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I will immediately make a reservation that my short answer will be far from exhaustive. The conversation about what is special about Velasquez's “Meninas” can drag on for a long time – it's not for nothing that this is one of the most analyzed works in the world, tons of literature have been written about it. So to narrow down the question, I will answer first of all its second part and rephrase it as “what is special about Velasquez's Meninas that Picasso saw for himself?” or, better, ” what aspect of Velasquez's painting attracted Picasso to work and interpret?”
The painting “Menines” by Velasquez, whose name translates approximately to “Ladies-in-waiting”, was painted in 1656. The painting depicts Infanta Margarita surrounded by courtiers, as well as Velasquez himself-who is, apparently, in the process of writing a ceremonial portrait of the infanta's parents, King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana (their figures are reflected in the mirror in the background). One of the most interesting aspects of this work is the construction of space and the relationship between the characters of the picture, the audience and the artist. We see several plans at the same time: (1) the infanta, the courtiers and the artist, (2) a wall with two Rubens paintings and a mirror reflecting the figures of the royal couple painted by Velasquez, and finally, at the back, (3) another plan with a brightly lit doorway in which the silhouette of the courtier Don Jose Nieto Velasquez is darkened. This construction of plans combines the object, subject and viewer of the work in one space and establishes complex relationships between them. Who's looking at who? The artist looks at his models, or the models look at the artist? The infanta for the royal couple, or they for the infanta? Or is Don Jose Velasquez watching the whole scene from afar? Or are all the statements true at the same time? We, the real viewers of this work, also find ourselves inside the game with space and focus points: we look at the multiple planes of this picture and get lost in their complex intersections, and at the same time all its characters look directly at us.
This painting is a reflection on the role of the viewer and contemplation, on the essence of painting and its ability to build a parallel illusory world. This is one of the most refined embodiments of the tradition of paintings on the theme “the artist in his studio”, important for the XVII century, which also includes, for example, Vermeer's work “The Art of Painting”, which comprehends a similar theme with the help of several other artistic techniques.
From August to December 1957, Picasso created 44 variations on the theme “Menin”: some of them are an analysis of individual figures, and some – the whole picture. Shortly before that, in 1956, the artist turned several times to the image of his own studio, the relationship between the objects in it, as well as between the studio space and the model he was painting (“Jacqueline in the studio”, “La Californie Studio in Cannes”). Perhaps it was the aspect of artistic introspection that attracted Picasso to Menines, because it was a topic that was relevant and even exciting for him at that time-especially when you consider with what passion he devoted himself to writing a series on Menines, not looking up from work for several months. If you take the very first and most famous sample of this series https://www.pablo-ruiz-picasso.ru/work-235.php, then you can see that space in Picasso is almost as complex as in the original – and he achieves this by using only a line, silhouette, and plane. However, here he builds up quite different accents, shifting the focus of attention from the infanta to the artist, who is assigned the entire left part of the picture and who turns from an observer into something like a “thing in itself” and a construct, almost one with his own canvas.
How can this be read in the context of all of Picasso's work? In 1946, his paintings were exhibited in the Louvre along with works by Jacques-Louis David, Goya and Velasquez and passed the test of the classics. This is due not only to Picasso's talent, but also to the fact that he spent his entire life conducting a dialogue with the art of past eras, drawing inspiration and ideas from it. He studied on the paintings of El Greco, Ingres and Cezanne, and the Spaniards are especially important for him: in addition to El Greco, it is also Surbaran and Velasquez. In other words, by reinterpreting “Menines” in 1957, Picasso, on the one hand, fits himself into the tradition of the theme “the artist in his studio”, which is a way to reflect on the nature of the artistic process and on the properties of painting. On the other hand, it establishes continuity with the tradition of great Spanish artists and puts itself on a par with them.