This painting is of the royal Hapsburg couple and their daughter Marguerita along with an entourage. This painting was a favourite of the Hapsburgs in what they thought was a unique portraiture of themselves. However, on closer inspection we observe several singularities that provoke the mind to HYPOTHESIZE solution concepts on a variety of levels.
The first level is playfulness, which expresses itself in the answer to the question: What is the subject of Las Meninas? Is it the royal Infanta Marguerita? Certainly she seems to be the center of attention… but wait, is that Diego Velázquez himself featuring himself in the painting? Perhaps Velázquez is making himself the subject… but wait Diego, Marguerita and several of the figures in the court are looking at someone… perhaps that someone is the subject? But WHO is that someone?
This painting actually features the royal couple Philip IV and his wife Marianna of Austria in the center of the composition. Where you ask? Look deeply into the back of the room and one is struck by a mirror reflecting the royal couple.
This puts the viewer into a very unique situation indeed. Not only is the viewer the subject of the painting, but the very question of “sovereignty” and the divinity of monarchical bloodlines is put into question! Every viewer now finds themselves in the shoes of the monarch of Spain! This is an incredible intervention into culture of the day, and one could say has more power to influence the thinking of society than thousands of pages of philosophical treaties on the equality of mankind.
The very playful ambiguity of the entire composition gave Velazquez, who remained the leading court painter of Spain, the necessary room for deniability when he encountered accusations which attempted to portray him as a revolutionary. Unfortunately, the King’s advisors were more astute than the dim-witted King who never grasped his favorite painter’s intention, and the painting was buried out of public view for nearly 200 years!
If there is any doubt over Velázquez’s stance on the issue of “divine right of kings” and oligarchism, a powerful clue is provided among the shadows wherein we find two paintings of Peter Paul Rubens placed on the back wall.
The two paintings chosen by Velázquez feature subjects that Rubens selected in order to expose the petty jealousy and arrogance of the Gods of Olympus who could not stand to be challenged by the superior creative powers of the “mortals”. While the painting of Minerva punishing Arachne features the story of the seamstress Arachne being punished by the goddess Minerva for having the hubris of producing a more beautiful tapestry than the goddess during a competition. In the second Rubens’ sketch we find the story of Apollo who had tortured the flutist Marsyas for having played his flute more beautifully than Apollo could play his lyre.