'He reminds me of the malcontent villain in a Jacobean tragedy'

Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), 1656, by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Prado Museum, Madrid. Bridgeman Images.

Sir Christopher Frayling says:
‘Las Meninas tells you everything you need to know about the whole tradition of European oil painting, and there are always new things to be found. Like the slightly sinister-looking man in the doorway. What’s he doing? Is he making sure the artist behaves? Or bringing a message? Or watching to see the artist keeps to schedule and budget? He reminds me of the malcontent villain in a Jacobean tragedy. Or perhaps I’m being unfair…’

Prof Sir Christopher Frayling is a presenter writer, and former rector of the Royal College of Art.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘It is little wonder that Las Meninas is a perennial favourite of artists. Surely the ultimate painting about painting, it is several types of picture in one: a court portrait, a self-portrait, a reflection on reflection and so on. When Manet saw Velázquez’s pictures at the Prado, he said he made the Old Masters round about ‘seem like bluffers’.

Las Meninas shows the moment that Velázquez’s regal master, Philip IV, and his queen, Maria Anna of Austria, interrupt a sitting. Their portrait appears in a background mirror. Velázquez stands, palette in hand, as the maids of honour hover round their tiny charge, the five-year-old Infanta Margarita. Margarita, who was renowned for her beauty, was her father’s favourite, his ‘joy’. Vito Franco, professor of Pathological Anatomy at the University of Palermo, recently delivered a paper on human pathology in which he analysed the symptoms betrayed by people in the works of the Old Masters. He says the Infanta seems to be a victim of Albright syndrome, a genetic illness resulting, among other things, in precocious puberty. Is he right? Another symptom is a café au lait complexion, whereas the Infanta was renowned for her porcelain white skin.

The Habsburgs were notorious in-breeders. Philip arranged for Margarita to marry Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, her (maternal) uncle and (paternal) first cousin once removed. She was 15 and her husband 26. Leopold was also ferociously ugly, but they were very happy together, and, when Margarita died at 21, having already given birth to four children, Leopold was distraught.’

This article was first published in Country Life, February 17, 2010