In The Maids of Honor, Diego Velazquez creates a scene with complex and well-placed light and outstanding textures. Maids or “Medinas” which translates into Maids, incorporates the use of dark shadows contrasted with light, and geometric shapes and configurations, offering the viewer numerous interpretations of the work (Luxenberg, 2003). In this painting, the figures appear frozen, caught up in a moment of time, further evidenced by the institution of the royal couple reflected in a mirror in the background of the painting (Adams, 2002). This mirror reflection is a symbol representing the capture of an instant, a moment much as the painting itself reflects a portrait and capture of a moment in time to be treasured and reflected upon. Velazquez, by using dark shadows and contrasts as well as dynamic symbolism, has managed to create not just spatial but also mental and psychological features that provide contrast within the painting (Martin, 1977). This feature is more common to Baroque style paintings.
Balance is distributed equally among each of the characters, with particular emphasis on Princess Margarita in the painting. The focal point of the painting may be defined as Princess Margarita, who captures the beholder’s attention with her stern gaze; yet at any time the focal point may be shifted to the dwarf, or to Velazquez hovering in the back as the painter has lifted himself above other characters in the painting by placing himself above other subjects, creating the sense that he is larger than life. The scale and proportion of certain features is distorted, drawing attention to different subjects of the painting at different times, depending on where one turns their attention. This is part of what makes the painting so unusual and unique.
In terms of quality of design, Velazquez successfully portrays an intimate glimpse into the life of the royal family. The title of the work, “The Maids of Honor” represent a portrait of the maidens at the court of Spanish King Philip IV (Luxenberg, 2003). The design incorporates not only a wide range of colors, but also a complex mix of what appears to be illusion mixed with reality (Luxenberg, 2003). In this picture the painter has inserted himself into the portrait, foreseeing this painting as being his introduction into high society. The painting served as propaganda for what would be a successful career, and indeed, the painting succeeded in shifting the painter’s career. Important design elements include a high ceiling, the canvas that Velazquez is painting, the midget accompanied by a dog, the princess accompanied by her maidens, Velazquez in the background and a mirror reflecting a single moment in time. High ceilings are common to many paintings that blend a sense of surrealism with reality. While the princess remains the primary focal image throughout the painting, the dog becomes the image that is foremost present in the painting. Rather passive, this image lends a certain calm and serenity to the painting. While the cast members of the painting seem divergent, all belong to the royal family. Velazquez, by being present and painting a self-portrait, further reinforces the idea that he is and will remain a member of royalty.
Great art may be interpreted as art that touches the human psyche in a way that creates understanding and unity (Adams, 2002). This unique piece touches on this, revealing the softness in the gaze of the Princess, yet also incorporating many complex features common to society at large. The inclusion of complex characters including the dwarf represents many of the unreal yet common aspects of life. Velazquez also managed to dignify the aristocratic rank at the time the painting was rendered, without extinguishing the human element present among royal classes. The contrasting light and space is one that beholders cannot stop looking at, and certainly one worthy of its reputation as a masterpiece.
- Adams, L.S. (2002). Art Across Time: Volume II, The Fourteenth Century to the Present, 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Ed.
- Luxenberg, Alisa. (2003). The Aura of a Masterpiece: Responses to Las Meninas in Nineteenth-Century Spain and France. Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Ed. Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 13, 24, 25, 34.
- Martin, J.R. (1977). Baroque. New York: Harper & Row.