The Best Painting in History? Diego Velázquez

One of Pip’s favorite art analysts is someone who calls himself The Nerdwriter and has a series of videos on YouTube. Although his discussion of artwork is excellent, there has been no occasion to mention him on Pigtails until now. Recently, he reviewed a famous painting called Las Meninas and featured center stage was a little girl, a princess of Spain. The Nerdwriter considers this work more worthy of analysis than any other in history. An important distinction between photography and painting is that with painting, the artist has complete control and no element is there by chance so that the presence of the smallest detail can be a valid subject of discussion. The critic engages in the usual discussion of composition but also why the artist chose to depict two of Rubens’ paintings displayed in the background. The solution to a long-standing mystery is also convincingly proposed and, in The Nerdwriter’s opinion, what is great about this piece is that it is a bold statement about the virtue of painting itself. At that time, poets and musicians were highly regarded but not painters. The fact that the Rubens paintings were about the divine source of creativity and that a reflection of the king and queen in a mirror is coming from a canvas at the edge of frame seems to bolster the argument that Velázquez was making a profound statement about the power of the medium. “This is a painting about painting.” says The Nerdwriter.

Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas (1656)

Diego Velázquez – Las Meninas (1656)

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) was one of the most important Spanish painters and beloved court artist under the reign of King Philip IV. In addition to numerous renditions of scenes of historical and cultural significance, he painted many portraits of the Spanish royal family, notable European figures and even commoners. The importance of Velázquez’ contribution was acknowledged by realist and impressionist painters starting in the early 19th Century and included Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon who all recreated several of the more famous works. Philosopher Michel Foucault devotes the opening chapter of one of his books to a detailed analysis of Las Meninas and Philip Roth also referred to that painting as a metaphor for the distracted attraction of courtship.

Velázquez received good training in languages and philosophy but showed an early gift for art. He first studied under Francisco de Herrera and remained with him for only one year. It is probably from this master that he acquired the habit of using brushes with long bristles. At age 12, he apprenticed under the somewhat undistinguished Francisco Pacheco for five years and married his teacher’s daughter, Juana, in 1618. The couple had two daughters.

Velázquez’ first visit to Madrid in 1622 was very timely as the king’s favorite court painter had just died. By August 1623, Philip IV sat for Velázquez for the first time and was pleased. The painter was then offered permanent residence in the court. In 1628, Peter Paul Rubens came to Madrid and met Velázquez, developing a high opinion of him. Rubens’ visit inspired the younger painter to visit Italy to study the works of the Italian masters. Velázquez’ career culminated in what is arguably his greatest work, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) in 1656. It featured Margaret Theresa, the eldest daughter of Philip and his new queen, Mariana of Austria. The artist was given the honor of knighthood in 1659 and it was only through this royal appointment that he was able to escape the censorship of the Inquisition. Otherwise, he would never have been able to release his La Venus del espejo (Venus at her Mirror), the painter’s only surviving female nude. Velázquez’ final portraits of the royal children are among his finest works and include the Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress.

Diego Velázquez - Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress (1659)

Diego Velázquez – Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress (1659)