INSTANCES of the condescensionas it was thought of monarchs in their intercourse with artists are common enough. Tradition affirms that Alexander the Great relinquished Campaspe to Apelles, who had fallen in love with her as she sat to him for the figure of the goddess in his picture of Venus Anadyomene. The same more or less trustworthy authority asserts that Francis I. supported the head of Leonardo da Vinci during the painter’s last moments, and that Charles V. did not disdain to lift the brush of Titian from the floor both episodes, by the way, illustrated herein. Art received another tribute from royalty when Philip IV. painted the Red Cross of Santiago on the breast of Velazquez’s doublet in his picture of “The Maids of Honor.”
Stirling says : “This pleasing tradition is not altogether overthrown by the fact that Velazquez was not invested with the order till three years afterward ; for the production of a pedigree and other formalities were necessary to the creation of a knight, obstacles which might be overlooked by the king, enraptured with his new picture, and yet stagger a college of arms for several years.” In this connection Armstrong remarks that “Palomino states that the cross in the picture was added by the king’s order after the painter’s death. In spite of all this the tradition may be true, for Spanish proceedings were never prompt, and the king would certainly not have troubled to do more than roughly indicate the cross with his brush; the present well-painted badge being added as Palomino says.”
However this may be, the picture painted in 1656 is, by the consent of the majority of those best qualified to judge, placed second to none among the masterpieces of Velazquez. Luca Giordano pronounced it to be “the theology of painting.” John Hay’s comment on this is : “If our theology were what it should be, and cannot be, absolute and unquestionable truth, Luca the quick-worker would have been right.” Theophile Gautier said : “So complete is the illusion that, standing in front of ‘Las Meninas,’ one is tempted to ask, ‘Where, then, is the picture?’”
Professor Carl Justi, one of the biographers of Velazquez, gives us the most complete account of the picture.
He says : “This great picture, at all times regarded as the master’s most renowned work, and most clearly impressed with the stamp of his genius, is, strictly speaking, a portrait of Princess Margaret as the central figure in one of the daily recurring scenes of her palace life. The figure agrees perfectly with the Vienna work, only it is painted with more fiery rapidity, and the blonde complex-ion looks to better advantage in an environment treated with much dark blue.
” Her stepbrother Don Balthasar had been dealt with in a somewhat similar way in the ‘Riding-school.’ But the daily life of the young princess offered no such favorable scenes to the artist as those suggested by the more varied occupations of a prince fond of horsemanship and field sports. Her existence was passed in the secluded apartments of the Cuarto de la Reina, surrounded by all the restrictions of a relentless court etiquette. Madame de Motteville’s Memoirs ‘ give us an account of a visit at the threshold of the Infanta Maria Theresa’s room : ‘ She is waited on with great respect, few have access to her, and it was a special favor that we were allowed to linger at the door of her chamber. When she is thirsty a menin (maid) brings a glass to a lady, who kneels, as does also the menin, and on the other side is also a kneeling attendant, who hands her the napkin ; opposite stands a maid of honor.’
“The passage reads almost like a description of our painting. Here the central figure is the little idol, at that time in her fifth year, constantly surrounded by ministering elfs, by trusty Ariels and submissive sprites, for she is depicted as the chief orb of a sphere where light and shade, beauty and deformity, harmoniously combine to do her service.
“In Spain the picture bears the name of ‘Las Meninas,’ not without reason. The noble damsels were, at any rate for the Spaniards, the most attractive of all the figures, but they were the dark-eyed daughters of their race, lovely young blossoms of the old Castilian stock. For this office in the royal family beauties were especially selected, and Madame d’Aulnoy, who saw them in the year 1680, calls them ‘fairer than Love is painted.’ In their curtseying and bending of the knee there lurks an innate grace that triumphs even over the unsightly costume of that period.
“So famous was the painting that the names of all the figures were duly recorded. The lady kneeling, in profile, is Dona Maria Agostina, daughter of Don Diego Sarmiento ; she holds a gold salver, from which she hands the princess the water in a red cup made of bucaro, a fine scented clay brought from the East Indies. The other, facing her and curtseying slightly, is Dona Isabel de Velasco, daughter of Don Bernardino Lopez de Ayala y Velasco, Count of Fuensalida. She grew up to a womanhood of rare beauty, but died three years later.
“These maids of honor attended on the queen and on the princesses from their in-fancy to the time when they assumed the chapin, or slippers, worn by the young ladies. The meninas themselves wore low shoes and a kind of high-heeled sandals, which, like galoches, were worn over the others ; both in the palace and outside they went without hat or cloak.
“On the right, and more to the front of Dona Isabel, are two figures of quite a different type, who form in the foreground a group apart, jointly with the sculpturesque-looking mastiff, crouched half asleep at the edge of the frame ; for these playthings are, after all, themselves mere domestic animals in human form. With the Cerberus at the threshold are naturally associated the two grotesque figures of Maria Barbola and Nicolasico Pertusato, who served to complete our master’s gallery of court dwarfs, and who have suggested Wilkie’s description of the work as the ‘Picture of the Children in Grotesque Dresses.’ Pertusato has planted his foot on the dog, as if to remind him that it is unseemly to slumber in the presence of royalty, while the other, round as a tub, gives the spectator a full view of her broad, depressed, almost brutal countenance.
“Farther back, in the gloom produced by the closed shutters, two court officials are conversing with bated breath the senora de honor, Dona Marcela de Ulloa, in the convent habit, and a guardadamas (ladies’ guard), whose duty it was to ride with the coaches of the court ladies, and conduct the audiences. Then, quite in the rear, at the open door, stands Don Joseph Nieto, the queen’s quartermaster, drawing the curtain aside.
” Such a grouping as this can have resulted only by chance. Such every-day scenes, even when in themselves suited for pictorial treatment, pass unnoticed because of their constant occurrence, unless, indeed, the artist be a stranger. Chance alone, which Leonardo da Vinci tells us is of a pictorial composition. It happened that on one occasion, when the royal couple were giving a sitting to their court painter in his studio, Princess Margaret was sent for to relieve their Majesties’ weariness. The light which, after the other shutters had been closed, had been let in from the window on the right for the sitters, now also streamed in upon their little visitor. At the same time Velazquez requested Nieto to open the door in the rear, in order to see whether a front light also might be available.
“Thus the king sat there, relieved from councils and affairs of state, and yielding to his paternal feelings in the midst of the family circle. Then it occurred to him, being himself half an artist, that something like a pictorial scene had developed before his eyes. He muttered : ‘That is a picture;’ the next moment the desire arose to see this perpetuated, and without more ado, the painter was at work on the sketch of his recuerdo (memento). In the case of recuerdos, details should be faithfully recorded, just as they had been casually brought together.
” Hence the peculiar character of the composition, which as an invention would be in-explicable. It is, so to say, a tableau vivant, and the figures might certainly have been more naturally and effectively grouped in a semicircle about the canvas on the easel. But they were not in fact at the moment mingled in a single group ; the royal couple, although invisible to the observer, were in the immediate vicinity. Thus the princess, while taking the bucaro, glances toward her mother ; Dona Isabel looks with a curtsey in the same direction ; Maria Barbola hangs with the eyes of a trusty watch-dog on those of her mistress ; the guardadamas, while listening to Dona Marcela’s whisperings, keeps, an eye on the king ; lastly, Nieto turns at the door with an inquiring look.
” In a word, we see the company as one sees the audience in the pit from the stage, and precisely from the standpoint of the king, who is reflected in the mirror on the wall by the side of the queen. He had seated him-self opposite this mirror in order to be able to judge of his posture. It may, however, be incidentally remarked that nothing is known of any work in which he appears actually on the same canvas with Mariana.
“In this instantaneous picture the artist himself had also, of course, to be taken. He stands at his easel, but slightly concealed by the kneeling figure in front, his head dominating the whole group. In his right hand he holds the long brush, in his left the palette and painter’s stick. The hand, like those of this picture generally, is exquisitely painted, the motion of the fingers being distinctly indicated by four strokes of the brush.
” On his breast he wears the Red Cross of Santiago. According to the legend, Philip, on the completion of the painting, had re-served a royal surprise for its creator. Re-marking that it still lacked something, he seized the brush and added this red cross. The anecdote has been questioned, because the preliminary formalities connected with the conferring of the order date from two years later. But although, according to Palomino, the cross was added by order of the king after Velazquez’s death, it may still have possibly been associated with the work at the time. Certainly this was the first precedent for the figure of a painter, even though a palace marshal, to be introduced in a canvas depicting the intimate family circle of royalty. Hence it may have seemed proper for him also to be promoted to a higher degree of nobility for the occasion.”
It is of interest to learn, on the weighty authority of Curtis, that the ” Maids of Honor ” contains the best and most authentic portrait of its painter, the only one whose history can be traced back to the time of the artist.