In 1957, almost 300 years after Diego Velazquez painted Las Meninas (1656), Picasso painted and sketched 44 interpretations of the masterpiece. Between August 16 and December 30, 1957 Picasso explored every aspect of the painting creating versions of the painting as well as almost daily sketches of the different characters in Las Meninas. While Velazquez’s Meninas was baroque with rich hues, Picasso’s black and white renditions, with their geometric shapes are true to his style.
Picasso saw a painting that was revered, and managed to hold mysteries even 300 years later, and perhaps wanted to leave something of himself in the painting. Or perhaps he wanted to analyze its details and analyze how they fit together into the composition. Perhaps he wanted to carry the painting forward by infusing it with his cubism, and perhaps he wanted to make it truly immortal by removing the humanity of its characters by replacing them with geometric shapes. Whatever the reason, Picasso worked on this, in solitude, for months towards the end of 1957 emerging with a total of 58 sketches – 44 interpretations and the rest of cubist pigeons that came to his balcony while he painted.
The interpretation was carried even further by Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) in 1972 when he made an etching called Picasso’s Meninas to celebrate the artist’s 90th birthday. Here Velazquez’s composition and Picasso’s style are fused together – the temptation to paraphrase Velazquez in Picasso’s style was irresistible” (Hamilton). And in this paraphrasing, Hamilton did a truly fantastic job!!
In a true homage to Picasso, Hamilton covered all of Picasso’s artistic styles in this one etching – the Infanta is in Picasso’s Analytical Cubism of 1912. The meninas to the left of the Infanta is in the flat graphic language Picasso was using in the 1930s. The maid behind her is in Picasso’s neo-classical style of the early 1920s, whereas the male figure is drawn using spare lines and the vocabulary of African forms that Picasso was using around 1907. The female dwarf is a version of Picasso’s Seated Woman (1927). The harlequin from Picasso’s Rose period stands in place of Velazquez’s page, and the bull, from Picasso’s 1934 Dying Bull replaces the dog (Source, Tate Britain).
The rectangular paintings in the background are copies of Picasso’s surrealist paintings, L’Aubade, 1942 and Three Musicians, 1921. The mirror – which was the focal point of Las Meninas and showed a reflection of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana, are replaced by Hamilton himself and the artist Rita Donagh, who later became his wife. They are rendered with a particular etching technique that was created by Picasso which made the two figures appear painted in the print. He replaced Velazquez’s self-portrait with Picasso in his etching and added a hammer and sickle on Picasso’s chest.
I think it’s fairly poetic that Hamilton, like Velazquez, managed to insert himself into the painting – that too in the focal point of the original painting – thereby paying homage through the etching not just to Picasso, but to Velazquez as well.
(Sources: pablopicasso.org. Tate Britain, Museo Picasso, Musée d’art moderne, Museum of Modern Art).