All museums have a showpiece a work that stands out from the rest, for the Prado Museum in Madrid that is Diego Velásquez’s – Las Meninas (the Maids of Honour).
During the 1640’s Velásquez was promoted to Royal painter and curator of the then King’s, Phillip IV, expanding art collection. In 1656, after working for the royal house for 33 years, he painted, what is considered one of the most analysed paintings in Western art, Las Meninas.
The young princess, Margaret Theresa, is surrounded by her maids of honour, a bodyguard, a chaperone, two dwarfs and a dog. Velásquez himself is there also, in the background working on a large canvas looking out at the viewer. He also represented the King and his wife who are pictured in the reflections in the mirrors as if they are standing alongside the viewer.
The painting is divided in 4 horizontal bands and 7 vertical ones, which was common practice for the time but all characters, nine including the King and Queen, appear in the lower half of the painting. The painting has 3 focal points, the princess, Velásquez in the background and the reflection of the King and Queen in the mirror; all of which are created using light and shade. Velásquez ability to use light is without peer, a stream of light enters and glints of the golden hair of the female dwarf. She has her head turned away, and in shadow, so although her presence is noted it is not highlighted. This process is repeated with the lady-in-waiting near the princess as the light touches her cheek but not her facial features and much of her brightly coloured dress are dimmed and in shadow. The princess however is in full illumination with her face turned towards the light, even though her eyes are not.
Never before, or since, has a single painting been created that uses light and colour to such a devastating effect.