What’s the best painting to have ever been produced? Is there such a thing as a “best” one?
It’s hard to say.
Art is not only an objective reality; it is also a subjective experience.
At any moment, in any artistic encounter, three agents are at play: the work itself, the audience, and the relationship between them.
You can already see why objective standards are troublesome. Quantitative measures don’t even consider what’s arguably most important: are we going to judge a painting solely on its technique and materials? Will we, then, start ranking poems solely on their verse length? Or songs solely on their rhyme quality?
That’s like judging the validity of a mathematical equation based on how good it looks on paper—you’ve got it all backwards.
Nevertheless, I see a lot of people make an intellectual summersault here and claim that, as a result, we cannot say that some art is better than other—because everything is infinitely interpretable, and there are no true benchmarks, and nothing really matters, and who cares anyway.
But that’s clearly not true: lack of best does not imply lack of better.
The very fact that progress exists—meaning, that artists are able to produce works with increasing depth and sophistication as they gather more experience—implies three things:
i) that there is something to move away from (incompetence);
ii) that there is something to more towards (mastery); and,
iii) that one can move towards one or the other depending on their actions (direction).
There comes a point in any craft in which, through a combination of tireless practice and innate gifts, artists can transcend all limitations and stand above the very definitions of their domain.
Tired of following trends, they start setting them.
Tired of being human, they have a shot at playing God.
That’s when things get fun—and masterpieces are born.
The proof is in the pudding; some paintings have so much depth, even the most cynical could drown in them.
Enter Las Meninas.
Diego Velázquez’s most sublime creation is considered by many to be the best painting in history. Agree or disagree, there is no denying this masterpiece is a major contender.
Let’s dive right into it.
Generally, people look at this painting in two stages.
First comes the “this is kind of boring” stage. If you simply glance at the canvas, you will notice there is nothing special going on. Las Meninas seems to be a depiction of a normal day in a royal household in 17th century Spain.
You have a little princess in the center, refusing the care of her servant. You have a couple of dwarfs on the right, one of which is messing with the most uninterested dog in existence. A person in the background is leaving the room, and the artist himself, on the left is taking a few seconds to reflect on his work. Again, kind of boring.
But then comes stage numero dos. You notice that one of the “paintings” hanging from the background wall is not actually a painting. It’s lighter than all of those surrounding it, it has a faded texture to it, and it seems to have been placed there by the artist on purpose. It’s not a painting: it’s a mirror—and the two people reflected within it are none other than King Philip IV and his wife Queen Mariana.
Suddenly, this work goes from depicting a royal household to a royal portrait, and a few questions arise.
Is the mirror reflecting the canvas? Or are we standing where the King and Queen are? Are we in the shoes of royalty? Why are some people looking straight at us? Is Velázquez actually painting a portrait? Or is he painting this painting itself?
All of these questions are legitimate, for a very specific reason.
Take a look at the painting and tell me: can you find its focal point?
Where would you say it is?
You might struggle to come up with one answer… precisely because there are three—and they are all brilliant.
Perhaps the most obvious one is the girl, princess Margarita Teresa. Light is pouring onto her from a window on the right, making her look almost angelical.
Las Meninas was painted in the year 1656, a period of notorious decline for the Spanish empire. Not too long ago, Count-Duke Olivares was boasting that “God is Spanish, and he fights for our nation”, only to see his mouth shut after a terrible defeat in the 30 Years War. By the time this painting was commissioned, King Philip had buried 7 children and lost his first wife.
In other words: the integrity of the Spanish monarchy stood on shaky ground… but there stood Margarita, among the worst period of the empire, her healthy and youthful appearance capturing an unyielding hope for the future of the nation.
Then comes the light-up door in the distance.
The use of perspective here is just next level, for a couple of reasons. Velázquez has placed the door in such a spot to give us a true sense of depth. Many of the painting’s lines are pointing right at it. The juncture between wall and ceiling on the right, the hung chandelier fixtures, the paintings on the background wall… these clues are suggesting that perhaps the door is, in fact, the focal point.
Now, this would not be particularly clever if it weren’t for a crucial bit of info which I have not told you about yet: Las Meninas is huge. It’s enormous. The canvas is roughly 320cm tall and 275cm wide. Velázquez’s intent was to blend the canvas with reality. If you stand right in front of it, it’s not hard to imagine the painting as a 3D space, its walls and ceiling blending with the museum’s.
But what’s even cooler is that three of the life-sized characters within the painting are actually looking your way. It’s as if something had just happened where you stand, and people are beginning to notice. Velázquez himself has pulled back and is taking a good look at you. So is the dwarf on the right. When it comes to the little princess, she hasn’t even had time to turn her head yet, but her eyes are already looking your way.
Through a masterful use of perspective and dimension, using the door as one of the focal points, Velázquez has just plunged you into his masterpiece, blending his art with your reality.
And we’re not done yet.
Finally, the most mysterious (and controversial) focal point of all has to be the mirror in the back.
Las Meninas is one of the most analyzed paintings in human history, and nobody seems to agree on a seemingly simple thing.: What is the mirror reflecting? Think about it. The mirror is reflecting the royal couple, sure, but is it the actual couple—standing there, waiting to be portrayed—or the canvas couple which Velázquez is currently painting?
The answer depends entirely on where you stand, as a viewer, in front of the painting.
What I love about Las Meninas is how it perfectly captures what it means to have mastered a trade. I mean it: Diego Velázquez is just having fun at this point. With his ingenious ambiguity, he has taken a regular painting and converted it into an aesthetic milestone.
In one single canvas converge three different realms: the princess, representing the ideal world of the current era; the door, representing the real world of any era; and the mirror, representing the subjective world of all those individuals who have been lucky enough to stand before it.
Some works of art are better than others.
Las Meninas is better than most.