The Meninas, or the Family of Philip IV

This painting is one of the world’s greatest works of art.

The court painter, who is standing on our left, is painting a portrait of little Princess Margarita. In the background, reflected in the mirror, we can see the faces of the King and Queen, Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, who are looking into the room. The figures are shown at the very moment the royal presence has just been noticed, and they are dutifully rising to bow or courtesy. The princess, in the middle, looks very innocent. She is thirsty and a lady in waiting, known as a “Menina” in Portuguese, is kneeling to offer her a little red jug, which we can assume contains water. The rest of the characters in the scene are: the other Menina on the right; behind her, a pair of palace servants, painted almost impressionistically; the highly realistic dwarf, Maribárbola, and another dwarf, Nicolasito, who is leaning his foot on the calm, relaxed mastiff dog. Towards the back stands the royal lodging master, José Nieto, who is opening a door that serves as both a focal and a vanishing point. The artist has painted his self-portrait, with his palette and brush in his hands, illustrating his social rank as Court Painter and a Knight of the Order of St. James, one of Spain’s most influential military orders at the time.

We can see some lovely details, such as the butterfly-shaped hairclips of the ladies-in-waiting, their flower-shaped fabric bracelets, or the princess’s own hairclip. The dresses are typical of the fashion of the time and were known as guarddainfantes, or child-guards, because children could be hidden underneath them. They were held up by a wooden structure that kept them rigid.

The light enters from various points: the door at the back, the window on the right, and also from the front. The technique is rather Impressionist in various parts of the picture, such as the princess’s hair, the monarchs’ faces, and the figures of the servants.

This kind of perspective is known as aerial perspective because it makes air seem to filter between the figures, providing such a realistic sense of depth that we feel we could enter the painting ourselves. Velazquez has produced a magnificent composition of twelve figures in the painting, without conveying any sense of crowding.

(c) (R) 2013, MUSMon com S.L.
Text (a) Catalina Serrano Romero
English translation (a) Thisbe Burns