Las Meninas and The Art of Painting, the Portraits of Two Painters
June 1, 2009
On February, 16 2003, Vermeer visited the Prado Museum, in other words, the house of his contemporary Velázquez for the first time. In fact, on May, 19 2003, Vermeer’s The Art of Painting hanged near Velázquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado Museum. In addition, they are surprisingly two similar paintings which were created very close in time.
Las Meninas (1656)
The scene takes place in the studio of Velázquez, in one of the rooms of Madrid’s Alcázar Palace. Velázquez appears in front of a big canvas portraying the King Philip IV of Spain and the Queen Mariana of Austria that are reflected on the mirror at the back. The five-year old infant Maria Margaret has entered the room to take a peep with her two ladies-in-waiting, María Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco, and two court buffoons, María Bárbola and Nicolasito Pertusato, who is kicking a mastiff. Behind them, the duenna de Ulloa is talking with a guardadamas and in the doorway the quartermaster Jose Nieto appears in the stairs. Velázquez is wearing court clothes and confidently holds a brush and a palette.
The Art of Painting (1666)
The Art of Painting was preserved in Vermeer’s possession until his death. Therefore, it can be concluded that was a special painting for him. A curtain drawn to the left shows the intimate studio of the painter who concentrated is portraying a girl with a crown of laurel on her head holding a book and a trumpet. These elements were identified as symbols of fame by the seventeenth century society, and therefore the woman who is posing for Vermeer, seems to be Clio, the muse of history. The white mask that lies on the table is thought to symbolize imitation and therefore painting. The map hanging at the back of the painting and the lamp, appear to emphasize the theme of history embodied by Clio. (For further information of this painting visit Sheila Juaristi’s posts).
The painter inside the painting
It was not until the Renaissance when important authors began to affirm their individuality and provide the works with titles. Therefore, it was quite innovative for the seventeenth century painters to include their self-portraits in their works. Nevertheless, Vermeer and Velázquez almost at the same time depicted themselves in the act of painting (painting inside the painting).
In front of a big canvas, Velázquez is looking at the visitor attentively. However, who is Velázquez looking at? At first, the visitor feels observed by the painter as he was inviting him/her to the inside of the painting. Nevertheless, the visitor soon realizes that Velázquez does not seem to have his eyes fixed on him/her, but on the subjects he is painting. Therefore, as Manuel Durán notices the visitor appears to feel ill at ease when he/she realizes that the King and the Queen may be standing by his/her side.
On the other hand, Vermeer perhaps more timid is sitting with his back to the visitor. He appears to be fully concentrated on his oeuvre and the solely attentive gaze of the visitor seems to interrupt the silence that fills the studio. Vermeer is wearing dark simple and easy to wash garments to protect the clothes from the paint.
The Fame of the Artist
In the dark and elegant clothes of Velázquez, the characteristic red cross of Santiago remarkably catches the eye of the visitor. It has been claimed that it was painted by Philip IV himself when Velázquez was awarded the Order in 1659, three years after finishing the painting. In fact, as Jonathan Brown states the central theme of the painting appears to be “[. . .] not only an abstract claim for the nobility of painting, but also a personal claim for the nobility of Velázquez himself”.
Moreover, Vermeer’s The Art of Painting seems to raise similar themes. Vermeer alludes to the connection between history and painting. Alejandro Vergara suggests that “history inspires the artist and, furthermore, according to the prejudice prevailing in artistic circles since Antiquity, is its most important subject-matter, entitling artists to a position of prestige within society”.
Thus, both Velázquez and Vermeer with two of their most appreciated and last works of Las Meninas and The Art of Painting are declaring the will of the artist to gain social recognition. Velázquez appears to be admitted in the bosom of the royal family and therefore, he is awarded nobility titles. In addition, by establishing a connection between history, fame and painting, Vermeer seems to be also praising the social recognition of painting.
Durán, Manuel (Yale University) Velázquez frente a Vermmer [online]. [Accessed 31st May 2009] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.lehman.edu/ciberletras/v08/duran.html. An interesting essay which compares Velázquez’s Las Meninas with Vermeer’s The Art of Painting. I highly recommend having a look at it.
Essential Vermeer. The Art of Painting [online]. [Accesed 31st May 2009]. Available from World Wide Web:http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/art_of_painting.html and http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/art.html
Lucas, Antonio (2003) El Prado ‘recoge’ la luz prodigiosa de Johannes Vermeer. El Mundo, 18 May 2003. [online] [Accessed 31st May 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.elmundo.es/papel/2003/02/18/cultura/1338842.html
Museo Nacional del Prado (Madrid) Las Meninas. [online] [Accessed 31st May 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.museodelprado.es/index.php?id=995&no_cache=1&L=0&tx_obras[adv]=
Samaniego, F. (2003) El mito de Vermeer conmociona el Prado. El País.com.cultura, 18 February 2003. [online] [Accessed 31st May 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/cultura/mito/Vermeer/conmociona/Prado/elpepucul/20030218elpepicul_1/Tes