Of Craft and Matter


Diego Rodriguez Velázquez (1599–1660) Las Meninas, or The Family of Felipe IV, c. 1656. Oil on canvas. 3.18 x 2.76 m. Copyright of the image Museo Nacional del Prado/Art Resource, NY.



The foreground of the most looked-at painting in the museum is partly taken up by a painting seen from the back. Everything in Las Meninas seems overt and at the same time is deceptive.[1] The mystery of what may or may not be painted on the canvas is counterpoised by the concrete evidence of its reverse, and along with it, by the irreducible material nature of the art of painting, emphasized by the scale of that enormous object made of stiff, rough cloth and wooden bars locked together firmly enough for the contraption to stand upright. Velázquez devotes as much attention to those carefully cut pieces of wood—their knots, their volume, the way the light shows them in relief, the rough texture of the cloth—as to the blond, dazzled hair of the infanta or to the butterfly, perhaps of silver filigree, that the maid María Agustina Sarmiento wears in her hair, as distinct as a piece of jewelry when seen from a distance, though it dissolves into small abstract patches of color when seen up close. Velázquez had “brushes . . . furnished with long handles,” says Palomino, “which he employed sometimes to paint from a greater distance and more boldly, so it all seemed meaningless from up close, and proved a miracle from afar.”
Velázquez knows how to paint wood that has been carefully sawn and sanded, the dark impress of a knot, the way the surface sinks slightly around the head of a nail, the fine cracks that form when it is driven in too forcefully. In the canvas that takes up the foreground of Las Meninas, and even more so in the beams of the Christ on the Cross, Velázquez conveys not just the beauty and strength of wood, as in one of Pablo Neruda’s “Elemental Odes,” but also the precision and skill of the carpenters who shaped it. From an early age, Velázquez was especially adept at painting the materials and the concrete lore of the craftsman’s work. His pitchers, jars, and earthen bowls are hymns to the potter’s skills. The red clay that was used to make them is the same substance that yielded some of the oldest and most common pigments used in painting. In Vulcan’s Forge, Apollo exudes a kind of privileged entitlement à la Boris Johnson, and the bodies of the blacksmiths, splendid replicas of ancient male statuary, are proof of just how much Velázquez learned during his first trip to Italy. But Vulcan’s face and those of his assistants are the true faces of workingmen, and there is a categorical truthfulness to the ashen, sooty space of the workshop, the massive block of the anvil, the tongs and hammers, the red, glowing sheet of metal, and the gray dust that covers everything, a truthfulness that shows all the elements in a craft process: the raw materials, the use of force, the division of tasks, the collaboration among workers, and finally the end result, a gleaming, polished suit of armor.


Diego Rodriguez Velázquez (1599–1660): Vulcan’s Forge, 1630. Oil on canvas, 223 cm x 290 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Photo credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY


More wondrous still is his depiction of work in The Spinners: mounds of raw wool, then the wool being swiftly spun on the wheel, then turned into yarn, and finally, as in Vulcan’s Forge, the final result of this collective labor in each of its specialized forms: a splendid tapestry reproducing Titian’s Rape of Europa, which Rubens had copied at the Royal Collection. Here, too, one glimpses the ambivalence, the ambiguity that pervades anything related to Velázquez: the spinners are sturdy working women, but one of them, seen from the back, is a visual citation of a sybil by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (a citation and a personal memory: we know that Velázquez spent many days copying figures from Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican). Alongside his depiction of anonymous physical labor, we find Velázquez’s wish to include himself in the highest lineage of the art of painting and its social standing. In The Spinners, his name is the third link in a sequence that connects him across time and through the nearness of the Royal Collections to Titian, first, who had painted the Rape of Europa, and then to Rubens, who made a copy as a way of studying it.


Diego Rodriguez Velázquez (l599–1660): The Spinners, or The Fable of Arachne, c. 1657. Oil on canvas. 2.2 x 2.8 m. Copyright of the image Museo Nacional del Prado/Art Resource, NY.


Velázquez comes from the world, lost to us now, of the artisan workshop, where highly subtle and complex forms of technical knowledge accumulated over time and were perfected to be passed on from generation to generation across the centuries, through a bond between master and apprentice that was at once occupational and pedagogic, professional and familial. By 1656, Velázquez has reached the peak of his career as a painter and courtier. He has traveled twice to Italy. He has met painters of international renown and sought to emulate their intellectual refinement and their social ambition. But he comes from the culture of the workshop, the guild, a culture of labor in which painting is considered an occupation endowed with a certain dignity yet also inferior, a mechanical and manual art involving an element of commerce, of buying and selling. Painters practice their art in workshops and ateliers where they frequently also have a shop that is open to the public.
Yet, in seventeenth-century Spain, selling things in a store is as heavy a stigma as working with one’s hands. The statutes of military orders consider unfit to be ordained in them “those who practised themselves, or their parents, for themselves or others, vile or mechanical employments. . . . By which vile or mechanical employments will be understood: silversmiths or painters by trade, weavers, masons, innkeepers, tavern keepers, scriveners, unless secretaries to the king.” In Florence, in the fourteenth century, painters belonged to the same guild as physicians, pharmacists, and spice traders. While in Italy their intellectual and social position improved greatly in later centuries, the biases with which a society based on caste and on a series of feudal fantasies stigmatized those who worked for a living were more enduring in Spain. Velázquez became an apprentice at Francisco Pacheco’s workshop in Seville when he was twelve. At eighteen, he went through the required examination to be admitted to the guild of painters. Apprentices were servants who helped carry out the chores required by the workshop and could also do domestic service for his master’s family. “Grinding colors, applying grounds, and the further preparation of materials and instruments pertains to the grinders or servants,” as stated in Carducho’s Dialogues. Alonso de Villegas, a contemporary of Carducho, is similarly precise in separating the various tasks—or what in Marxist terms might be called, if I may be excused, the technical division of labor. “The first [principle] they teach apprentices is the grinding of colors, the second is to lay the priming, the third, gilding, the fourth is drawing and knowledge of geometry and the composition of parts, the fifth, to bring out reliefs in plaster, the sixth, to copy from a picture, the seventh, to copy from life, and here does painting first begin to be an art, nor antecedently to its material principles are those intellectual principles secondarily added which consist in the composition of the story and the forming of ideas, at which point is painting truly constituted into an art.” The prose is convoluted, but the meaning is clear. Carducho dwells on even more specific distinctions made during the drawing stage: “The master sketches or scratches in [the composition], studying each part on its own, afterward to gather them all into a finished drawing or cartoon. . . . He delivers this and other drawings to the officer, and he transfers the outlines, or employs a grid to draw on the canvas or the wall, sketching and adding colors . . . , while the master comes over to inspect, correct, and admonish him, . . . and once the officer considers it done, the master touches it up again and makes it quite perfect, which is the last stage, and that finer quality that gives it a soul, where mastery is revealed in each quick dab and stroke.” In Las Meninas, Velázquez stands alone, well dressed, facing a canvas we will never see, holding a brush in his right hand and the palette and mahlstick in his left, in a room that is too uncluttered really to be a workshop. Once again, he simultaneously discloses and conceals. He is holding a brush and palette but not painting. I am always reminded of the way Cervantes depicts himself in the written self-portrait he includes in the prologue to the first part of Don Quixote: “And once I sat there in suspense, the sheet of paper before me, the quill behind my ear, one elbow on the writing desk, resting my cheek on my hand and thinking of what I might say . . .” Velázquez shows us the back of the painting and thus its material nature and its connection to occupations that were deemed inferior; but he conceals the manual labor and collective effort that make the painting possible, presenting it instead as a solitary endeavor, one so easeful as to be indulged without any physical effort, keeping those expensive clothes pristine, an act as free of any manual baseness as that of writing.
Christian painting had arisen to depict a sacred realm, to give visible form to what is pure spirit, Platonically pure of the pollution of matter. It had also found it necessary to protect itself against the suspected idolatry of pagan images. In the centuries that saw the establishment of an orthodox ritual, and thus, too, of the role that images would play in it, the highest miracle for a painting was to have painted itself, without the intervening agency of the human hand, or to have been finished by angels, or prefigured in a dream or vision, or accomplished in a pious trance, as Fra Angelico, according to Vasari, painted the Virgin and the angels without ever having to make the slightest correction. The work of the hand is absolved from any possible debasement if it takes place under supernatural guidance. According to ancient legend, the portrait of the Virgin and Child made by St. Luke, of which all subsequent images were presumably exact copies, was finished by the angels.
When Pope Sylvester presented Constantine with a double portrait of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the emperor recognized who they were because he had seen them before in a dream. As Christ went to the cross, he left the triple impress of his face on the three folds of the veil of St. Veronica, as if miraculously foreshadowing the instantaneous nature of photography. And it was also in the time of Pope Sylvester and Constantine that there appeared, according to Pacheco, “without the agency of human hand or invention, the image of our Savior painted on the wall of the Church of St. John Lateran, in full view of the Roman people, which in this way was established in the veneration of sacred images.” There is a Greek term for this kind of apparition: acheiropoieton, “not made by the hand.” When treatises discuss how to prepare oneself properly for the task of painting, what they often emphasize is the need to enter into a pious state, not the work that must take place with tools and materials. Just as Bach or Haydn devotedly prayed for religious inspiration before setting themselves to the task of composing, painters attended mass, went to confession, and took communion. Rubens went to mass every morning before going to his workshop. Bernini took communion at least twice a week. Guercino rose very early and prayed for a whole hour before going to mass. Of Juan de Juanes, according to Pacheco, “it is said that he made pictures of great devotion, since, in addition to being a person of renowned virtue, he prepared himself by going to confession and taking communion.”
In depicting the visions of the saints, painters were in a certain way taking part in them. In a curious kind of correspondence, the visions of the saints resemble in advance the paintings that will portray them. St. Teresa had a thoroughly painterly vision on Assumption Day, 1561: the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the angels. Christ appeared to her often. She would see him in the Garden of Gethsemane, or crowned with thorns, or carrying the cross, or already crucified. Her religious imagination was literally contaminated by painted images. In one of her visions of mystical union, doubtless a variation on the iconography of the mystical marriage of St. Catherine, Christ gave Teresa a nail from the cross instead of a wedding ring. Bernini’s Ecstasy, which has given rise to so much psychoanalytic humbug, is an exact depiction, following her own account, of what is theologically known as a transverberation: the angel is holding in one hand a golden dart with a fiery tip enveloped in flame. Imagination and hallucination intersect in a strange realm where painting seems to emerge without a mediating effort, in a kind of unconscious rapture that in a way portends the Romantic notion of inspiration. The very skill of the painter, at its highest degree, resembles a miracle. Anton Raphael Mengs, who expressed such reservations about Velázquez, says nonetheless that The Spinners “is made in such a way that its execution seems to owe nothing to the hand, but to have been painted by the will alone.”
Actually, a painter’s workshop could have resembled a woodshop or an apothecary’s. Some apprentices are mounting canvases on wooden frames and washing them. Others, somewhat more advanced, are grinding pigments, first in a metal mortar, dry, then mixing them with water and going over them on a perfectly smooth slab of porphyry with a stone handle. The pigments are then shaped into cakes and dried again, to be ground one last time and mixed with linseed or walnut oil. Only then are they available for the master to spread them on his palette.
Everything that Velázquez learned in the workshop is recounted in Pacheco’s Art of Painting. His description of the process for laying the ground and priming the canvas is a peerless page of prose, whose litany of sensory and manual delights lies somewhere between the beauty of poetry and the pages of a cookbook or an instruction manual:


Experience has taught me that any priming made of flour, plaster, or ash will grow damp, causing in time the very canvas to rot, and the paint to break into scabs and flakes; thus I consider thin glove-maker’s glue to be more reliable, spreading while still cold a coat or two on the canvas with the knife to cover the pores and scraggy patches in the cloth; applying it well, and once dry, having taken the pumice stone to it, laying the ground over it. Nor do I object, before applying the glue and once the canvas has been well stretched, to rubbing it with the pumice stone so as to remove any loose threads. . . . The best and smoothest ground is a kind of mud used in Seville once it has first been ground to dust and tempered on the slab with linseed oil, applying the coat very evenly with a knife. Then when the canvas is fully dry the pumice stone will remove any roughness or unevenness and make it fit to receive a second coat which renders it smoother and more open, finishing, once dry, by smoothing it with the stone to receive a third coat, in which, if so desired, a little white lead can be added to the mud to give it greater body.


On the canvas that stands before Velázquez in Las Meninas, as on the painting itself, the light hue of the priming accentuates the sense of brightness and delicacy. We must try to imagine the smoothness and texture of the cloth after having been treated so carefully time and again, patiently over its entire surface. Velázquez’s priming became lighter over the years, especially after his first trip to Italy. The ones he used in Seville as a young man were darker, thicker, made of red earth mixed with oil. When Pacheco describes the making of a varnish, it is as if he were delighting in going over the directions for a hearty dish, a stew of the kind those earthly women in Velázquez’s paintings might have prepared:


Placing half a pound of linseed oil in a glazed pot, and letting it cook over blazing coals, add to it, once it becomes quite hot, three peeled heads of garlic so that they cook with it, removing them once golden and putting in a hen’s feather to see if it is done, and if the feather burn, add four ounces of ground fat (which is the gum of the juniper, or what the Arabs call sandarac), letting it cook until it has the proper consistency on the knife . . . and if you would like to make it better still, it can be made of lavender.


This is material expertise. It entails a deep knowledge of pigments, mineral and organic, and of plants—the linseed and walnut, which yield the best oils—and of animals too, since their tails are sometimes employed, for instance the rabbit’s, furnishing something as crucial as the hair and bristles for paint- and priming brushes, as well as the hollow feather shafts that were sometimes used to mount the tips on the wooden handles, though very thin slivers of tin could also work. Dry theorizing and rote erudition turn into scrumptious literature when a treatise leaves off speculating on the nobility of art or the superiority of painting over sculpture and turns instead to a description of workshop recipes, the beauty of materials and their names. Vicente Carducho does not devote much space in his Dialogues to detailed matters of technique, doubtless out of fear that the intellectual nobility of his art might come into question; but when he does name and describe concrete things, his language quickens into a kind of pageant: “Oil painting employs albayalde or white lead, Florentine crimson, mineral and artificial vermilion, realgar, red earth, massicot, ochre, giallorino, orpiment, Venetian umber, black earth, bone black, lamp black, asphaltum, verde vita, terre verte, mountain green, verdetto, ochre, ultramarine, Sevillian ash blue, low blue, smalto, smaltino, indigo.”
Other names that Carducho does not mention are just as wonderful: raw umber, indigo, verdigris. Each pigment has a different origin; some recent, like the kind of black that is made by burning animal bones, others as immemorial as “red earth,” the same iron oxide that was being used already by cave painters. The most expensive and the most highly valued was ultramarine, made from lapis lazuli, which was extracted already in ancient times in the mines of Badakhshan in Afghanistan that Marco Polo saw. It traveled across Asia in the caravans of the Silk Road to ports in the eastern Mediterranean, then by sea to Venice along with other luxury goods like silk and spices. It was so costly and precious that it was reserved for the Virgin’s cloak, a blue that glows as if it had been painted only yesterday in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It glows even more brightly because lapis lazuli contains tiny particles of pyrite. Pacheco laments that it was not employed in Spain because “the painters there do not have the means to afford it.” Venice received shipments of black bitumen from the Dead Sea, of indigo from Baghdad, gum arabic from Africa, and German azurite, which in comparison with lapis lazuli yielded a blue that was less pure and bright but much cheaper. Many of the finest pigments were made in Venice itself from these raw materials.
During their years of apprenticeship, painters became intimately familiar with the material properties of the substances they employed—pigments, oils, glues—and the way they were made. The world of the painter’s workshop is related to the dyer’s craft and the apothecary’s, to a knowledge of natural history and a series of commercial networks dating back to the Middle Ages and even to antiquity, then spreading into Asia and America just as the Renaissance reached its peak. In Velázquez’s lifetime, the most lucrative import from the Indies, after silver and gold, was Mexican cochineal, a tiny insect that breeds in the nopal cactus and yields a magnifi­cent red dye. Another American import was a type of cedar wood that was remarkably hard and resistant to insects and xyloph­agous fungi. The finest cloth for canvases was made in France, Flanders, and the south of Germany. Pacheco’s favorite blue, known as Seville or as Santo Domingo blue, came from azurite mines in America.
A painter’s brilliant achievements, the unique traits of his particular style, rest on an abiding substratum of coordinated specialized crafts, a body of knowledge and practice safeguarded by a tradition upheld by the guilds. Beneath the glimmer and foreground of art history, like a powerful underground river, flow the patterns of training and production developed in the crafts. Art history is centered on individual talents romantically bringing forth their creations on their own, out of nothing. Craft is collective and anonymous. Someone had to weave the pieces of cloth that form the giant canvas of Las Meninas. Someone had to sew them together so that the stitching would show as little as possible. Someone had to cut and to assemble the struts for its support and then nail to them a canvas which in fact is not of the highest quality. It seems that Velázquez enjoyed the roughness of a surface that favored his subtle veils and ambiguities. The loose manner of painting developed in Venice is linked to the quality of the pigments that could be purchased there, as well as to the oil medium and the thick, porous quality of a cloth that allowed subtle veils and ambiguities that are impossible to achieve on the surface of a wood panel.
The bachelor Pablo de Céspedes, a friend of Pacheco, enumerates in the stanzas of one of his poems the tasks of the workshop in the most precise detail. The thick priming brush must be made of boar bristles; the palette, of light pear wood; the mahlstick, used to steady and to rest the hand, of walnut or reed; seashells will be used to hold the paint; varnishes will be kept in ampules of glass. The joint labor of several well-trained people, the sound of the mortar, the scrape of the pumice stone, the scent of oil and boiling pots and the smell of fresh wood and melted glue: all these things we cannot see were required to bring about the supreme instant depicted in Las Meninas, when the master stands alone, facing a well-polished and carefully positioned canvas. In Velázquez’s demeanor, in the courtly silk and velvet of his dress, there is a trace of solitary self-assurance. Only now does his task truly begin, this practice of a liberal art that makes him worthy of the trust and favor of a king. The technical division of labor entails a rigorous social division too. “They were called liberal [arts],” writes Pacheco, “because they were permitted only of free men . . . The mechanical arts, requiring the body for their practice, were deemed servile, and worthy of those who are subject to others.”
The thieving priest in Quevedo’s Historia de la vida del Buscón admonishes Pablos, the picaro, in similar words: “My son,” he says, “thieving is not a mechanical, but a liberal art.” Physical labor is an incurable stigma. One proof of the superiority of painting over sculpture is that it requires no physical effort. “An exceedingly mechanical art,” says Leonardo of the latter, “because it produces sweat and bodily fatigue in its practitioner.” The painter, on the other hand, “is well dressed and manipulates only a light brush.” He could be describing Velázquez. Pacheco, too, points to the absence of physical labor as proof of the nobility of an art that even great lords can practice: “While the painter cannot achieve his purpose except by employing his hand, and the brush, there is clearly so little labor and physical fatigue involved in it that no man of good birth will fail to be pleased and to take delight in such an art, as we read of many princes, ancient and modern, who engaged in it . . . seeing nothing servile in it or mechanical, but rather deeming it entirely noble and free. . . . Considering that such scant and easy labor of the hand could not rightly be called a servile employment.”
Painters do not sweat, get tired, or dirty their clothes. Vasari recounts the annoyance of the prior of the convent in Milan where Leonardo had been painting his Last Supper for so long, in a refectory that the monks could not use, cluttered with scaffolding and with piles of tools at the foot of the large fresco that seemed like it would never be finished. The prior took his complaint directly to Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo’s patron. He said the painter came each day into the refectory and just stood there motionless, looking up at the unfinished work without even picking up a brush or doing any work at all, just contemplating what he had done so far. Leonardo’s reply was categorical, according to the version given by Carducho: “for this was not the same as digging garden ditches.”
In a stratified society, where productive labor and trade were nearly as disgraceful as being of Jewish or Moorish ancestry, artists must assert even more forcefully what they believe to be their rightful place. Their standing is quite fragile. The attitude in which they portray themselves is part arrogance, part pretense, touched by a shade of insolence that seems somewhat showy and insecure (after all, the main audience for each of those self-portraits is the painter himself). Dürer was the first to dare to do it openly, without hiding in the corner or inside a mirror in the background. In the 1498 self-portrait in the Prado, he presents himself not as a painter but in the style of an Italian prince. Light-hued leather gloves protect the aristocratic delicacy of a pair of hands that will never be damaged by the marks of labor. It seems like the slightly strained elegance of someone trying to make his social standing absolutely clear, just as his superb mastery is made completely clear by the utter perfection of the work and by its bold assumption of an avant-garde Italian aesthetics that is all the more noticeable coming from a German artist. Dürer shows and conceals himself, just as Rembrandt, with the now unbridled theatrical sense of a Shakespearean hero, depicts himself as a potentate, an ancient nobleman, or the high bourgeois that for a few years he managed to become. The brush that an aged Titian holds in his hand in a self-portrait in the Prado seems anything but a working tool: it could be a poet’s quill, or that of a humanist scholar, or even a symbol of command.


Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678): The Painter’s Family, 1621–22. Oil on canvas. 1.81 x 1.87 m. Photo credit: Copyright of the image Museo Nacional del Prado/Art Resource, NY.


In the lavish cascade of bodies in the Adoration of the Magi, Rubens features himself as a nobleman in the courtly retinue, wearing the gold chain that the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia once hung around his neck. It is the slightly vulgar ostentation of a parvenu, someone anxious to display what he has achieved, what could also just as quickly be denied to him by the princely whim that still rules over those who lack a title of nobility to guarantee their position in the world. A few years earlier, in 1622, Jacques paints himself surrounded by his family in a setting that seems monumental rather than domestic, where everything suggests abundance, good health, prosperity, whether it be a basket spilling over with expensive fruit, or the ruddy cheeks and lavish ruffs that everyone displays. Needless to say, the painter does not include any signs of his trade in the picture. He rests his right hand regally on the back of a chair and holds a lute in his left, alluding both to the undisputed nobility of music and to the aristocratic leisure that allows one to enjoy it. It is very difficult, prior to Goya, to find painters who depict themselves in flagrante delicto, in the very act of painting. In 2019, in an exhibition titled “A Tale of Two Women Painters,” one was able to see in the Prado the first two instances of this daring act. Both turned out to be self-portraits by women. The first, of 1548, is by Catharina van Hemessen. The second, which was perhaps inspired by it, is by Sofonisba Anguissola. Both appear in the act of painting, visibly holding the palette and mahlstick and dressed in austere household clothes. Catharina belonged to a wealthy merchant family in Antwerp; Sofonisba, to the nobility of Cremona. Perhaps this is why they did not feel as acutely as other painters the precariousness of their position in the world.


Catharina van Hemessen (1528–after 1565): Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1548. Oil on oak panel. 32.2 x 25.2 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, donated by the Prof. JJ Bachofen-Burckhardt Foundation in 2015. Image courtesy of Kunstmuseum Basel.


Catharina van Hemessen’s brush is touching the white priming on the canvas. Brushes, according to Carducho, can be made of “squirrel, polecat, or mongoose hair, as well as goat and dog hair, and can be fitted into the shaft of a swan, vulture, or goose feather, the feathers of other birds, large and small, or with small bands of tin.” The softest and finest of brushes were the ones made in Venice from squirrel hair. Instead of a canvas, Van Hemessen uses a wood panel. Under the influence of Venetian painters, such panels remained in use in Flanders even after canvas had become the norm in Italy, showing the continued influence of the Venetian painters who first used them. This one is made of Baltic oak, a hard, strong wood that can tolerate changes in tempera­ture. There were also pinewood panels from Scandinavia. Flemish panels bore on the back an inspection seal from the guild of carpenters that certified their quality. Trees were ideally cut down between the last week in January and the first in February, when they had less sap and were less vulnerable to wood-eating insects. The size and strength of the panel depended on the kind of cut. The one on which Catharina van Hemessen is painting has been primed with a type of calcium carbonate formed by marine microfossils, much like chalk. The white on which Van Hemessen paints is the same white as on the cliffs of Normandy and Dover.
The naked eye of the wandering viewer grows sharper with the help of the three levels of magnification provided by Eduardo Barba’s botanical loupe. At the Prado’s conservation workshop, a further step is taken by means of a high-power lens that specialists wear like a diadem to reveal entirely new worlds of visual minutiae and tangible matter. The closeness, delicacy, and perseverance involved in their work allows conservators to delve into a painting to a degree of detail that the painter himself may never have attained. The precision of the work literally brings the painting closer to the eye by cleaning off the haze of a varnish, a clumsy touch-up job, or the sheer build-up of dirt and muck. Fra Angelico’s ultramarine cloaks and skies in the predella of the Annunciation regain the glow of lapis lazuli and the shimmer of pyrite as Almudena Sánchez carefully cleans its panels for hours and hours each day, standing by a window looking out over the former cloister of the Church of the Jerónimos. Over the course of several visits in the past few months, I saw the air grow clearer and the snowy mountain landscape broader in Goya’s cartoon for Winter as it was restored by Elisa Mora. Now you can see into a distance that before seemed as if cloaked in fog. Now there is a dusting of snow on the massive back of the freshly slaughtered pig the three travelers are carrying behind them on an ass, slung over the pack saddle, and snowflakes float suspended in the freezing air. Now, as a result of the restoration, the trappings on the donkey’s halter have regained their cheerful colors, and there is an even greater liveliness to the little dog raising its back and tucking its tail to bark at a pair of troubling strangers.
In the workshop, one sees the solid carpentry of the panels, the way they sometimes bow or crack, the marks that were gradually left upon them over centuries. There is a certain beauty to these wooden contraptions, as there is to the one Velázquez painted in Las Meninas. The work of art is not a virtual image, a perfectly smooth and neutral surface like the screen on a cell phone or a tablet. José de la Fuente devotes his day’s work to the study of these panels. He can tell right away by touch and weight if they are made of Baltic oak, or Scandinavian pine, or Italian poplar. Spread on a table without any support or frame, with its uneven edges on display and showing signs of having been rolled up for a long time, ripped, damp, an oil painting reveals what it is materially: just a large piece of cloth; or more precariously still, several pieces of cloth that have been stitched together. One understands why pigments could be costlier than the paintings that were made with them, or why, in the inventories of the Royal Alcázar, tapestries were valued at much higher prices than paintings. Goya’s cartoons for tapestries survived mostly by chance. Nobody thought those works had any but the most immediate and pragmatic value, as with so many other drawings and sketches lost over the centuries because no one thought of preserving them. The first person to collect drawings, that we know of, was Vasari.
In the round of closer and closer approximations, the magni­fying lens employed in the conservation workshop gives way to the microscope and the laboratory, then to the subterranean and rather spectral rooms where x-rays and infrared reflectographies are taken. We are now in a realm first glimpsed by that neighbor of Vermeer who invented the microscope and for the first time saw an entire flora and fauna in a drop of water. Smaller even than a drop of water is a tiny sample of the sky in The Surrender of Breda that María Dolores Gayo places under the microscope for me to see. It is barely a speck, a black dot on a clear plastic slide. A micron is a thousandth of a millimeter. The sample I am looking at is a hundred microns. The secrets of the workshop and of Velázquez’s style are encoded in it, just as your whole identity lies encoded in the DNA sample you leave behind in a drop of saliva. First, the light plaster with which the canvas was primed, then the light tint of the ground, and over it two layers of paint, one of azurite for the sky, another of a greenish hue belonging to a spear.


Diego Rodriguez Velázquez (1599–1660): The Surrender of Breda, c. 1635. Oil on canvas. 307.3 x 371.5 cm. Museo del Prado, Spain. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.


Since I mentioned how much I like Joachim Patinir, María Dolores shows me a sample taken from the sky behind Charon’s boat in The Crossing of the Styx. It is like looking at a stratigraphic section. One can see the chalky layer of priming, then a layer of ultramarine paint composed of mixed particles of lapis lazuli and azurite. Of this stuff is made the glowing blue of skies so pure they would never exist in the real world. Another image, this time in black and white since it was made by an electron microscope, allows us to see even more infinitesimal things: fossilized algae from the bottom of the sea where many millions of years ago were deposited the calcareous shells of creatures that would in time produce the white stuff used for priming.
Human beings are catastrophically talented at overlooking what is right before their eyes. Fortunately, a different talent allows us to discover what lies behind and beyond the visible realm, or what is part of it without being consciously perceived. A symbolic and a utilitarian world are seamlessly combined in the museum’s architecture. A step away from rooms that are a pure feast for the eyes, in a parallel, contiguous world, lie the workshops, laboratories, and storage spaces where hundreds of paintings are kept that are the hidden side of the collection. You have to take industrial elevators and walk across dark empty spaces. You have to wait for armored doors with warning signs to open so you can reach the crypts where the instruments are housed that allow us to see beyond the visible: x-ray machines, with their dangerous emissions, and the machines for infrared reflectology. You do not need an overly vivid imagination to feel like you have stepped into a retrofuturistic stage set, something out of an early James Bond film. X-rays and reflectographies show, like negatives, the detailed drawings that often lie beneath large Flemish paintings, and the corrections, liberties, and pentimenti allowed by the use of oil on canvas. It is as if one could see the pages of a book and also the translucent trace of all the earlier versions that would lead to it: the hesitations, the bits that were struck out, the possibilities that never came to fruition. In this necessarily sepulchral crypt, I spent some time looking at an x-ray of the full-length portrait of Charles II by Carreño de Miranda. There is a funereal heaviness to the painting itself. The king, pale and sickly, poses in the vast gloom of the royal palace’s Hall of Mirrors. But beneath or to one side of Charles II there is another Charles II, smaller, or more sickly, a sad son or diminished doppelganger. It turns out, as Laura Alba and Jaime García-Máiquez explain to me, that Carreño de Miranda painted the new portrait of the grown-up king over another portrait he had done of him as a child. The painting in the museum is already a portrait of a ghost. Like those fraudulent photographs concocted by Victorian mediums, its x-ray shows a ghost devoid of all materiality, accompanied in this case by another even more phantasmagorical creature, the specter of the child that he himself had been.
One feels an urge to return to the land of the living. I go back to Las Meninas and am still in the same dark Alcázar where Carreño painted Charles II, suffused now in Velázquez’s tranquil light. He had devoted his entire life and all of his talent to earning a place in that palace, that closed-off, lavish world. Knowing whom you should bow to was just as important as knowing who stood beneath you. The story of Velázquez and Juan de Pareja provides an instructive social vignette. It is told by Palomino, who had access to individuals who must have known it firsthand: “Juan de Pareja, a native of Seville and a mestizo by birth, of strange coloring, was a slave of don Diego Velázquez, and although his master, out of respect for his art, never allowed him to engage in any kind of drawing or painting, but only the grinding of colors and now and then the priming of a canvas and other such subsidiary tasks of his art and of the household, he was so crafty about it, that behind his master’s back, and neglecting many hours of sleep, he was able to achieve things in painting that were quite worthy of esteem.”
From this point on, the story begins to turn into a fable. Knowing that the king would sometimes go into Velázquez’s workshop and look out of curiosity through the paintings that were stacked against the walls, Pareja placed one of his own among his master’s. The king noticed the painting, and as he began to praise it, Pareja went down on his knees and implored him to intercede with his master so he might be allowed to practice openly the art of painting. It is implausible that a slave would dare take such a liberty, and then not only go unpunished, but get his way. Soon after the trip to Italy during which he painted Pareja’s portrait, Velázquez set him free. The “strange coloring” mentioned by Palomino is highly attenuated in Pareja’s own self-portrait, which he included among the figures of his Calling of Saint Matthew. In it, he appears proud, cautious, looking directly at the viewer and holding a piece of paper bearing his signature. His subject in the painting, by the way, is also a pariah, that tax collector whom Christ nevertheless chose as one of his own.
In his own oblique way, indirectly, showing and concealing, or as if speaking silently, Velázquez alludes in Las Meninas to one of the foremost legends regarding the nobility of painting, namely the favor bestowed on an artist by a king in visiting his workshop, a story that like so many others can already be found in Pliny. Alexander the Great, ruler of the known world, forbid that anyone but Apelles paint his portrait and graced him by visiting his workshop to watch him practicing his craft. Javier Portús has studied plays by Lope and Calderón that show this encounter and were staged in court theaters for the king and queen as well as the high courtiers for whom Velázquez worked. In Spain, unlike in Italy, painters were still bound to the discipline and the subordinate social standing of the guilds, having to pay taxes just like a merchant or a shopkeeper would—the inescapable alcabala, of which even the lowliest members of the aristocracy were exempt. For painting to be acknowledged or not as a liberal art had consequences that were not purely symbolic. Painters, and those among them who wrote treatises, thus vindicated themselves by repeating the story of Alexander’s generous treatment of Apelles and of the mutual closeness that arose between them. Alexander discussed the art of painting with Apelles, and the painter even dared to respond ironically to his erroneous or vulgar opinions.
One episode in the story became a common theme in courtly painting and was often depicted in tapestries and engravings. Alexander asks Apelles to paint the portrait of his mistress, Campaspe, a woman so enticing that as she poses in the nude for Apelles, he falls passionately in love with her. In an unheard-of gesture of male magnanimity, Alexander gives her away to Apelles. Royal favor also meant a deferral of physical labor. Apelles only made paintings, not frescos, as Pacheco explains. “Perhaps he gave it up due to the incommodiousness of the scaffolding and the manual labor, choosing to remain in the calm and quiet dignity of his secluded workshop, favored and very often visited by Alexander the Great.” No matter how great a master of his craft he may be, a painter up on a scaffold is little more than a bricklayer. In a “secluded workshop” he can be the confidant of a king, or even an accomplice in his amorous pursuits.
The repetition of the archetype seems somewhat compulsive: the king’s deference towards the artist; his visit to the workshop; the proofs of an affection that overcomes the vast social distance between them and can sometimes rankle the members of the court, awakening their jealousy. No writer on painting after Vasari fails to recount how King Francis I went to see Leonardo every day as he lay dying in his bed, or that the painter passed away in the king’s arms, to the great chagrin of his courtiers. Charles V graced Titian by making him a knight and presenting him with lavish gifts. He, too, visited the artist in the workshop, and once, when he dropped a brush, bent down personally to pick it up and hand it back. In the sums that Pacheco says the king paid for Titian’s paintings, one hears an echo of the fabled sums ascribed by Pliny to ancient masters: “Our all-conquering emperor Charles V rewarded him with two thousand ducats for a painting of medium size and was pleased to have him paint his portrait many times, sending him each time a thousand ducats and never allowing anyone else to paint him (as Alexander had done with Apelles), holding him in such high esteem as to knight him.” The practice of painting is cleansed of any suspected tarnish of manual effort when popes, kings, and emperors honor by their presence the artist’s workshop. Julius II regularly visited Michelangelo when he was painting the Sistine Chapel. Pacheco says that Philip II displayed the same deference to Sánchez Coello: “He lodged him in some important buildings next to the palace, where, possessing the only key, through a secret passage and in his house clothes, he was often wont to go into his house at any hour of day or night . . . and linger in his workshop. At other times he would catch him at the easel, and coming up from behind, place his hands on his shoulders.” For a king to touch a painter as he works is proof of his glory. Philip II’s daughter, Princess Isabella Clara Eugenia, and her husband the Archduke Albert, governors of Flanders, honor Rubens as soon as he is done with their portrait: “The infanta, in the presence of her husband, girded him with a sword, and placed around his neck a most lavish gold chain, addressing him as the pride of his fatherland.”
When he arrived in Madrid in 1628, Rubens was an international celebrity as well as an ambassador appointed by Princess Isabella Clara Eugenia despite the disapproval of King Philip IV, who considered it inappropriate for a simple painter to occupy such an exalted post. Velázquez had been living in Madrid for a few years at the time and was already a court painter. He had improved his taste and developed his artistic talent by studying the Italian and Flemish masterpieces in the Royal Collections. But it was in all likelihood Rubens who made visible to him the paradigm of a prosperous, intellectual, cosmopolitan painter of a social and professional standing that was unattainable for Spanish artists, and it was Rubens, too, who encouraged him to travel to the land where such high regard was achievable for painters, Italy. Velázquez came from Seville and from the world of the guild and the workshop. Though his father-in-law, in addition to training him, had introduced him to intellectual circles that held a more ambitious and philosophical notion of painting, it was Rubens who broadened the world before his eyes. In Pacheco’s words one discerns his affection as well as how anchored the young Velázquez was in the practice of the crafts: “Diego de Velázquez, my son-in-law, . . . whom I married to my daughter after five years of education and training, moved by his virtue, purity, and good parts, and by the promise of his great and natural gift.” From Seville, where he continued to live and work (more through intellectual acumen than painterly skill, conscientiously performing his duties as inspector of pictures in the service of the Inquisition), Francisco Pacheco writes proudly of his son-in-law’s triumph at the court of Philip IV in Madrid: “It can hardly be believed with what liberality and good grace he is treated by such a great ruler; to have a workshop in his gallery, and His Majesty a key, and a chair to watch him paint at leisure nearly every day.”
Pacheco had been dead for twelve years when his son-in-law, at the double peak of his career as an artist and a courtier, painted Las Meninas. But he would have recognized and celebrated without reservations the subtle way in which Velázquez vindicates simultaneously the intellectual nobility of his art and its material substance, as if remembering the learning of his early youth, as well as how he suggests a closeness to the king while respecting his distance, taking pride with equal arrogance in his high rank among those who serve at court and in his profession as a painter: brush and palette in hand; the key of a valet de chambre hanging visibly though discreetly at his waist; fresh dabs of color on the palette and a canvas standing before him, but also a lavish suit of clothes that no painter would ever wear while working. And then, above all, his stillness, that look in the eyes that is at once focused and lost, the complete denial of any hint of physical effort, like Leonardo holding the lightest of brushes in one hand or standing motionless and rapt in thought before the unfinished fresco of The Last Supper. Painting as speculation, intellect, reverie, the ability to see simultaneously what exists and what does not exist: a gallery in the Alcázar in Madrid, a group of customary courtly figures, and also the entirely imaginary work of art that will incorporate them.
Prince Balthasar Charles, the longed-for heir to the throne, who once lived in the same rooms where Velázquez now painted, had died ten years earlier at the age of not quite seventeen. Princess Mariana of Austria, a niece of Philip IV, had been chosen as Balthasar’s future wife. After he died, Mariana married her uncle and intended father-in-law, King Philip. The continuation of the line required a male heir, but the king was growing old and felt unsure, as his letters show, of his ability to fulfill his conjugal and patriotic duties. He was forty-five when he married Mariana, while she was fifteen. In 1656, when Las Meninas was painted, the only heir to the throne was that blond five-year-old girl, the infanta Margarita, as pale and blond as her parents and as the dead brother she never knew, also as frail and sickly, swaddled preemptively in stiff corsets, whalebone hoops, and silk dresses, so weak that she died only sixteen years later, in Vienna, at the age of twenty-two. Her brother Charles II, the x-ray ghost king, the woeful heir, was born five years later, after Velázquez had already died.
Everyone in the canvas gathers around the little infanta as if she might break. She is so incorporeal in her pallor and her nearly transparent blond hair that she seems to float rather than to tread the ground, as Faulkner said of Southern ladies before the Civil War. Apelles received Alexander the Great in his workshop; Titian, the emperor Charles; and Philip II kept a key to Sánchez Coello’s. Philip IV had graced Velázquez with such signs of friendship, Pacheco says, as to sit on a chair nearby so he could watch him paint. Philip IV was a lover of the arts, an obsessive collector who ordered his ambassadors throughout Europe to buy the best paintings that came on the market. He was also living proof that the art of painting was noble enough to be practiced by great lords and princes. Juan Bautista Maíno had given him drawing lessons. The king and Velázquez had known each other since they were both quite young, when one of them had just inherited the throne and the other had recently arrived from Seville. The king had advanced him time and again in his career at court. The key at Velázquez’s waist, which is so hard to see in the painting, provides further proof of the trust with which he was honored by Philip: it was the king himself who chose him for that position over candidates who were much preferred by the nobles of the court. It was the king as well who supported his abiding desire to obtain the title of a knight of the Order of Santiago. For Velázquez to strive so tirelessly and with such indignity for many years to attain this title seems baffling to us, as when brilliant writers who have achieved everything grow desperate to get the Nobel or the Cervantes Prize. But Velázquez lived in his world, not ours. Cervantes, too, had high hopes that the Count of Lemos would take him to Naples as part of his viceroyal retinue.
Velázquez cannot depict the king sitting on a chair, watching him work. In typically stealthy fashion, indirectly, as always, he paints and he does not paint the king, placing his reflection along with that of Queen Mariana in a mirror in the background, hazy as a mirage, yet perfectly delineated, solemn, conjugal, standing by a curtain that Velázquez evokes with two quick strokes of the cheerful red made with Mexican cochineal. He shows them above all in their invisibility: it is precisely the king and queen, newly arrived, who have just been seen by some of the figures in the painting, those that stand alert, in a division dear to Velázquez between those who see things right away and those who see more slowly, or never at all. The painter himself has just seen the king, and so has the dog of the squinting eyes, but not the dwarf trying to disturb its rest, or one of the maids, though the other one does, bowing with great reverence as protocol decrees, and so too does the dwarf Mari Bárbola, raising her hand to her breast in an unconscious gesture. It is the king, and at his side the queen, who looks upon the scene and thus upon the painting that Velázquez begins to imagine from the scene, knowing the painter so well after so many years that he can guess at his intentions and understand better and more swiftly than anyone else the riddles he likes to paint, the trompe l’oeil tricks that so delight him.
The scene seems trivial and matter-of-fact, like a photograph where people have absent-mindedly relaxed from the formal pose they were told to assume. A fragment of reality so haphazard that it cannot have been premeditated: that is how Carl Justi saw Las Meninas at the end of the nineteenth century, influenced by impressionism and photography. The Spinners made the same impression: Velázquez must have gone to a tapestry workshop with some ladies of the court, registering through his preemptively photographic pupil a quotidian and slightly muddled scene, preserving it for later reproduction in the workshop, perhaps with the aid of a quickly drawn sketch of the kind that Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec would make when they went to a brothel or a café.
Looking is necessarily historical: no matter how close we bring our eye to a painting that stands before us, we see it always through a sometimes hazy, sometimes clear veil, the peculiar atmosphere of the culture of our time. We can discern the glaze that prior generations gave the work, even stripping it away to some degree like highly skilled conservators cleaning a crude layer of varnish from a century ago. But our own short-sightedness is very hard to notice. Humility and caution are precious antidotes, but they may not be enough. Learning how a work was seen by those of its contemporaries for whom it was painted will be very helpful only if we give up the baseless privilege of thinking we are smarter than they. Our ability to perceive the biases to which they were blind does not mean we are immune to ours: the most typical and the most dangerous quality of a bias is that it cannot be seen by those it afflicts.
We now know, with considerable certainty, that The Spinners is not a snapshot of a visit to a tapestry factory, but rather a highly elaborate composition in which a partly realistic workshop scene simultaneously discloses and conceals an allegory about a pressing issue at the time, namely the difference between the mechanical and the liberal arts, the manual labor carried out by craftsmen and the intellectual creativity that is a privilege of painters of Velázquez’s rank. Pallas Athena punishes Arachne for the same reason that Apollo condemns Marsyas to the heinous torment of being flayed alive. The separation between manual labor and the work of the mind in a society based on caste is as unbreachable as the one established by a pitiless Greek mythology between gods and mortals. Generation after generation, the spinners will repeat the same identical tasks, just as generations of spiders will go on weaving the same webs. Velázquez, instead, an heir of Titian and Rubens, declares his own mastery as a painter by citing and at the same time challenging them both. The tapestry in the background is a copy of a painting by Rubens that is itself a copy and an homage to Titian. Velázquez is their successor but also shows that he is capable of going further than either of them, whether in composing a narrative of immense complexity along successive visual planes or in his imitation of reality, the sheer ability to deceive the eyes, which see the wheel turn so swiftly that its spokes are blurred.
The challenge posed by Las Meninas is different. Its mystery is greater because it is simpler. The space is not nearly as cluttered as in The Spinners. It is like a box set up for an optical experiment, the deployment of the spectral yet perfectly precise field of vision of a camera obscura. It is a large space, but also one that is highly circumscribed, a closed room that is nevertheless open to a daylit exterior that is just out of sight. This interplay of enclosures and openings, of a confined domestic space where something takes place that is at once quotidian and otherworldly, can be found already in those Flemish panels that Velázquez saw in the Royal Collection. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was in the Alcázar in Madrid. It seems quite likely that Velázquez borrowed from it the thought of placing a mirror in the background, perhaps also the brightness coming through the windows, the way the light of day suffuses an interior space that is more commonly in shade.


Jan van Eyck (c. 1390–1441): Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434. Oil on oak. 82.2 x 60 cm. (Formerly known as The Arnolfini Wedding.) Photo credit: © National Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY.


The mirror is key to how we interpret the seemingly self-evident and rather haphazard scene before our eyes. According to Jonathan Brown’s canonical reading, the king and queen have just come into the room where Velázquez set up his workshop, and the unexpectedness of their arrival can be seen reflected in each character’s face and attitude, including those of the great dog. It is precisely the king and queen whom we see in the mirror, and it is their place that we take as we stop before the painting: that is why all their gazes converge on you, expressing their surprise, as with the syndics of the draper’s guild in Rembrandt’s painting.
There is, however, another possibility, one that also leads us to that slightly hazy mirror. The king and queen are certainly reflected in it, but not because they have just entered the room. They are painted, rather, on the canvas that stands before Velázquez, a still unfinished double portrait for which the king and queen have been sitting up to this very moment, in one of those sessions of lethargic length and perfect stillness Velázquez was known to demand from his sitters. It is to distract them as they sit for the painting that everyone has come, the dwarves, the dog, and the infanta, whom the king, in his letters, tenderly referred to as “his little urchin.” Dwarves, jesters, and favorite pets commonly entertain members of the royal family when they sit for paintings. The dour Philip IV of the Fraga portrait, now at the Frick, had a jester by his side. The infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia is also attended by her favorite dwarf in the portrait by Sánchez Coello. Velázquez painted the infante Felipe Próspero with a little white dog and the toddler Balthasar Charles in the company of a dwarf.
The cause of everyone’s surprise, then, would not be the arrival of the king and queen, which in any case would have been announced by the chamberlain José Nieto, who is also in the picture, opening a door in the background: what happens at that moment is rather that the king and queen have stood up, putting an end to the painting session, bored and tired of holding a pose, and are now preparing to leave, setting in motion the royal retinue with the chamberlain leading the way as protocol ordains, holding his hat in one hand and dressed in a black ceremonial suit.
Whatever the case may be, what matters is the instantaneous nature of the act, the way in which its diverse and simultaneous perception is reflected in the eyes and gestures of each figure, brought to a standstill at a precise point of space and time, isolated from the others yet linked to them by a web of invisible connections that crisscross or overlap with the painting’s perspective lines and the endless subtleties of its composition. It makes no difference, to some degree, whether the king and queen have just arrived or whether they are rising to leave; whether we see them in the mirror or whether what we see reflected in it is the portrait Velázquez is painting in such little haste, cloudy still, so that their features are not well defined. Either explanation is subject to doubt. The fact that José Nieto is present does belie a possible surprise arrival by the king and queen, and thus they may have been sitting for a portrait. But neither in Velázquez’s corpus nor in the court collection is there another instance of a double portrait, and if this one did in fact exist, it left no documentary trace whatsoever.
It may be prudent to accept that there are limits to our knowledge. We know so much about Las Meninas, above all through Palomino’s account, that we are unwilling to resign ourselves to the blank spaces of what we do not know, what was lost or what may never have been clear in the first place, because images are always more ambiguous than words and because the painter did not want it known, or simply wished to leave it in suspense. If we knew exactly what is happening in the painting we would not pay it so much attention. Its measure of mystery keeps us watchful. We see that huge canvas in great detail, but from the back. We witness a scene that is at once memorable and ordinary, but we do not know if it is an arrival or a leave-taking. This morning, having come to the room half an hour before the museum opens, in a silence nearly as pure as the one I felt that time in Amsterdam, at seven in the morning, before Rembrandt’s syndics and Jewish bride and groom, I want to look at the picture trying as hard as I can to see what stands before me, deferring for the moment all questions, speculations, doubts, or specialized interpretations. I want to be all eyes, just as it is possible to be all ears.
It is as if the painting had been made to be seen by a single person. Juan Carlos Onetti had a similar thought in a short story titled “A Dream Fulfilled.” A seemingly trivial scene is set up in a theater, onstage, to be viewed by just one person. We know that the painting hung in the king’s private chamber. We know as well, from the work of specialists, that the canvas on which it was painted is not of high quality. It was so cheap that, despite the care with which it was assembled, the stitching of the various pieces that compose it can be seen quite clearly. Laura Alba, an expert on the techniques and materials employed at the time, tells me that strangely it is not the kind of support a court painter would have chosen for an important portrait. Nor is there any record in the archives that it was ever commissioned. A commis­sion would be unlikely, indeed, for a painting that does not belong to any established genre. Although its size is that of a history painting, it does not depict a mythological, military, or sacred motif. It contains several portraits but does not match any of the established models for portraiture. It is like one of those disjointed yet mysteriously harmonious scenes that photography at times makes possible yet is filled with allusions to the art of painting and the nobility of its practitioners: when Velázquez painted it, he had been putting up for years with the aggravation and disdain of the court bureaucracy, which traced his origins and examined the lives of his parents and forebears looking for signs of base employments or the pollution of impure—that is, Jewish or Moorish—blood. The greatest painter, along with Rembrandt, ever to live, had to try to prove that he never practiced painting professionally. Witnesses who were loyal to him, and lied, like Alonso Cano or Zurbarán, declared under oath that Velázquez had never to their knowl­edge derived any economic gain from painting. It is as if Shakespeare had spent years trying to prove he had never been seriously involved in theater.
Yet the subject of Las Meninas is precisely painting: its pleasures, the wisdom it requires, the tangible qualities of its materials, the many skills involved in achieving a glowing pigment, a transparency, a darkness, a space that is at once made-up and true. From a certain distance, in silence, in the empty or nearly empty room, which is too large, too bright, a few minutes after ten o’ clock, the painting is the haunting snapshot of a single instant. The painter, in his courtly clothes, absorbed in thought, imagines a scene, the painting he is about to begin, the one he sketched no doubt in preliminary drawings that were gradually lost here and there without anyone giving them the slightest importance, and that for us would be the miraculous grail of the painting’s gestation. The scale of the canvas before Velázquez conforms to the relationship between the size of the figures in the painting and that of the viewer standing still before it. The vanishing point shifts like the pivoting sections of a fan as the viewer moves from side to side. He moves to get a better view, yet the figures keep their eyes on him. The painting is both a ghostly optical illusion and the outsize material object that partly blocks the foreground.
You step closer, and all those certainties and the figures themselves begin to dissolve: you have seen the sublime trickery of painting, and now you see the process that gave rise to it, the skills, the artifice that dismantles vision, just as a stream of photons can strike the pupil and go through the nerve endings that reach the visual cortex of the brain and finally arrange themselves to compose a visible, intelligible picture of the world. It is all made up of blotches of pigment mixed with walnut oil, squiggles made with a squirrel-hair brush on a smooth ground of luminous gray that is spread in turn on a light coat of plaster and glue, over a rough canvas made of pieces of cloth that have been stitched together and mounted on a pinewood frame. So too does everything real and solid dissolve into the vibration of particles in empty space. Now I look at Velázquez. I look at his face, which is the broad face of a craftsman from Seville, at his inquisitive, accepting gaze, and I think about something I was told by a person who regularly looks at paintings and subjects them to the revealing scrutiny of the x-ray machine. It is likely that what Velázquez looks at so attentively, besides the coming of the king, is his own painting, at that instant when the end, the finished work can already be discerned, but the transport of invention and creation lingers on. Velázquez may have painted Las Meninas to vindicate his talent, his supremacy as a painter, the nobility of his art, or his place at court and in the world. What I know for certain is that he painted it above all for himself.


[Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar]


[1] This is the fourth in a series of four lectures delivered by the author as the El Prado Chair in November 2019, on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the Museo del Prado.