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Las Meninas by Velásquez (1599 – 1660)

Las Meninas (1656) is Velásquez' masterpiece. It is also his most complicated composition, but was apparently achieved very quickly without his usual second-thoughts. The paint is remarkably thin, with little over-painting but is applied with his usual breadth of handling. The complexity of the interior is surprisingly out of character for Velásquez. Is it credible that Velásquez at the age of fifty six should produce his most complicated group in a defined interior and do so more quickly and surely than ever before? Its deftness needs some explanation. I explained it very simply in an article in The Artist Magazine (Mar 1980) and in a lecture at the Slade at about that time. I also exhibited the model with which I reconstructed the method in the Consort Gallery, at Imperial College earlier that year.


On the left we see Velásquez at his canvas. A painted self-portrait also often includes the back of the canvas seen in the necessary mirror as a part of the subject. The only difference between this and the usual self-portrait canvas is that this canvas is very tall. Las Meninas is 10' 5" (3.18 m) tall. A self-portrait requires a mirror. All the other figures appear to be observed in the same mirror. It is surely worth asking the question did Velásquez actually use a mirror. R. Willenski asked that question, and answered “yes” but without further explanation or experiment. No other art historian seems to have paid the slightest attention. I was initially stimulated to make my own enquiry while reviewing a book Velásquez, The Art of Painting devoted entirely to this work by M. Millner Kahn. Her explanation is so long and tortuous, more suited to a writer of brain-teasers than to a painter; I will not attempt to summarise it here. It stimulated me to carry out the experiment recorded on YouTube.

I agree with Willenski - there are eight good reasons for believing a mirror was involved.

  1. X-rays show that Velásquez first painted himself as a left-hander and later changed it to conform with the right-handed reality.
  2. He painted the Infanta again in the same year but with her parting on the other side of her head. (another mirror reversal). When you examine her expression in Las Meninas she could well be admiring herself in a mirror.
  3. The light comes from the window on the right, it hits the people on the right directly as you would expect but for the Infanta and the people on the left there is also a “fill light” that has bounced off the mirror. See how it illuminates the back of the canvas although the canvas is obviously slanted to receive direct light on the front. Note the cast shadow on the floor.) The unpainted mirror is the picture plane between us and the picture (not the smaller mirror we see at the back of the room). There is an identical mirror to this smaller mirror in the sacristy of Toledo cathedral, complete with soft bevelling. Like this one, it is in a Dutch frame. The big one in front of Velásquez has to be 8 ft wide. This could only have been achieved at that date by a composite of four of the smaller ones, plate glass came later.
  4. Most of the players look as if they are admiring the Infanta's reflection in the mirror. The mirror was at ground level, this may be the first time the Infanta had seen herself in it. (The Hall of Mirrors next door to this room in Toledo was in process of being moved to Madrid where Velásquez was installing the new Hall of Mirrors. Unfortunately, there is no record of dimensions of these mirrors in Toledo. But the Spanish royals were rich and had received tribute from Holland, the foremost producers of mirrors at the time.
  5. The size of the figures in the painting are compatible with the idea that Velásquez actually traced their outline on the mirror surface, which he then transferred to his canvas. This would go a long way towards explaining the speed and sureness of the painting's execution. Though tracing is a crude method it would have helped him place the figures in a convincing interior. Velásquez' natural gift would have had no problem with the portraits.
  6. Velásquez previous work does not suggest an interest in perspective construction, rather the opposite; his portraits usually stand in a vaguely suggested space.
  7. Until recent times this painting was exhibited opposite a mirror!
  8. Do you see the blob of paint beside the Infanta's nostril? That confirms the existence of the horizontal support bar we see on the back of the canvas. As the loaded brush hits this ridge it deposits more paint. It would be good to include a photo of the back of Las Meninas.

Martin Kemp's explanation of this painting in The Science of Art (Yale, 1990) . Kemp draws a ground plan that does not remotely resemble the room we see. It is far too long and narrow (it cannot even contain the width of the canvas he draws). He does not explain the method but tells us that Velásquez' painting is “a declaration of his supreme gifts as a magician of painterly illusion”. I identified the room as more or less square in ground plan (the near chandelier fixture is its real centre; the other fixture is to give the illusion that the mirror in which we see the king and queen reflected is on the central axis of the room. This room was next door to the Hall of Mirrors in the Toledo Palace. It is no coincidence, in my view, that Velásquez was occupied with the decoration of the new Hall of Mirrors in Madrid at the time he painted Las Meninas. It seems highly likely that he was in the process of moving the great mirror in Toledo to Madrid. The painting seems to me to have been done in the room next door to the hall of Mirrors in Toledo (Los Olvidados). There he conceived the idea of making a picture of the same size to hang opposite it in the new Hall of Mirrors. It may even be that the Infanta and her entourage composed themselves in front of this marvel (probably the largest composite mirror the world had ever known: it must have been at least 8 ft wide)

It is a long established rule in science that the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct one. Why is it that art historians prefer explanations that are so complicated that they have only the vaguest idea of how they could work. Certainly, the Millner Kahn hypothesis mentioned above would tie most practising painters in knots.

Art based on observation gets short shrift nowadays because art historians seem to regard observation as boring or cheating, and certainly not as interesting as invention. This is sad and contrary to the experience of artists of the previous 5,000 years. Anyone with any experience of tracing will know that it gets the object in the right place and right size on the page or canvas but is otherwise pretty useless. The subtleties of Velásquez' portraiture can only be the result of direct observation. Yes, he used the mirror as a mechanical aid in this case and it helped a little but what we admire is his sharp observation and the fine judgement of the relatedness of all he perceived. This is one of many examples of the way observation of a reality has been discounted by art historians. Another example is provided by a pamphlet put out by The National Gallery in which they try to demonstrate that the Rokeby Venus' face would not be seen in her mirror; that is Velásquez had invented it. They did this with a photo of a very different shaped model in a different pose and behold - no face. I refuted this with a maquette much nearer to the original Venus and behold – her face was reflected in the mirror! (published in The Artist )

My explanation (Willenski never pursued the idea beyond the bald statement) could be very useful to a painter who had a complex array like a group portrait to do. There is every reason to believe that both Goya and Velásquez' assistant Mazo knew and used the mirror method as occasionally does Ken Howard RA in our own day. It takes out the grind of getting the right shapes and size against the architecture and allows you to get on with the enjoyable part of painting. Las Meninas represents Velásquez without the struggle necessary to get ten figures coordinated in space with their surroundings. Las Meninas is the greatest of his many masterpieces; Velásquez did nothing to disguise his method, it seems to be the most likely explanation of how it was achieved.