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14 Things To Know About Velázquez's Las Meninas

At first glance, Diego Velázquez's 1656 painting Las Meninas might seem like just another ensemble portrait. But then, your eye snags on some curious detail. Soon you can't look away, locked into uncovering  clues that have long fascinated and frustrated art historians. Let's dig into the mystery. 

1. Las Meninas could be called a royal portrait ... 

At its center is Infanta Margarita Teresa, who would mature into titles like Holy Roman Empress, Archduchess consort of Austria, and Queen consort of Hungary and Bohemia. Her reign lasted from 1666 to 1673, when she died at age 21. Though she'd be the subject of many portraits—including several more from VelázquezLas Meninas is the most famous. 

2. ... But really, it's more of a mash-up. 

Portraits are traditionally formal, showing their subjects isolated. But here, the Maids of Honour for which the painting is named surround the young princess, as does as band of fellow servants. Las Meninas is a behind-the-scenes look at the Spanish court. This day-in-the-life perspective is often associated with genre painting; through this marriage of setting and subject, Velázquez created a genre-bending masterpiece. 

3. The King and Queen are cleverly included. 

Above the princess's head, you'll notice a dark wooden frame. Within it, two figures can be seen. These are her father and mother, King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria

4. Velázquez makes a cameo of his own. 

Even though he was first painter to the king, it was still a bold move for Velázquez to paint himself into Las Meninas, which turned a royal commission into a self-portrait. But that’s him on the left with brush in hand. Earlier this year, the BBC called this inclusion "the world's first photobomb," even though the painting predated photography by almost 175 years. 

5. Only one person in the painting remains unidentified. 

On top of the king, queen, princess, and painter, the painting features the queen's chamberlain, Don José Nieto Velázquez (possibly related to the painter), who can be spotted on the stairs. The ladies in waiting doting on Margaret Theresa are doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor (on the left) and doña Isabel de Velasco (on the right). Over the latter's shoulder peeks doña Marcela de Ulloa, the little princess's appointed chaperone, who converses with a bodyguard whose name is lost to history (but some modern scholars believe it might be Diego Ruiz de Azcona). In the right corner are Maria Barbola and Nicolas Pertusato, who are most often identified as the "dwarfs" at court. The mastiff's name is also unknown. 

6. There’s a mystery surrounding what Velázquez is painting. 

One of the biggest questions about Las Meninas centers on the canvas that faces away from the viewer. Some scholars think the framed image of the king and queen in the background is not a portrait, but a mirror reflecting the royalty standing before the princess and the painter—just out of frame—posing to be immortalized in oil paints. 

Another theory posits that the royal pair's position is not in line with the gaze of Velázquez, and so they could not be his subject. Perhaps this regal couple has joined their daughter in admiring the process of the painter, as Velázquez seems to hope Las Meninas's audience will. Or maybe the princess and the painter are looking at a large mirror, which allows him to depict the girl while her attentive entourage keeps her in good spirits. 

7. Las Meninas gives its audience access to the king's point of view ... 

Whether the king is watching or posing, these theories posit Velázquez intentionally framed the painting so that its audience would be looking from the viewpoint of the royalty reflected in that mirror. Basically, by looking at this painting, you are in the shoes of the 17th century ruler of Spain

8. ... And not many had the chance to experience that in the king's lifetime. 

Philip IV kept Las Meninas hanging in his private study, where few outsiders had the pleasure of enjoying its brilliance. 

9. The painting was posthumously altered under royal command. 

While Philip IV had showered Velázquez with honors while the artist lived, the king delivered his most lasting tribute after the painter’s death. In 1660, one year after Velázquez was inducted into the Catholic organization the Order of Santiago, the painter died. In his honor, the king commanded the order's insignia be added to the chest of Velázquez's Las Meninas figure. Some historians even claim it was the king himself who painted on this final touch. 

10. It's enormous. 

Las Meninas measures in at roughly 10.5 feet by 9 feet. 

11. Las Meninas went straight from royal hands to the national museum. 

The Museo de Prado opened in 1819 with the stated purpose of showing the world the value and glory of its nation's art. The museum’s initial collection came straight from the Royal Crown's coffers, and since Velázquez had been the curator of the king's art collection during his life, many of his own works made the cut. Yet Las Meninas is Prado's shining jewel, and, along with Goya’s The Third of May 1808, one of the most famous works in its collection. For this reason, the painting is never loaned out. 

12. Its name was changed at some point. 

The first mention of the painting being called Las Meninas was found in a Museo del Prado 1843 catalogue. In a 1666 inventory, it was referred to as Retrato de la señora emperatriz con sus damas y una enana (Portrait of the Empress with her Ladies and a Dwarf). Then, after a fire in 1734, it was called La familia del Señor rey Phelipe Quarto and was referred to as La Familia until the final name change.

13. Las Meninas made Velázquez famous over 150 years after his death. 

The investment in El Prado paid off and made Spanish art all the rage in 19th century Europe. It also launched awareness of Velázquez's talents outside of the Spanish court. With his works accessible to the public, Velázquez inspired a new generation of painters including French realist painter Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and American Tonalism founder James Abbott Whistler. 

14. The UK has its own version of the painting. 

The Kingston Lacy Estate in Dorset boasts a smaller version of the painting that’s wrapped in nearly as much mystery as the famed canvas. The mystery hinges on who painted this replica and when. Some scholars have argued that the Dorset painting was the work of Velázquez himself and speculated that the smaller piece may have been a model for the Prado’s iconic treasure. Others argue that the canvas is more likely a slightly later copy by an artist who was uniquely equipped to mimic Velázquez's style: His son-in-law Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, who succeeded Velázquez as Spain’s royal painter.

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Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.
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Design
This Snow Sculpture of a Car Was So Convincing Cops Tried to Write It a Ticket
Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.
Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.

Winter is a frustrating time to be on the road, but one artist in Montreal has found a way to make the best of it. As CBS affiliate WGCL-TV reports, his snow sculpture of a DeLorean DMC-12 was so convincing that even the police were fooled.

Simon Laprise of L.S.D Laprise Simon Designs assembled the prank car using snow outside his home in Montreal. He positioned it so it appeared to be parked along the side of the road, and with the weather Montreal has been having lately, a car buried under snow wasn’t an unusual sight.

A police officer spotted the car and was prepared to write it a ticket before noticing it wasn’t what it seemed. He called in backup to confirm that the car wasn’t a car at all.

Instead of getting mad, the officers shared a good laugh over it. “You made our night hahahahaha :)" they wrote on a fake ticket left on the snow sculpture.

The masterpiece was plowed over the next morning, but you can appreciate Laprise’s handiwork in the photos below.

Snow sculpture.

Snow sculpture of car.

Snow sculpture of car.

Note written in French.

[h/t WGCL-TV]

All images courtesy of Simon Laprise.

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