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.

Comments 100

  • G U A P A

  • No, for me The Girl Wearing a Pearl

  • Technically accomplished but emotionally barren.

  • Truly a fantastic video, Sir, and a beautiful in-depth analysis of the painting. I’m quite sure that Señor Velázquez would have a bright smile on his face, seeing and hearing that his genius work has been not only recognized as such, but also thought about very seriously, deeply and respectfully and articulated so nicely. Excellent job, subscribed immediately, hope to see more such grand videos! 👍🏻✌🏻😇

  • I think Las meninas is one of the most overrated paintings of all the time.

  • Yeah, but can we talk about the dog.

  • Well… This' another video that misses the MOST important point: the changes of the original painting vs the final painting. All of you just say "this was intended, etc. etc. Genius!" instead of "He had to change it because the newborn, are these changes really intended or are just a happy causality"?

  • Thanks for animating the perspective lines so well in this video, very educational! I'm afraid I must correct you on two details though…
    First: When you talk about the Alcázar you show a Painting by Antonio Joly (1753) depicting the new and current Royal Palace of Madrid after the Alcázar burnt down in 1734. (Anecdote: The Meninas was thrown out of the window during that fire)
    Second: Apollo's Victory over Marsyas is a painting by Jacob Jordaens (1636), not Rubens.

  • This commentary is 1/ imaginative, 2/ strange and 3/ random. I don’t know how long it took to come up with all that, but I would say it was time wasted.

  • Or it was just a painting of a dense dude that liked sets of 3 and 2. Over hyping artists just because they lived in the past is kind of lame.

  • beautiful explanation..Thank you for a wonderful explanation. Please can you do the masacre of the innocents by Reubens

  • Why is it a mirror?

  • "Las Meninas" is a study of different masters' works and reassembled to interpret and demonstrate a skill by Velazquez, nothing more. Velazquez was influenced by the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and Michelangelo's assistant Francesco Granacci. In addition, Velazquez was also influenced by "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci, "The School of Athens Fresco"" by Raphael, and paintings by Rembrandt. It's human nature to improve an art by studying the exceptional.

  • The last supper. Or, girl with the pearl earring by Vermeer.

  • The title says enough, you don't understand the essence of art.

  • this channel:
    Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?
    me: i dont even know this painting?!

  • It would have been a masterpiece if it weren’t ruined by the presence of midgets.

  • Almost as good as Dogs Playing Poker, by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, but not quite.

  • Noooooo…..too many unproved conclusions……bull shit.

  • No

  • I wonder, even though the reflection in the mirror of the King and Queen is coming from the canvas, if they are not what everyone is looking at. I don't think he made that clear or not. They are in room being painted by the artist. Wonderful lesson in art history and perspective.

  • Going to the Prado in 2012 was on my bucket list,……this painting was cream on the cake,…..

  • This is a futile exercise, as what I may consider the best painting, another may find so-so or even ugly and I may feel the same about a painting that they think is the best. In other words any person's idea of the best painting is the one they consider the best, and their opinion will not matter to anyone else. Now if you are talking about the best painting based on some non-subjective and measurable quality, than you may have an argument.

  • Velasquez is a great master but I personally prefer Caravaggio!

  • will we completely ignore the girl to the very right kicking that dog …..PETA?

  • This should be in a screen on "el Prado" to watch it while watching the painting

  • So many important aspects of the painting are ignored! WHY is the title "The Maids…" and not "The Princess"? Why have servants that are (in the language of the era) short, ugly, deformed? Velazquez is the court painter, doing commissions for the King – why paint all the key royal figures and give the title and glory to the servants? Why does Velazquez paint himself in a painting he is painting of others?

    It all goes back to the history of the Spanish royal family who were seriously intermarried and interbred over the 2 or 3 previous centuries. Very narrow gene pools led to serious defects and malformations – some of the royals had developed a little tail from their elongated coccyx and most were visibly ugly – look at the foreheads and the heavy jaws. Velazquez made no attempt to "correct" this (consider the paintings of rich and influential people you have seen which prettify or glamourise the subject).

    The Spanish royal family took dwarfs, midgets and other "ugly" (in the eyes of the society of the time) individuals into the royal household so that the royal family would look tall, straight and handsome or beautiful by comparison. Like surrounding yourself with fatties in order to look thin.

    This is the glory of Velazquez, who painted his subjects not as the subjects wished to be seen (and revered) but as they were – imperfect and twisted.

  • Wait, that's not how Vanishing Points work…

  • I kept reading the Milenials LOL.

  • Excellent review! Thx

  • you really have a very good voice.

  • how is the "message" of this painting (& millions of others) known? i've always been curious. please don't worry about offending me in your explanation; i'm quite ignorant on the matter. i never gave most art any attention, nor anyone analyzing the art, because i thought it was pretentious. i thought, "who's to say what art meant? these people are dead. unless they specifically said, isn't it all assumption?". so yes, if somebody could enlighten me, i'd appreciate it.

  • The greatest thing about this painting is the possibility that the author might have not even realised what made the painting so great and just did what felt right for him. That's the genius.

  • ART is lost on the stupid it seems from the comments, the iphone rules, our past lost, ,,,,,great vid

  • The main focus of the painting never got a mention?
    I'm talking about the dog.

  • Great painting no question, but best is a stretch. So many great works of art it’s impossible to say one is best. My favs starry night, I and the village, garden of earthly delights, guernica, the old king… so so many…

  • 3:07 ….what dog? Wtf there's a dog!

  • Thank you .

  • But what about the dog?

  • Art is so cool

  • But is the main subject a girl or a boy?

  • The second child from the right is Varys as a kid.

  • I dont know shit about art but still I am binge watching all of'em

  • it's an ok painting in my eyes. nothing special, not eye catching, not visually stunning. Trying to dub any painting as the "best painting" is beyond absurd. same with music

  • I think it's a mirror that is reflecting the man who is walking through the stairs looking back too his doughter

  • So beautiful… Ive returned to this vedio 5th time and found something new again ✌️✨

  • I think best painting in history is a personal choice.

  • Velazques… Emaibiutifol?

  • ''Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?''

    No.

  • a great critique. your writing is exceptional. your voice is wonderful.
    please. please please
    improve your diction. it will make your ideas more present, more readily understood. and the most egregious offense is your final consonants. specifically your final tees.
    "it" becomes "i(!)", with the glyph (!) indicating a glottal stop. listen for it. it is all around you. everyone does it, or most everyone. but if you can learn to speak your final tees, you will be a much more effective speaker.
    over pronounce as an exercise. even when you drop the exercise it may sound un natural, but practice will take the sharp edges off of it and eventually leave you with the crispness that is the gift of good diction, and indeed, good speech.
    good luck.

  • > Abstract art

  • Paintings within a Painting. In a Painting about Painting
    Paintingception

  • One of the dwarves is just a child

  • Well, these classics may be important, clever, full of techniques and all, but I enjoy Thomas Kincaid paintings myself.

  • yeah thats not bad but my mate joe can draw swans

  • I paid (financed) $125,000 for art school and nobody ever told me this shit…

  • Plebeian compositional devices do not make the best painting in history, nor do they define this painting. They are an ancillary concern, as is interpretation in linguistics. The technical vanishing point is not the "eye" of any painting. In short, we can't make an argument which focuses on trivial aspects of an image and misses the point of the image as a whole as evidence of it being the greatest painting ever. The groupings in twos or threes was also a bit arbitrary, and it all ends up little more than judging a Shakespeare play based on numerology. Not a bad video, but, a painting needs to resonate directly, visually, and immediately. It is not accessed through analysis in linguistic structures.

  • Incredible analysis of the painting, really builds up an epic mood instead of just plainly describing the paintings elements. If anybody is really interested to delve more into interpretations of Las Meninas, I highly recommend you to read the intro of "The order of things" by Michel Foucault. It´s more a philosophical concept rather than an analysis, but so great to read.

  • Lmao, all this is so fake and overanalyzed.

  • I truly admire this brilliant piece of art. Don't get me wrong. But I have been think that the whole purpose of creating art pieces such as Las Meninas could be to create an illusion that would not only be an amusement for the people but also for the King himself, ultimately allowing the artist to win the sack of gold that he was promised. History is full of people who used their craft to create such illusions.

    A story called "The Invisible Silk Robe", where in the story the men who weaved the robe, after the King had ordered it, asked for a lot in return for the robe they will be weaving. They also said, "The silk cloth that we weave won't be visible to a base-born person. Would he be a well-born person, it will be visible to him". Once the robe was made, the King being a foolish one, wore the robe and walked naked to go to all the places in the city.(Again, it a story, that does prove the point).

    People now-a-days do create such illusions through photography or through digital art but are never given anything, not even the attention they deserve so much. I being an artistic person, at least I think of myself as one, can only appreciate this piece of art. Trust me, I dont hate the art or the artist. I just dont get what the fuss is about when it comes to such art pieces.

  • reading the comment chains today, i can just imagine everyone with a monacle, a victorian party suit and an aristocratically brittish accent.

  • Lmao my parents have this painting in their house

  • *How To Overthink Art 101: The Las Meninas

  • Leonard Cohen thought that art was only borrowed by the artist. Artist is just the vessel or portal. The real doozie is where is it delivered from?
    Love that painting!

  • Something I think he should have mentioned: At this time, painting wasn't seen as super honorable, (which was mentioned,) but this painting is also marvelous in that it puts the painter and the monarchs in the same painting. To put them together in the same frame is to say they are equals; he managed to do that in a non-offensive way to the monarchs, and its truly a blast to think about.

  • I don't know, does anyone ever call bullshit on these interpretations?

  • You’re overthinking it.

  • Phillip IV looked like he created Facebook and he is not human

  • The door itself is divided between panels of two and three, as well.

  • I think it's neat, but not nearly as good as you think it is.

  • The guy leaving the painting in the back always spoke to me how Velasquez really felt, Since he had been late in his life, it was to show he was leaving soon, but not turning his head on what he could see. He was contempt with going, but he was just too curious.

  • From the paintors of the spanish court, Velazquez would be lawful good and Goya would be chaotic evil

  • Amazing video. Thank you so much for it 🙏

  • For me, the best painting in History is Guernica.

  • Stand well back from this painting, look at it through your rolled up catalogue and you see it in perfect 3D.

  • Man start drinking water.
    Wtf.

  • Dios mío repitiendo esa boludez de trap una y otra vez. La puta madre no tienen cultura general sólo música basura en el cerebro?

  • Saw this in Madrid 3 years ago and i felt so small after looking at my art 🎨😂

  • i can interpret much from my kid's painting also….

  • Athena isn't a god, she's a goddess

  • It's a solid meh. best painting? lol clickbait

  • Velasquez – the painters’ painter.

  • Dog – Saturnine – Hmm
    Red-cross motif – Hmm
    Twelve figures in relation to an absent one? – Hmm
    Three nenufars
    Three and two in the composition of the door.
    Red and white – wine and bread
    Life…….and Afterlife beyond the stairs?

  • Another theory: the viewer is standing in de shoes of the king and queen. Velasquez is painting a painting of the king and queen as seen in the mirror. This means that the king and queen are standing from the viewers viewpoint. As is also seen because of the direction velasquez and the princess are looking in. The painting is about the king and queen who see the painting of themselves in the mirror while velasquez is painting them and while the court is watching them being painted.

  • Best ever is completely subjective.

  • I thought Onement Vi by Barnett Newman was pretty good too. If you understand the deeper meaning and the themes of the painting and realize in what time they were made, it puts the painting in a whole new dimension of a perspective, something the mind can almost not reprehend. The vastness of it just grabs you but letting your boundless fantasies run anyway it wants because there is no reference point in the painting to hold on to.
    It does something that portrait paintings can not do; it blends the surreal with the real.

  • I took a picture of this yesterday and this came in my recommendation…

  • The first time I saw it in real life i was 7 years old. My mom always tells the story that I sat on the floor and stayed there for 35 min. I wouldn't want to leave and my mom didn't want to make me because she saw how fascinated I was with it. It's truly a master piece.

  • Michel Foucault begins his The order of things, with a sublime analysis of this painting.

  • i go back to this video every year just to check if i have understood it in a totally different way

  • Fabulous!

  • This is just too good, wtf

  • I think some of what you said was a stretch but I like a lot of what you said.

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