Art of the 20th Century

A Revolution in the Arts


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map







Pablo Picasso

The Image of the Artist  1881-1973
The Making of a Genius  1890-1898
The Art of Youth  1898-1901
The Blue Period  1901- 1904
The Rose Period  1904-1906
In the Laboratory of Art  1906-1907
Analytical Cubism  1907- 1912
Synthetic Cubism  1912-1915
The Camera and the Classicist  1916-1924
A Juggler with Form  1925-1936
War, Art and "Guernica"  1937
The Picasso Style  1937-1943
Politics and Art  1943-1953
The Presence of the Past  1954- 1963
The Case of "Las Meninas"  1957
The Old Savage  1963-1973
The Legend of the Artist



Pablo Picasso - Erotic Drawings 1968-1972
Pablo Picasso and his Women





The Case of  "Las Meninas"  



Diego Velazquez
Las Meninas


Pablo Picasso
Las Meninas (after Velazquez)



From 17 August to 30 December 1957, Picasso did a series of 58 very different large-scale oils related to "Las Meninas", painted by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez in 1656 and so titled after the two maids at court included in it. Picasso took an interest in this famous work for various reasons. Velazquez was and still is considered one of the major figures in European art. Picasso had considered himself one of this company too ever since (at the very latest) the directors of the Louvre invited him, shortly after the Second World War, to hang works of his own alongside major works in the collection, for a single day, in order to establish the stature of his art through the comparison.

Being Spanish, Velazquez might in that respect be seen as a precursor of Picasso. The modern artist had seen "Las Meninas" in the original when he was in Madrid, studying at the Royal Academy of Art. At that time, the works of Velazquez were his preferred objects of study. In the 1950s, furthermore, the work of Velazquez underwent a revival thanks to Francis Bacon's variations on the portrait of Pope Innocent X. The English painter's series is one of the outstanding accomplishments of figural art since the Second World War. But Picasso was especially attracted to "Las Meninas" because it dealt with his central theme of painter and model. Velazquez's painting is incomparable in its meditation upon the historical and societal preconditions of artistic activity.

The vertical-format rectangular picture shows a gloomy room lit only from windows at the side: the artist's studio. Ten figures are in this space, making a somewhat lost impression, all in the lower half of the composition, with dark vacancy above them. They are positioned at three points of depth: in the foreground, as if in a frieze, are a Spanish princess and her retinue, consisting of two maids-of-honour, two court dwarfs, and a peaceful dog. At left, somewhat behind this group, stands the painter himself at his easel, at work on a huge canvas, his brush at his palette. In the middle-ground there are two servants. And at the very rear, through an open door, we can see the chamberlain of the court, in glaring light.


Different though the postures and attitudes of these people are, they are almost all giving their attention to the same place, to some vis-a-vis. The mirror at the rear reveals that this is the king and queen. Thus the painting unambiguously, albeit subtly, expresses the facts of everyday life for Velazquez, painter at court. Life at court was strictly hierarchical. The composition preserves that hierarchy, and marginalizes the painter. While at work he is giving his attention to those people who are at the heart of court life and determine his activity as artist. The other figures are also subordinate to the king and queen, most strikingly the Infanta, second to them in rank, whose gaze is fixed on them. If the boy at right departs from the norm, absorbed in a world of his own and kicking the dog, it is because, as a court dwarf, he has a certain licence: he is one of those fools whose presence at court was traditionally tolerated. In other words, Velazquez's painting is a portrait of social relations. The subtle darks and lights and graded colour values serve to strengthen the message. Velazquez showed himself in this work to be the "true painter of reality", as Picasso put it. That was what constituted his attraction for the modern artist.

Picasso now set about restructuring that reality. In contrast to his previous procedure when paraphrasing Delacroix's "Women of Algiers", the largest full-scale composition came first this time, and not last. It was conceived programmatically, as an expose of the new subject. The nature of the transformation is clear from two changes: the format has been revised, and the status of the painter has been upgraded. Now the format is a broad horizontal, the picture itself more narrative in flavour. Though the painter is still at left, off-centre, he and his easel now occupy a good third of the canvas breadth and almost its entire height. The painter and easel are done in the "Picasso style", as if Picasso were deliberately contrasting his own style with that of the 17th-century painter. On the other hand, the dwarf and dog are in the infant style Picasso had evolved for "Guernica". The chamberlain at rear, the maids-of-honour and servants, and the king and queen in the mirror, are all crudely and hastily established in a manner also reminiscent of children's drawings. The colour and light, crucial factors in the original, have undergone a total change: the new work is a grisaille based on contrasts of white and grey, and the greys, unlike the colours in Velazquez's painting, do not reflect the light.

Everything in this new version has become unambiguous. The figures are frontally positioned or in clear profile. One will has borne all before it: Picasso's. He is lord of his world, empowered to do whatsoever he chooses. The rival royal power has ceased to matter. Picasso is free to treat his subject as he wishes. In this, he has not only established the parameters for his treatment of "Las Meninas"; the subject seems in fact well-nigh exhausted. The paintings that followed the large-scale opening version of 17 August either deal with parts and details or produce variations on the horizontal format.


First, from 20 August to 4 September, there were eleven pictures which, with a single exception, focussed on the Infanta, the central figure in Velazquez's composition. What attracted Picasso most was the girl's bright dress. In Velazquez it was the brightest element of light in the picture, countering the glare from the open door at the rear. In his own paraphrases, Picasso tended to use a monochrome composition that revised the light and shadow and the figure. In the full-figure picture of the Infanta done on 21 August ( no. 4) the brightness from the open door affords a kind of touchstone for the princess's dress, while the colour studies that followed (nos. 5 to 12) concentrated on the face. Picasso's aim was plainly to transmute Velazquez's subtly tonal work not only in terms of style, composition and motifs but also in terms of colour.

There followed an intermezzo of nine brightly colourful pictures done from 6 to 12 September. At first sight they seem to have nothing at all to do with the picture by Velazquez. Picasso had been giving all his concentration to the paraphrases and had quit the studio at La Califorme for the purpose, moving up to the loft. There, undisturbed by the everyday life of the household, he was alone with a view of the Mediterranean and with his sole companions, the pigeons. Taking the loft window as frame and backdrop, he now painted the pigeons a number of times, in fluent, alia prima work that recalled both the Fauves and the relaxed manner of Raoul Dufy. These paintings record both the artist's independence and his engagement with colour. Picasso deliberately turned aside from his main route in order to study the expressive power of pure, bright colour. What this study produced may be seen in a further portrait of the Infanta done on 14 September (no. 27). This picture set the tone for everything else that followed.

Picasso now tried to render the chiaroscuro factor in the original Velazquez through contrasts of darker and lighter shades of colour, in dissected, complex patterns; and from 18 September on he attempted to transfer this principle to the whole composition (no. 31). But the result was not convincing, and on 9 October he embarked on a small set of detail studies (nos. 35 to 39) - essentially, he was back at square one. He tested colour combinations on the Infanta, her maid, and the figures at right. The major departure in this new series came when he transformed the dwarf into a piano player (no. 40), a motif from the Picasso repertoire.

A further series of studies of the maid to the right of the Infanta in the Velazquez tested the potential of expressionist modes. Once again Picasso detoured into a different subject, this time three landscapes and a portrait of Jacqueline. Not till 30 December did he return to the motifs Velazquez offered, with a study of the right-hand maid (p. 6to, no. 58). This not only marked a return to the tonal values of the original but also tried to render those values in relaxed brushwork such as is sometimes characteristic of Velazquez's own style. But here the entire series suddenlv breaks off.


Towards the end, Picasso's work on the series was slow, and it finally stagnated. And in December 1957, after all, he was already busy with preliminary work for the Paris UNESCO building mural.

So Picasso's variations on "Las Meninas" finally came to nothing. It is true that he succeeded in articulating the core idea of his new version: that the artist occupies a new, changed position in modern, liberal society. The large composition that opened the series expressed this idea powerfully. The Picasso style is in a sense the very definition of modern art, providing the contemporary artist with an entire range of available approaches. And Picasso, revising the original in colour terms too, was aiming to outdo his illustrious forerunner. He tackled the task with furious energy, and even interposed sequences of works devoted to particular problems (the pigeons) into the "Meninas" series. And with these experiments behind him he painted a lovely figure portrait of the Infanta (no. 27) which can be considered a success in its own right.

But to transfer his colourist concepts to the overall composition was a more complex undertaking. And in the end Picasso conceded defeat. Limits constrained the autonomy of colour; and the compositions of 18 September and 2 and 3 October (nos. 31, 33 and 34) all illustrate the same dilemma - colour was still of secondary importance, subordinated to form. Interestingly, Picasso scarcely went further than simple colour contrasts or the deployment of one or two glowing colours in a monochrome structure. He was the prisoner of his own lifelong principles. For Picasso, who saw visual form from a draughtsman's point of view, colour was always secondary. The series of pigeon paintings interposed in the "Meninas" paraphrases highlight the shortcoming this imposed on him: though he was painting the pictures with the aim of composing in pure colour, he nowhere attained that aim with any fullness. Only the picture of 11 September (no. 23) articulates the effects of a specific colour scale, systematically placing violet against blue and green. But the structure is a simple one, confined to a clearly defined area within the composition. There is no fundamental orchestration of colour such as might use a scale of gradations to highlight certain tonalities and climactic colour values at vital points in the composition - nor does Picasso achieve this in his "Meninas" variations. Thus the last series too, which begins in crude colour polarities and then moves through mixed shades in quest of subtler nuances, produces no satisfying result in the end. Ultimately, Picasso's variations on Velazquez's "Las Meninas", viewed in terms of a working method, and judged with Picasso's own vast ambitions in mind, must be considered a record of failure.




1 Las Meninas (after Velazquez)

2 Infanta Margarita Maria

3 Maria Augustina Sarmiento


4 Infanta Margarita Maria

5 Infanta Margarita Maria

6 Infanta Margarita Maria


7 Infanta Margarita Maria

8 Infanta Margarita Maria

9 infanta Margarita Maria


10 Infanta Margarita Maria

1 1 Infanta Margarita Maria

1 2 Infanta Margarita Maria


1 3 Central Group

14 The Whole Group

15 Infanta Margarita Maria


16 Infanta Margarita Maria

17 Infanta Margarita Maria

18 The Pigeons


19 The Pigeons

20 The Pigeons

21 The Pigeons


22 The Pigeons

23 The Pigeons

24 The Pigeons


25 The Pigeons

26 The Pigeons

27 Infanta Margarita Maria


28 The Whole Group

29 Maria Augustina Sarmiento and Infanta Margarita Maria

30 The Whole Group


31 The Whole Group

32 The Whole Group

33 The Whole Group


34 The Whole Group

35 Isabel de Velasco

36 Maria Augustina Sarmicnto


37 Maria Augustina Sarmiento and Infanta Margarita Maria

38 Maria Augustina Sarmiento

39 Maria Augustina Sarmiento


40 The Piano

41 Nicolasico Pertusato

42 Isabel de Velasco, Maria Barbola, Nicolasico Pertusato and the Dog


43 Isabel dc Velasco, Maria Barbola, Nicolasico Pertusato and the Dog

44 Isabel de Velasco, Maria Barbola, Nicolasico Pertusato and the Dog

45 Isabel de Velasco and Maria Barbola


46 Infanta Margarita Maria and Isabel de Velasco

47 The Whole Group

48 The Whole Group


49 Maria Augustina Sarmiento

50 Isabel de Velasco

51 Isabel de Velasco


52 Isabel de Velasco

53 Isabel de Velasco and Nicolasico Pertusato

54 Landscape


55 Landscape

56 Landscape

57 Portrait of Jacqueline


58 Isabel de Velasco

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