Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour) is one of the most profound and enigmatic paintings in the world. It is at once a self-portrait, and a portrait of Philip’s five-year-old daughter, the Infanta Margarita Teresa, who stands in the central light flanked by her meninas, or ladies-in-waiting, Maria Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco; it is also a genre scene of court life, featuring the court dwarfs Maribárbola and (teasing the dog) Nicolasito Pertusato, and behind them, two courtiers conferring while the Queen’s Chamberlain José Nieto stands framed in the doorway at the back of the picture. Finally it is a regal portrait: the mirror on the rear wall contains the reflected image of Philip IV and his queen, Mariana of Austria.
Velázquez was given a religious education and excelled in languages and philosophy. However, as a boy, he showed an early gift for art. When he was 11, he studied under Francisco Pacheco, Seville’s most significant artist of the time, who taught him technical drawing and painting skills. The pupil soon surpassed the master.
In 1617, he set up his own studio and a year later, married Pacheco’s daughter, Juana. In 1623, thanks to his father-in-law’s connections and his growing reputation, Velázquez moved to Madrid and was asked to paint a portrait of the young Philip IV. The king was so happy with the result, he appointed Velázquez a court painter and would not let any other artist paint him.
Velázquez made two trips to Italy, first in 1629 and then in 1648, where he painted his famed Rokeby Venus and a portrait of Pope Innocent X.