Even on the surface, at very first glance, "Las Meninas" presents itself as a certifiably "great painting." When you stand before it at the Prado, where it has lived since 1819, you have to be impressed by the huge canvas. It fills the better part of a wall at the far end of the museum's most imposing gallery. The room is often full, but the power of this work keeps its audience hushed. Even school groups settle down.
The painting's subject is grand. The little girl at the painting's center is the 5-year-old Infanta Margarita of Spain, the most recent heir to king Phillip IV, portrayed in her unsullied perfection. A decade earlier, the king had lost his only son and his first wife, so this child is proof of the fertility of his new bride, his niece Mariana of Austria. (When they married, he was 51 and she was 15, and she had once been the intended of the dead prince.) With the dynasty teetering, the little Infanta was one more heir to guarantee the royal line, and thus an obviously worthy subject for superlative painting. Margarita was also a valuable pawn in the diplomatic marriage game, which was how Spain built its empire and forged alliances. In 21st-century terms, the Infanta was the equivalent of a major arms or trade deal, all but signed. This portrait of her is also a picture of dynastic and political capital.