One of the most famous works by Diego Velàzquez is this painting, called Las Meninas (or, The Ladies in Waiting). Who all is in this painting? We see the princess and her ladies in waiting, a dog, a dwarf, and a midget. There is a nun or a nursemaid in the background standing next to (perhaps) a parish minister. There is a man standing at the far back in the open doorway. Who is that person? Mysterious, suddenly ominous and captivating, the figure remains an unidentified man in black. Velàzquez, the painter of the scene, painted in the scene, stands on the left with a red cross, the symbol of knighthood. This very curious assemblage of characters constitutes the makeup of this bustling portrait painting.
The daughter of the king is surrounded by servants and attendants, but if we look just above we see a shining mirror at the far wall. In the frame of the mirror are reflected the king and queen looking at the scene. (To see this clearly I recommend enlarging this image by clicking on it or finding a zoom-in image of the painting). This mirror is similar to Jan van Eyck's mirror in the Arnolfini Wedding portrait, and because the Arnolfini portrait was part of the Royal Spanish collection at the time, it is possible that Velàzquez might have seen it and been influenced by it. The mirror offers another dimension to the painting. Stick with me on this one… If the king and queen are being reflected in the mirror in the painting, then that would have to mean they are standing directly in front of the scene in the painting. The attendants, the princess, Velàzquez, and the man in black must then be looking at the royal couple, not the viewer—or is the viewer the royal couple? Is Velàzquez promoting his audience to the status of royalty the moment they look at the painting; are we becoming kings and queens by observing art? What's more, just who are the king and queen looking at? Are they looking at themselves, their reflection in the mirror, or at the princess? What is their role in the painting? The king and queen are not present in the scene; they only appear as a reflection. What statement does that convey to the governing authority of the Spanish crown—that they are not always present for the scene at hand? We see only a dim and distant image of the ruling couple; it is the daughter, the princess, the next generation which takes center stage in this portrait. And is this what Velàzquez is painting? Notice Velàzquez on the left is looking out towards the viewer (in this case the king and queen) for inspiration for his painting. Is he actually painting a portrait of the king and queen? This would appear to be so, for in the mirror the royal couple are standing posed and facing forward, portrait-fashion. But Velàzquez painted Las Meninas, a portrait of the daughter, and this is it; he cannot be painting the king and queen, can he? Unless Velàzquez is painting a painting of the ladies in waiting preparing the princess to stand with her family in the painting that Velàzquez is going to paint of them. But in his painting Velàzquez painted himself painting the scene behind the scene of the painting that Velàzquez painted himself painting. I promise that sentence makes sense, haha! To try it once more, Velàzquez paints himself in the portrait as if he is painting a portrait. But the portrait is in front of him, and the actual portrait Velàzquez produced (Las Meninas) was a behind-the-scenes image and not the actual portrait of the king and queen. Otherwise, there would have been no Las Meninas; we would instead be looking at a painting of the royal family with their daughter, the princess, standing with them. Velàzquez paints a different scene…but puts himself down as painting the real scene in the painting. The easel is turned from the viewer, so we'll never know what Velàzquez from the painting was actually painting—the king and queen, or the painting we are looking at today.