Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?


[Music] There’s maybe no painting in the history of the form more worthy of analysis than Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas. What we’re talking about here is a masterwork by an artist late in his life, but at the height of his powers, determined to drive into this canvas the sum total of his talent, his experience, and his intellect. Velazquez had been, by then, a court painter for the Spanish King Philip IV for over thirty years. Indeed, he was a favorite of Phillip’s, painting his portrait many times and advancing in salary and rank all the way up to Chamberlain of the palace, responsible for decorating this great Alcazar of Madrid with all its many artworks. So it’s no surprise that for his masterpiece Velazquez sets his painting in the palace itself, the place he knew best. Specifically, in his own studio, adorned with paintings that he himself chose. Now, they’re a little bit hard to see, but we know what they are based on histories of the space and it’s no accident that he chooses these paintings specifically. But we’ll get to that a bit later. First, let’s take a look at the main action of the scene: So much hits you right away. Maybe the first thing you see is the little girl, Margaret Theresa. The, then, only living child of the king. Or, maybe you see that mirror showing reflected images of the king and queen themselves. Or maybe the first thing that stands out to you is that 6 of the 9 characters represented here are staring beyond the picture plane. Which is to say, at you. That fact alone gives this image its great sense of spontaneity as if it were a snapshot. Velasquez captures the moment just when several of these figures are noticing something. Some, like these three, have yet to notice it In the case of the little princess all that’s moved, so far, is her eyes. But, though the moment depicted is spontaneous, the composition of the subjects is anything but. You have here a real clinic in composing group scenes. What Velasquez has done in this group of eleven, including the mirror-images of the king and queen, is arranged an extraordinary number of links and contrasts that slides your eyes back and forth across the canvas. The first thing to notice, perhaps, is the obsession here with grouping two’s and three’s. Everyone here but the princess can be split into pairs. The male and female dwarf, the two chaperones here, the curtsying maid and the palace official in the back corridor, the king and the queen in the mirror, and Velasquez and the maid kneeling to offer the princess a drink. Notice also that these are all male-female pairs. And these pairing accentuate the princess as the focus of the scene. But you could also split the group up into threes. The princess with her two maids, the dog and the two dwarfs and the two palace officials with what now occurs to us are mirrored couples. See also that these two groups of three, internally made up of doubles and triples, are all on the same horizontal plane. This group of six also draws the entirety of the painting’s three dimensional space. Our eye is drawn from Velasquez in the foreground to the palace official in the distance, as they’re wearing similar black garb and stand in line with the two doorways on the back walls. The chaperones in the middle ground link to the king and queen in the background, which simultaneously brings the z-axis all the way forward beyond the picture itself, intimating a depth that we can’t even see. It’s amazing. What you might not have realized is that this motif of twos and threes has already been established in the frames on the back wall, with two giant canvases over top two door frames and the central mirror. Of that bottom triple, the right sides of the frames correspond with the princess and her two maids, moving the eyes naturally from the king and queen to their daughter. But the eyes are also drawn from the mirror to the right, that lighted passage framing the palace official. This space of this lighted rectangle is equal to that of the mirror and they’re put on the same horizontal plane as well. Indeed, because of its brightness, like the brightness of the little princess bathed in light, we’re drawn to it just as much as the other two. In these three elements of Las Meninas, we have three central focus points. Unlike Da Vinci’s Last Supper for example, where all elements in the painting point toward Jesus Christ, Las Meninas is more ambiguous, letting the viewer vacillate between multiple centers of weight. Being a court painter for the royal family, it’s obvious why Velasquez would want to highlight the royal couple and their daughter. But what’s significant about the back hallway? Well, this gets at a long running debate about the significance of this mirror. What exactly is it reflecting? A number of critics have seen it as the reflection of the actual king and queen standing, like we said, beyond the picture plane, putting the viewer literally in the shoes of royalty. But a closer examination of the one point perspective of this image reveals something else. The vanishing point of Las Meninas is not here, but here, in the lighted doorway to the right. What does this mean? Well, it means that the eye of this painting, so to speak, isn’t opposite the mirror, but opposite the door. So the mirror doesn’t reflect directly back at us. It reflects at an angle. An angle that puts its image on another unseen aspect of Las Meninas: The canvas that Velasquez is working on. Now, for a moment, let’s get back to the paintings in the upper half of this picture. These are copies of two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, a hero of Velasquez. And they tell similar stories, in this case, both from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In the right, the mortal Marsyas challenges the god Apollo to a flute playing contest. In the left, the god Athena challenges the mortal Arachne to a weaving contest. On other words, these are two contests between mortals and gods on the subject of the arts. Now, Marsyas loses and Arachne wins, but both are punished by their gods in the end for failing to recognize the divine source of the artistic endeavor. Such stories are extremely relevant to Las Meninas because in the end, this is a painting about painting, itself. In Velasquez’s time, painting still didn’t hold the same kind of noble place as poetry and music. Las Meninas, in all its splendid effects, is a vigorous argument for the virtue of painting, whether it comes from the heavens or the lifelong practice of craft. And this gets at the heart of the mirror, the vanishing point and the multiple centers of focus. “See what my art can do,” Velasquez is saying to the viewer. And to his king and queen, “Look not to nature or your own reflection in the mirror for the most marvelous depiction of your image, but to my canvas.” Las Meninas is an extraordinary accomplishment for its time. But its effect is timeless. It’s said that King Philip IV often came to Velasquez’s studio just to watch him paint. Somehow, I think Las Meninas animated his consciousness as it does mine, 360 years later. Indeed, to stare at this painting, in any age, is to be convinced slowly, gradually, and then confidently that you are witnessing the very best this medium has to offer. [Music] Hey everybody, thanks for watching an thank you to Squarespace for sponsoring this video. Just amazing, like those of you who pledge on Patreon, Squarespace is helping to fund this project, keep it going and they don’t interfere in the content, which is awesome. And their product is actually really great. Sleek, intuitive professional looking websites. You don’t have to know coding to make it happen. I’m working on something for the Nerdwriter right now, which I think is going to be pretty cool. And if you sign up for a year, you can get a free domain name an if you go to squarespace.com and use the offer code “Nerdwriter”, you can get 10% off your first purchase. So that’s pretty awesome. You can find a link to all that stuff in the description below. Thank you guys for that. And if you want to pledge to the project directly, you can obviously go to my Patreon by clicking right below this. Thank you guys so much and I will see you next Wednesday. Squarespace: You should.

100 thoughts on “Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?

  1. Lmfao this dude is getting in waaay too fucking deep. It's just a painting and a very good one at that, half of the shit you just analysed is likely what the artist never even thought about at the time.

  2. Just discovered this channel. I feel like this explanation made the painting come alive for me. Thank you.

  3. Oh please. Such hype. There can be no best anything. And even at that… I doubt a chimp picks this out of a lineup. Regurgitated concepts is not genuine observation.

  4. I've seen it in person and IMHO the observer is in the exact same position as the royal couple was back in the original scene. What you seen in the mirror is what Velázquez is painting and to be able to paint he is looking at… you? No, he is looking at his models, the king and the queen… as the princess and other four characters. So you are seeing the scene as the royal couple have seen it back then. You are THE KING or THE QUEEN, you are the most important character of that master piece, if you take a step to the left you can see yourself in the mirror

  5. Nonsense.. Too much marketplace and sensationalism in it.

    Yes.. Debates, interests brings it to life.. Reception always changes..

  6. Maybe i'm dumb but i dont like this painting and could barely tell what was going on in it

  7. Very nice, informative video. I liked and subscribed my new friend. I have a lot to learn…. But I'm retired….and have the rest of my life to learn to appreciate great art. You will help me with that….thank you!

  8. On Velasquez' breast is the cross of St James, which was worn only by nobility. It is thought that of course Velaxquez would not dare paint that on himself, but that the king ordered it added to the painting after the death of Velasquez as a tribute to him.

    When I was at El Prado, many years ago, a mirror was arranged so that the painting, which is in its own room, could be viewed as a mirror image. For some reason, this gives the painting more "air," so that it seems even more real.

  9. Excellent, very perceptive analysis. I couldn't understand before why this painting is so praised. Now I'm beginning to see.

  10. Maybe the Artist is Painting the Las Maninas and everyone is looking into a Giant Mirror so that the artist can draw himself drawing Las Maninas in Las Maninas.

  11. these faces look like royal incest blood line faces.. you know the ones ruling our world for ages and ages.. 🙂

  12. I knew the answer to the question in the headline would be "No" as soon as I saw the question: it's remarkably stupid. I just wanted to see what ludicrous argument would be used to support the conclusion that it's the best painting ever. All Nerdwriter did was sidestep the issue by simply analyzing the painting. "Las Meninas" is a good painting though.

  13. this dude cannot even fit the entire painting in the frame of his video, showing a horizontally cropped version, and he wants to talk about composition and attention to detail? lol as for the absurd title, such arrogance and snobbery. Art is subjective, many find this painting cluttered and overtly staged. so what, just enjoy and stop the childish ranking of things.

  14. It was a pleasure to be guided through Velazquez painting. Nice connection with Leonardo's work, the inventor of perspective in paintings, and the works of Rubens.

  15. Writer: "It started to snow and thus I was quite cold that night."
    This guy: The artist was quite alone, he insinuates that he a rather lonely fellow, a beta if you will. This has lead us to believe that he was ugly.
    Writer: Ni🐒🐒a, it was snowing.

    I think that this guy sees a lot of what he wants to see.

  16. This is a very thoughtful and instructive analysis but Nerdwriter fails to mention the true magic of this canvas. When you see it from a distance, it almost looks photorealistic. But when you get up close to it, you discover that the painting is constructed of almost abstract slashes and dabs of paint. Velasquez's genius was to realize that he merely needed to suggest the details of reality and that at a distance our eyes would see this approximation, this shorthand, as reality itself. Pure genius!

  17. Jesus…the shit people talk about these old boring paintings is more impressive than the actual image.

  18. @:43 you are a shill for mark zuckerbird more on moron. predictive programming. dude shut the shill up looser.

  19. I think the mirror is reflecting the painting on the canvas. .
    The king and queen have entered the room as shown by the looks and maid curtsy. . It all works as a spiral.

  20. You really believe the guy did all of this math to paint this? Ha! Can you see it… "could you go out and grab a servant cause I have to have 12 subjects and I only got 11!" 😂

  21. I wanted to comment, but nothing I could say could top what Paul Staker ( comment above) had to say.Best comment ever…..Lmao.

  22. You didnt make any mention of the dog, thats true. I always wondered what made me like this picture so much, now I know, it plays with my eyes and brain.

  23. My uncle had a very good reproduction- although it is not my favorite painting, it is among one of my favorites. It was mesmerizing even for a very young girl. Still love it to this day.

  24. I honestly think that we make more of it than it actually is. I remember Bob Ross make beautiful still art without any preconceived intention, "he put a happy boulder here, a sad tree there, and than you can come alone and explain it all,

  25. Philip IV of Spain. Looks like Velasquez was fearless in his truthful rendering of Philip's pronounced (and typical) 'Habsburg jaw'; incredible amount of inbreeding in that family line.

  26. What's up with the boy/little person standing on the right side of the frame, who's face kinda looks similar to that bulldog sitting below him? He looks like an old man with the body of a child, I wonder if that's really what he looked like.

  27. "Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?"

    All depends who's looking, isn't it?

  28. Yes, yes, it's a technically interesting painting, but is it a beautiful painting? It really isn't. It's even somewhat psychologically disturbing in the same difficult to define way that clowns are psychologically disturbing.

  29. Specially i find the hairs beautiful,look at the lighting and reflections at the hairs

  30. It may be a technical masterclass but it just doesn't do anything for me. It's like watching some 8 year old Chinese prodigy playing the piano. Technically perfect but…. nothing more. At least in the eye of this beholder.

  31. I read a book written through the eyes of Velasquez' Slave its called " I Juan de Pareja" it was so good

  32. i’ve always wondered what “las meninas” was bc i have a shirt with the name on it as well as the painting… i can’t believe i was so dumb i didn’t connect that it was the title of the piece

  33. This is great art… modern art is junk art. This I understand. I feel like I can be in the painting.

  34. This painting needs more tanks, muscles, bikini babes, ninjas and explosions. No wait, those are my movie preferences.

  35. Lmao i thought of the guy in the bavk as some sort of pedo or intruder or rebel or whatever i jus thought he was a bad guy

  36. Meninas is Portuguese for Girls, in Spanish is Niñas….Las is plural for The, in Portuguese they abbreviated to As…so the picture name may be from Portugal as the Spanish Filipes/Kings, 3 of them, took over Portugal for 60 years until 12/1/1640

  37. Only clicked on this bc the girl in the painting is identical to how i looked as a kid??

  38. I saw this piece in art history class and I have to say I'm captivated by it. Perhaps I've seen it in another life.

  39. I don't know if "the best" (who is supposed to decide which one is the best, anyway?), but definetly one of my favourite paintings ever. I spent half an hour in front of this painting at El Prado museum in Madrid. Yes, I am a freak. Small wonder that this picture has become an icon of Madrid.

  40. Or he just, painted a pretty picture. When you get into super detail and start bringing in the colour of people's clothes and making assumptions about how the image is trying to guide our eyes, it's most likely that people are overanalyzing the image and just making stuff up; probably even as a desperate attempt to sound sophisticated and knowledgeable.

  41. Over analyzing the pic takes away from its original purpose
    The nerd writer is a pompous, arrogant know-it-all
    Suk a dik nerd

  42. Are you guys insane? This painting is far from being a masterpiece. It's an extreme common painting, besides it's not even well done.

  43. Otherwise a good summary of the present state of knowledge about what is indeed the greatest painting ever made.
    You need to work a bit more on your sound, your microphone specifically.

  44. Sort of an analysis that didn't really tell a thing. They are not looking at the spectator, they are looking at the King and Queen entering, which we see in the mirror. A nod to Van Eycks Arnolfini Wedding, painted 2 centuries earlier. If there is a 2+3 motif being toyed with, it is told us by the structure of the door. Thus, 2 large paintings up top. And that is important, the heavens above the king and Queen are not Biblical, but fables from Greek Pantheon. Thus, we are not dealing with a Christian religious King, he lives his life with inspiration from Ancient Greece. In 1 painting a god is beating a human, in the other a god is giving a human laurels. The King and Queen are beneath these motifs. The 2+3 motif, shows us that there are 2 lower smaller painting, and the mirror. Thus, this is a painting, of the King and Queen. The servant in the door leaving, is making a pointing gesture towards the mirror image of the King and Queen, telling us that they are what this painting is about. The little princess, with her 2 friends, have been painted most detailed. While the servants in the corner are blurry. The painter himself, somewhere in between, in time spend detailing.

  45. The greatest painting? I haven’t watched all of this video. I stopped when I saw the poorly rendered perspective of the fella in the doorway.
    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so much garbage is “analysed” into works of art, especially when the artist is dead and can’t give a response.

  46. Eh. It's a complex painting I'll grant, but I think it's WAY OVER-RATED. For me, it ISN'T the greatest painting of all time. For me, it's Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" or even Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jette" — but NOT this.

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