17th Century Spain
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas – 1656 – Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
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Las Meninas is Velázquez' most famous and enigmatic work and one of the great masterpieces of western art
We are observing a large room, perhaps the main chamber, the Cuarto del Príncipe, in the Alcazar in Madrid. Due to a description by Antonio Palomino published in 1724 we have precise identifications of all but one of the characters in the painting. In a roughly central position we see the Infanta Margarita flanked by two maids of honour or *meninas*. To the left of the Infanta, María Agustina Sarmiento offers her charge some water in a small red jug. The other attendant is Isabel de Velasco. In the foreground corner is a dwarf known as Maribárbola, a mastiff and a midget, Nicolasito Pertusato. Behind this group is a male attendant and a nun, Marcela de Ulloa. At the back of the chamber a door is open revealing a flight of stairs bathed in light. The royal chamberlain José Nieto pauses, looking back into the room before climbing the stairs.
Velázquez stands behind a huge canvas (arranged at a slight angle to the picture plane) brush and palette at the ready, leaning slightly to his left, the better to examine his subject. His direct stare engages the viewer – we are inexorably drawn into the gathering. But on the wall at the rear of the chamber, next to the open door, a mirror shows the reflection of two figures; they are the king and queen, Philip IV and Mariana of Austria. But if one follows the trajectory of Velázquez' eyes and the reflected image of the monarchs then Philip and Mariana must be standing outside the picture precisely in the space occupied by the viewer. The image in the mirror cannot be a reflection of the canvas because the angle of Velázquez' canvas would preclude such a possibility. In this way it seems as though the artist is inviting the viewer into the room, to 'play' the role of a monarch - to witness the gathering as though he or she is intimately acquainted with the royal circle and indeed are familiar with the assembled members of the court.
Such an interpretation marks Las Meninas as a groundbreaking departure from the art of Velázquez' contemporaries; he is asking questions about what paintings are about. The psychological game he is playing – the viewer is looking at a picture in which the artist is looking at the viewer – concerns the relationship between painted illusion and observed reality. As such, Las Meninas has been acclaimed as the first 'modern' work of art.
Velázquez' use of a complex system of perspective (with multiple vanishing points) adds to the extraordinary sensation of depth and space. The open door at the rear of the chamber through which the chamberlain is about to depart also hints at the size of the room as well as its dark and somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere as the light streams in from another world of luminescent heat.
This masterpiece has not always been a celebrated as it is today. In the 1780s it is recorded as hanging in the bedroom of one of King Charles III's daughters when it was referred to as a portrait of the Infanta Margarita. It was not until 1840, when the picture was in the Prado that a curator decided on its current title.
Gustav Klimt: Large Poplar II – 1903 – Vienna, Leopold Museum
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It was not until relatively late in his career that Gustav Klimt started to paint landscapes. However, during the first sixteen years of the 20th century Gustav Klimt spent his summers with his companion Emilie Flöge and the rest of the Flöge family in the scenic Salzkammergut area east of Salzburg. There he painted views across the the Attersee (the largest lake in the region) and in the surrounding countryside. Sometimes these paintings might include intimate closeups of flowers and trees. Invariably he would use an unusual square format for his canvases.
During the summer of 1903 Klimt wrote from the Attersee to Maria Zimmermann, one of his muses (and one of his many lovers), describing his daily routine. He gets up early, at 6am or earlier and paints until 8 o’clock. After breakfast he would go for a swim in the lake etc etc. Then ‘after supper I start painting again – a large poplar tree at dusk, with an approaching thunderstorm.’
The location shows the tiny Seehof Chapel, near Litzlberg, dominated by the huge tree. Klimt has squeezed the horizon into the bottom few centimetres of the square canvas. The minimal foreground strip, rendered with dashes of red brown and green, tends to amplify the scale of the poplar, dwarfing the Chapel and creating a mood of solitude and reflection. The brooding sky, bearing down on the land, heightens the introspection pervading the painting as whirling vortices of greys and blues herald the advancing storm.
In order to produce such extreme perspectives Klimt occasionally used opera glasses, a telescope or a simple viewfinder to produce these dramatically condensed compositions – an obvious influence of photography. Writing to Maria Zimmermann he explained that he ‘spent the early morning, the day and the evening with my “viewfinder” – a square cut into a piece of cardboard – looking for subject matter for my landscape paintings…’
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