Velázquez’s Las Meninas
Recognized as a Baroque masterpiece, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) is both an aesthetic and intellectual work that challenges Spanish preconceptions about art as a lowly craft. Velázquez effectively combines refined technicalities and profound representations to create a “court picture” (87) that effectively depicts the elevated presence of the monarchs. Brown describes Velázquez’s use of Naturalism and Illusionism as “a faithful counterfeit of reality” (88). Velázquez’s perfect reflection of reality emphasizes his physical ability to create noble art or ipso facto. A seemingly clear depiction of the Royal household, Las Meninas is an extremely ambiguous piece that not only demonstrates Velázquez’s skill as a painter, but also the complexities of his humanist intellectualism.
Measuring “ten and a half feet by nine feet wide” (96), the painting’s near life-sized figures, along with its “spatial construction,” creates a sense of overwhelming realism, emphasizing complexities, such as literary-like symbolism, that confuse the viewer. Despite the ambiguities of Las Meninas, Brown indicates that all figures in the painting, with the exception of one individual, have been identified (88). The ornately dressed girl who is apparently in the “center” of the painting is La Infanta María Margarita. Two meninas, or maids or honor, are attending the princess. The one on the left, María Agustina Sarmiento, is kneeling down next to the princess, offering her what appears to be a cup of water. The second one to the right of the princess is Isabel de Velasco. On the far right, the viewer can see two dwarfs, identified as Mari Barbola and her son Nicolás Pertusato, respectively. In the middle ground, behind Isabel de Velasco and the dwarfs, stands Marcela de Ullo, the chaperone, next to an unidentified bodyguard. Behind the figures in the foreground, there is a man in the open door, identified as José de Nieto, the “aposentador of the Queen’s household” (88). The man standing in front of the canvas, wearing courtly attire and holding a brush and a palette, is Velázquez himself. Finally, the mirror located on the back wall, in between Velázquez and La Infanta, reflects the figures of the monarchs Philip IV and Mariana of Austria.
Significant objects and details worth noting include the aforementioned canvas on the left-hand corner, the various paintings hung in the background and on the side walls, the shadowing and dimness within the room, and the elegant attire of the figures. Along with the specific aspects of the work, basic information pertaining to the work is widely known, including the painter, the year the work was painted, and its purpose. As the King’s preferred artist in the Spanish court, Velázquez was commissioned to paint works representing the Royal Family with veneration and decorum. Velázquez’s presence within the painting is an indication of his privileged position as a courtier.
Although the painting includes Velázquez’s self portrait, he is not the central figure of the work. Initially, the viewer may consider the work a portrait of La Infanta, since she is physically in the center of the foreground, surrounded by the entire Royal Household. However, the majority of the figures are not directing their attention at the princess; rather, most of the individuals, including La Infanta herself, are looking outward. To whom or what the figures are directing their attention presents the first ambiguity of the painting: Whether the physical manifestation of the Monarchs is a “poetic” or “real” presence.
Brown, Foucault, and Schmitter concur that the characters within the painting are looking at the actual or representation of the Monarchs, who are placed in some sort of external space. The presence of the Monarchs is confirmed by the figures of Velázquez and José de Nieto as members of the court. Also, the mirror’s reflection of the Monarchs is another indication of their real or metaphorical presence. Brown mentions the curtain reflected on the top of the mirror. He suggests that the Monarchs are about to “enter” the depicted space to see Velázquez at work (91). The red curtain has just risen, revealing the presence of the Monarchs, thus provoking the apparent shift of attention. Some figures have just noticed the entrance of the Monarchs but have not yet reacted. Brown claims that Isabel is beginning to curtsey, respectfully greeting the King and Queen.
Foucault provides a different approach to the Monarchs: The painting is a representation of their entrance rather than a depiction of their actual presence. He suggests that the viewers of the painting are the (invisible) spectators (4). He notes that the mirror is not reflecting physical objects within the vicinity. The mirror is “cutting through” any kind of direct representation of objects or people in the room. Foucault’s explanation of the mirror refers to the notion of the “metaphorical mirror,” not necessarily a reflection of real space but rather an indirect literary device representing the Monarchs. Since the mirror is not meant to be literal, “there is no distortion of perspective” (8). Foucault’s description of Velazquez’s mirror suggests a different purpose from that of Van Eyck’s as seen in the Arnolfini Portrait (1483). Van Eyck’s concave mirror represents a near-perfect reflection of the objects and persons present in the space. Velázquez was certainly influenced by Van Eyck’s painting, which “hung in the Royal palace” (Brown, 99). Velázquez, however, utilized a style similar to that of Titian in his mirror: Softer brushstrokes and less detail. Foucault’s claim would suggest that Velázquez’s mirror was a “self-reflexive exemplification of representation, a representation of a representation itself” (257), demonstrating a profound, intellectual signification that Van Eyck’s excessively precise mirror lacked.
Schmitter challenges Foucault’s interpretation of the representational mirror, or use of perspectival structure. She claims that Foucalt’s argument is incomplete because the “orthogonals simply fail to focus a single point” (259). Alternatively, the mirror, as a compositional device, suggests that it is “placed at the focal point of various compositional devices” (259). In other words, the notion that the Monarchs are metaphorically or realistically represented can change depending on the viewer’s perspective.
Las Meninas has three specific centers: La Infanta at the center of the foreground, the vanishing point right above Nieto’s elbow (as a pictorial device), and the mirror (as a compositional device). Depending on which center the viewer chooses to focus, views on the Monarchs’ presence shift. La Infanta, for example, can be interpreted as a physical manifestation of the Monarchs. Although the Monarchs may not be physically present, La Infanta serves as a representation of their constant presence. The reflection in the mirror presents various plausible explanations. As Foucault claims, the reflection is a metaphorical mirror, suggesting that the Monarchs have an almost spiritual, God-like presence. The mirror might reflect the Monarch’s central position in front of the characters, as viewers. A central positioning could also suggest that the Monarchs are posing for an official portrait while they are observed by the characters. The mirror may correspond to the direction of the vanishing point, suggesting that the mirror is reflecting the canvas and an unfinished portrait of the Monarchs. Also, the vanishing point, which emphasizes the open door, suggests that the Monarchs are about to leave the space, which could explain the presence of Nieto, the aposentador, and the attentiveness of the figures. Despite various indications that the Monarchs are present, Velázquez chooses to remove them from the internal space of the painting, further complicating the viewer’s efforts to comprehend the work.
As Brown indicates, Velázquez’s reasons for “removing” the Monarchs physically assert a sense of decorum and demonstrate “deference to their exalted station” (92). Essentially, Velázquez juxtaposes realism with literary poeticism to create a sense of royal omnipotence, demonstrating his loyal service to the King and also displaying his skill as an artistically talented intellectual. Las Meninas is representative of Velázquez’s struggle to obtain recognition from the Spanish court. Brown mentions that “by 1636, Velázquez’s aspirations to a knighthood were an open secret” (103). He also suggests that Velázquez’s inclusion of Rubens’ paintings in the workshop of Las Meninas pays tribute to the influential artist who was granted knighthood (104). Velázquez’s decision to allude to Rubens serves as a subtle criticism of Spanish views regarding art. The complexities of his piece reinforce the notion of “painting as a liberal art” rather than an unrecognized craft. An earlier depiction of this Velázquez’s view is exhibited in The Spinners (1644-1648), which alludes to the tale of Arachne. Again, Velázquez glorifies the skill of painting, depicting the artist as an almost divine being, blessed with the graciousness of a greater spirit and, therefore, capable of creating profound works beyond the simple imitation. Specifically in Las Meninas, the indirect presence of Philip IV alludes to the “relationship between Alexander the Great and Apelles” (93). Alexander frequently visited Apelles and granted him privileges for his service. This allusion serves as the basis of Velázquez’s argument: Painting should be viewed as a noble art, a respectable representation of elevated intellectualism.
Brown, Jonathan. "On the Meaning of Las Meninas." Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century Spanish Painting. Princeton Essay on the Arts. 87-110.
Foucault, Michel. “Las Meninas.” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books. 3-16
Schmitter, Amy M. "Picturing Power: Representation and Las Meninas." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54.3 (Summer, 2006): 255-268.
Velázquez’s Las Meninas (2)
Paul La Plante
The most engaging and interesting work of Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is Las Meninas, Spanish for The Maids of Honor. This painting contains a richly diverse cast of characters: at the center, the Infanta, or Princess Margaret Theresa, flanked on either side by a maid-in-waiting; Velázquez himself to the left of the Infanta; on the right, in the middle distance of the painting, a chaperone and a guard; in the foreground on the right, two dwarves and a large dog; in the background, in the doorway in the rear of the room, another man, who appears to be leaving the room; finally, in a mirror on the rear wall, the reflections of Philip IV and his queen Mariana of Austria.
In his article “On the Meaning of Las Meninas,” Jonathan Brown points out that “the characters in Las Meninas have long been known,” (Brown 88) save for the guard (and the canine companion of the dwarves). The space, too, has been identified as an actual, physical room in the royal palace in Madrid. The result of this knowledge is that the painting serves in the literal sense of Velázquez creating some masterpiece for the court. The subject matter of Velázquez’s canvas, though, is a highly controversial topic that does not have a definite resolution. Building on this uncertainty, the interpretation of the work as a whole presents an even greater challenge.
One of the possible explanations for the interpretation of the work as a whole is given by Brown, who explains the scene as the characters in the picture having “just noticed Philip and Mariana” (91) as they come into the chamber. As a logical result of this, Brown claims, “The mirror on the rear wall reflects the persons of the king and queen. They are physically present in the room, a fact that Velázquez has underlined by making them the catalysis of the action” (91). However, in one stops to think about this situation, one can see that this interpretation cannot be directly verified by the painting. Elementary geometric optics would dictate that for the physical king and queen to be reflected in the mirror in the depicted manner, they must be standing in front of the mirror at a distance on only a few feet, somewhere close to the mid-ground of the painting. Were the mirror’s reflection depicted in a strictly realistic manner, as in The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck, we should see the backs of the congregated people in front of the king and queen. The mirror is therefore confusing, and causes the viewer to reconsider where the images of the king and queen actually come from and what the reflection means.
An alternative explanation to the “plot” put forth by Brown is advanced by Michael Foucault in the book The Order of Things. In this book, Foucault claims that the king and queen appear in the mirror because their image “is the reverse of the great canvas represented on the left” (Foucault 10). Having already established that the mirror “hangs right in the middle of the far wall” (7), Foucault uses optics to claim that the position of the viewer relative to the room means that the mirror therefore reflects the canvas. Although this interpretation is subject to the same problems as the other interpretation, it is still a valid way to read the painting.
Clearly, the difference between Brown’s interpretation (the entrance of the king and queen) and Foucault’s one (the king and queen are on the canvas of the portrait) shows that there can be a distinct, legitimate difference in interpretation of the work. This difference can fundamentally change the central focus of the work. The question of the central focus becomes an interesting one because, as Leo Steinberg points out in his article “Velázquez’s Las Meninas,” there are different interpretations for where the center of the room lies. He explains that the horizontal center of the painting lies along the “left eye, precisely” of the Infanta; the “given orthogonals…converge upon the man on the stair inside the doorway”; and using the light fixtures as a guide, “the room’s central axis falls to the left of the open door” (Steinberg 51). The overall result of this is that the perceived center of the painting is constantly changing in the mind of the viewer, making a definitive judgment rather difficult, if not impossible.
Regardless of how one interprets the painting, the concept of the mirror serves as one of the key aspects. In her article “Picturing Power: Representation and Las Meninas,” Amy Schmitter remarks on the idea that the vanishing point for the piece can be constructed to lie in the mirror, with the viewing position located directly opposite it (Schmitter 262). Schmitter advances this claim by also claiming that the king and queen in the mirror are the “ideal image” of the Philip IV and Mariana (261). This interpretation increases the importance of the mirror further still, and forces the viewer to seriously think about the importance of the monarchs.
Clearly, there are many different ways in which to interpret this particular painting, and each one seems as equally valid as the next. For example, the basic question of, “Who is standing in front of the painting?” can be dealt with in three main ways: the physical king and queen, as entrants to the room or models for their portrait (if a portrait is indeed what Velázquez is painting in the work); Velázquez himself as the painter of the physical canvas; and the viewer of the painting, which historically would have been the king and queen. If we focus on this last idea, we can see that if the viewing location is directly in front of the mirror, an idea Schmitter suggests in her article, then the viewer of the painting becomes the king and queen, both literally and historically. Another excellent question is, “What is the painting really about?” There are many answers to this question: one answer is that it is about the power and ubiquity of the monarchs. Certainly, they are present in the mirror. One can also take Schmitter’s view of the mirror as key and claim that it is about the king and queen, in an ideal sense. In a more general sense, the king and queen act as viewers, as noted above. The king and queen may also serve as model for the portrait, and be present on Velázquez’s canvas. Finally, Philip IV and Mariana are represented physically by the Infanta, as their lifeblood. Since the Infanta is the geometric center of the painting, she clearly serves as one of the focal points of the work.
In another interpretation, the painting can be about the skill of Velázquez. The paintbrush is fused with his hand by a single brushstroke, fusing the master with his craft. Velázquez also likens himself to Apelles, as the painter of the court. He has the keys to the palace as the king’s Aposentador, noting his elevated position. His clothing is that of a courtier, also attesting to his stature. Most enigmatically, though, he implies that his art is a perfect mirror, but not necessarily of reality as we physically see it. This last interpretation hinges on the perception of the mirror as a reflection of ideals; additionally, though not physically possible, what is in the mirror nevertheless has some deep significance in the physical world. In truth, the fact that the reflection is not physically possible speaks to the mirror’s importance.
All of these different interpretations contribute to the concept of “Baroque illusionism” discussed by Brown. Essentially, this style is “to create a world of illusion that aimed to confuse the boundaries between art and reality” (Brown 97). We see this idea also in the painting The Spinners. In this, Velázquez uses the tapestry in multiple senses: first, as a tribute to Peter Paul Rubens and Titian, two famous contemporaries who were knighted and were members of the nobility. Second, the tapestry evokes a story of how a mortal was better than the gods, implying that Velázquez (the allegorical mortal) is better than past greats, if not the gods themselves. These two ways of interpretation contribute to the suggestion that painting is a liberal art. Bearing all this in mind, one can plainly see that Velázquez truly was one of the great painters, and Las Meninas is one of the finest paintings in Western art.
Brown, Jonathan. “Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century Painting.” Princeton Essays on the Arts: 87-110.
Foucault, Michael. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
Schmitter, Amy M. “Picturing Power: Representation and Las Meninas.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54.3 (1996): 255-268.
Steinberg, Leo. “Velazquez’s Las Meninas.” October 19 (1981): 45-54.