Imagine a fourteen-year old aspiring artist quizzically examining an incredibly life-like painting that once had the foreboding inscription below it – “Obra culminate de la pintura universal,” which in English translates to “the culminating work of world art.” This is how Pablo Picasso was introduced to one of the most influential paintings in the world, Diego Velázquez´s Las Meninas (Maids of Honor). In numerous works of Picasso, remnants of ideas from Velázquez’s Las Meninas can be found. Picasso even devoted an entire series of paintings to variations of Las Meninas and its central characters in the late 1950s. To better understand the effect of Las Meninas on Pablo Picasso, we must first place the original Velázquez painting in an historical context as Picasso might have seen it. We must also examine the events surrounding and effecting the Las Meninas variations. Once that foundation is completed, we can then examine the message that Picasso tried to convey in these variations. After all, Las Meninas was the focus of Picasso´s works sixty years after his original viewing of the masterpiece. It must have made quite an impact on this fourteen-year-old aspiring artist.
Las Meninas did not only have an impact on little Pablo Picasso, but on the entire art world. Over the three hundred and fifty years since its painting, many different schools of thought regarding art have come and gone, yet they all proclaim Las Meninas as a masterpiece. A realist proclaims the painting because of its stark depiction of reality. A critic stares at the painting and can uncover new details that were previously overlooked. A deconstructionist examines the unending levels of meaning encountered in Las Meninas, and is overcome by the painting’s complexity. The Marxist loves the painting because of its subtle contrasts between rich and poor. The feminist praises the painting because of its depiction of female power residing in the infanta. Las Meninas is a painting for everyone – especially for the greatest Spanish painter of our time – Pablo Picasso. Who knows what he thought?
Las Meninas was first viewed by Pablo Picasso when he was fourteen years old. This was a pivotal time in his life – he was still seeking purpose as well as feeling out his artistic boundaries. A few months after seeing Las Meninas, his seven-year old blond sister María de la Concepción died from diphtheria. Picasso and his family (especially his father) never really recovered from their loss. This loss would follow Picasso for the rest of his life. In 1897, at the age of 16 – less than a year after the death of his sister, he produced his first sketch concerning Las Meninas characters – María Agustina (the head maid) and María Margarita (the infanta). It is no coincidence that both the infanta and his sister were blond. Yet, his greatest works directly concerning the infanta and Las Meninas were decades away.
When Picasso started to produce serious reproductions of Velázquez´s work, he was seventy-five years old. Picasso was distant to some in the art world because of the fame of his earlier works. Contemporaries were accusing Picasso of losing his touch – he was no longer the great Spanish painter that everyone had once thought him to be. These critics claimed he was merely a great painter who had left his best years behind. In the art world, it is not uncommon for a great master to be reviled in later stages of their lives. One critic summed up the situation by saying, “The late works of great masters, which come about at the period style of a subsequent generation, tower over the flow of history as solitudes, inaccessible to the context of time.” But, Picasso still had something to prove. In his early years, Picasso was uncomfortable taking on such a “lofty” Spanish painter as Velázquez. As he approached old age, he decided to go down that road.
After he completed the first and most widely recognized variation of Las Meninas (which has been discussed in a previous essay by this author), Picasso turned his gaze towards María Margarita, the infanta. This fixation was not chosen lightly. The age of seventy-five was a symbolically important one for Picasso because Picasso’s father had died at the age of seventy-five. This period of Picasso´s life brought back visions of his own mortality, which inevitably evoked memories of his sister´s death. By looking at the Velázquez variations of the late 1950s, the imagery of his young blond sister is clearly contained within the imagery of the blond infanta. There is yet another figure evoked by this infanta imagery – Picasso´s daughter Paloma, who was roughly the same age as both his late sister and the infanta at the time these paintings were conceived. Over a span of two furious weeks in late 1957, Picasso devoted fifteen separate paintings to this infanta image. Picasso depicted the infanta in a variety of ways – each vastly different from all of the others. After concluding these works, Picasso briefly turned his artistic attention to an entirely different subject – pigeons.
Pigeons. What a curious diversion. When Picasso donated his entire Las Meninas series to the Museu Barcelona in 1971, he included this series of paintings and mandated that they be shown with the rest of the Velázquez variations. For a period of about a week, Picasso painted the pigeons outside his studio porch with the same zeal he had when he depicted the infanta. Several corollaries arise between the Velázquez variations and the pigeon imagery – that of Picasso´s distortion of reality and the imagery of a window separating segments of the painting. Because Picasso was focusing solely on the infanta for the prior two weeks, he had disregarded the window and light sources so prevalent in Las Meninas. In these pigeon pictures, Picasso focused on the pigeons gathered outside his studio window. A case can be made that the window motif is Picasso´s distinction between here and there (and hence the distortion of reality) – “Here, I am painting an image – there, these creatures are going on with their merry lives unaware of what I am doing.” This same analysis can be made with Las Meninas – Velázquez painted the royal family and their maids, but the other figures in the painting are seemingly oblivious to Velázquez´s presence. After concluding this seemingly incongruous series of paintings, Picasso returned his main focus to Velázquez and Las Meninas.
After his brief diversion with the pigeons, Picasso painted one final image of the infanta by herself – full of rich colors and an amalgam of the previous three weeks´ exploration. Picasso then returned his focus to the entirety of Las Meninas. The infanta remains the central image in these works, but a mix of the other Las Meninas characters now surrounds her. Picasso painted six more canvases of Las Meninas variations in the next two weeks. Each of these canvases was approximately 50″ by 60″ in size – an incredible output for such a short span of time. Within these variations, some characters from the Velázquez original are omitted. On others, the characters are moved or emphasized in a decidedly un-Velázquez-like manner. The full cast of characters is present in one of the works, but the entire background takes on a radically different Cubist style. On yet another, the background changes to a fusion of colors and shapes to create yet another perspective on the work. Picasso´s interpretations of this work were seemingly endless. But at this point, Picasso gradually began the process of concluding his Las Meninas variations.
After these large paintings were completed, Picasso´s interest with Las Meninas subsided. Over the next few months, he painted another twenty-four paintings related to Las Meninas, but none were of the evident passion of these previous works. When he concluded the series, Pablo Picasso had painted approximately fifty-eight paintings concerning Velázquez´s Las Meninas. By creating so many variations of a single work, Picasso let us, his audience, glimpse into the workings of his inner mind. By way of Picasso´s variations, we can see how he interpreted Las Meninas.
By examining these variations in detail (especially the imagery containing the infanta), a central theme arises – innocence. Innocence is one of those weird catch-all phrases that defies interpretation. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition defines innocence as:
1. The state, quality, or virtue of being innocent, as:
1. Freedom from sin, moral wrong, or guilt through lack of knowledge of evil.
2. Guiltlessness of a specific legal crime or offense.
3. Freedom from guile, cunning, or deceit; simplicity or artlessness.
4. Lack of worldliness or sophistication; naiveté.
5. Lack of knowledge or understanding; ignorance.
6. Freedom from harmfulness; inoffensiveness.
2. One that is innocent.
3. Botany. See blue-eyed Mary (a type of flower).
It is no wonder that Pablo Picasso had such a hard time dealing with this notion of innocence in his works. The dictionary claims eight possible meanings for this one word. How could he possibly handle all of these meanings in one painting? The answer was that he could not – remember that Picasso painted almost fifteen paintings of the infanta. He was looking for something that he could not easily define. However, in a greater sense, all of these definitions do in fact define the numerous images of the infanta. She is free from sin. She knows no wrong. She lacks cunning. She is ignorant of her world. Those who love her shelter her. But, above all, the infanta epitomizes the notion of innocence. There is no better ideal of the word innocent than Picasso´s depictions of the infanta.
However, we must be reminded that it is futile to believe that this innocence can last. And, this is the reason for the image of the child. The image of the infanta in a plain white dress expressly provokes this sense of innocence and purity. We must recall that childhood is that precious time before our innocence is taken away by society. Children can not perform any wrong. They are perfect. And, it is the dream of all parents for their children to remain that way throughout time immemorial. Yet, it is only a mirage. Something happens to the children – they grow up and mature. The children gain something even more precious than innocence – life. And, another issue arises – the inevitable cessation of life – death. This was as much a central idea to Picasso in these Las Meninas variations as was innocence.
When Picasso created these works, he was constantly being reminded of his own mortality, and, hence, of his sister´s death. Picasso also had the benefit of wisdom and experience, something he lacked when he first saw Las Meninas as a child. It was this experience which finally allowed him to begin to discover his meaning of the original Velázquez work. For a period of a few months, he was compelled to create images of Velázquez´s infanta. He was obsessed by it. This obsession overcame Picasso. Some inner forced him to draw these paintings. In this way, his personal interpretations finally came to light. But, Picasso knew that his life was only temporary, so he put his ideas on canvas so that others in the future could examine his ideas. Through these variations, Picasso has preserved the infanta and his notion of innocence and purity forever. It was his legacy – his crowning masterpiece. It could never grow old unlike its flawed creator.
The question remains as to why Picasso created so many different versions of the infanta. The answer lies in Picasso´s quest for the perfect innocent child. When he started, he did not know exactly what that singular perfect image was, but he had a starting point with Velázquez´s infanta mixed in with his visualization of his sister. Picasso began to search for the perfect image through his work. This is where the relationship between the pigeon series and the infanta imagery becomes clear. When Picasso painted the pigeon imagery, he had already discovered what he was searching for. Instead of immediately concluding the infanta imagery, he took a brief break from his obsession of the infanta, and later returned to create that one final image of the infanta encompassing his idea of perfection and innocence. After that point, he did not paint the infanta by herself again, but went on to create variations of Las Meninas, which incorporated his ideal infanta into the larger piece. After so many years, Pablo Picasso had finally begun to understand Las Meninas and was able to express it in his works.