontand center, as well as in the door in the back, with the respective shadowsvisible. Between the light and the dark colors Velasquez allows for someshades of gray, adding a realistic visual effect. Adding to this illusionof reality are the use of a loose brushstroke and blurred edges. As well,the figures appear to be caught in the middle of their movements.
Particulalry noticeable is the girl on the right who appears to be movingher foot to wake up a dog, which seems to be raising its head. The use ofspace and proportion are also realistic. The faces seem to be of realpeople. Except for the princess, the subjects do not appear to be posing,rather, they seem to have been caught off-guard in an intimate moment. Thepainting offers the typical baroque contrasts: light and strong darkness,beauty and ugliness.
For the meaning of the picture, one has to pay attention to twoelements. The first is the image on the mirror in the center of twopeople. They appear to be the king and queen of Spain. If it is a mirrorand not a painting, then they have to be standing in the viewer’s space. The second is the painter, who seems to none other than Velasques himself.
Velasquez appears to not be painting the princess, who is barely behind thecanvas. Rather, he seems to be painting something from the viewer’s space. Thus, Velasquez may actually be painting a portrait of the king and queen,while they observe this scene. In other words, it appears to be thatVelasquez painted a painting about what happens on the other side of thepainting. Another possibility is that he is painting the princessMargarita, who does seem to be posing. Then, Velasquez is imagining avisit to his studio by the king and queen.
He seems pleased and honoredthat they are visiting. The fact that most characters are in mid-actionsuggest that the visitors just arrived by surprise. If the latter is true, then Velasquez is evoking the classical scenesof visits of great emperors to great artists. Velasquez is showing howhonored he is to be visited by this king. Given the historical context,Velasquez is comparing his king to the great emperors, and transmittingthat through his painting, as was necessary for the politically troubledtimes.
Philip IV would no doubt enjoy to have a painting which informs thepublic that he is a great emperor, not a diminishing king. Although this is the intepretation given by most scholars, thereseems to be one other message in the picture. Velasquez’s inclusion ofhimself in the picture along nobles, and the use of the red cross on hischest (the symbol of the Order of Santiago), suggest that Velasquez wantspeople to know that he is part of the royal family. He does not seem to bea foreign element in the picture, rather, he seems very at home in thispalace room. His face is the most graceful in the picture, after that ofthe princess, and it is not hidden in the picture, unlike how otherpainters ordinarily place themselves.
As well, if this is a great king whois visiting him, then it implies that he is a great artist, worthy of sucha visit. Velasquez is acheiving here his life-long goal of being anobleman. ReferencesFiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition, Book 4, fourth edition, 2002,McGraw-Hill.
Kleiner, Fred S. ; Mamiya, Christin J. Gardner’s Art Throughout the Ages,Volume 2, 12th edition, 2005, Thomson-Wadsworth. Roca Rey, Bernardo (ed.
). Maestros de la Pintura, 2002, Editora ElComercio. Wilkins, David G; Schulty, Bernard; Linduff, Katheryn M. Art Past ArtPresent, 3rd edition, 1997, Prentice Hall.