Art History: Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” (Part I)

(Let’s go a little high class today. Here’s an essay I wrote a while looking at different interpretations of Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”. I’ll break it apart cause it’s kind of long. Enjoy.)

Las Meninas by Diago Velazquez (WikiCommons)

Geoffrey Waite, in his Marxist treatment of Velazquez’s most famous painting Las Meninas, says that the painting both subverts and fulfills “….two major visual expectations (the painting as window on the world or as a reflection of it)” (259).  This often studied and lauded work of art which shows a scene of the seventeenth century Spanish royal court certainly does reflect the seventeenth century world of Spanish royalty.  In addition to this, it gives a deep underlying glimpse of so much more. What that ‘more’ consists of has been a long-standing debate between art connoisseurs and art historians. The varying views and theories which have tried to explain this painting reach far beyond the mere image itself. It has become far more than just a snippet of royal life.  Las Meninas does nothing less than to evoke and elicit an elevation of the social status of the artist while undermining the power structure of a monarchy already in shambles.

Las Meninas has gone through a large number of historical interpretations which have rightfully changed with the passing of time.  At first glance, it might be perceived that the painting is merely a depiction of one temporal moment in the court of King Philip IV.  Carl Justi in the nineteenth century described it as merely a portrait of the king’s daughter Infanta Margarita (Kahr 227).  This would mean that the viewer is seeing a ‘slice of life’ and a realistic portrayal of the court on just an ordinary day.  The viewer is seeing the picture from the viewpoint of the king whose image is then displayed ingeniously on the mirror in the background (Kahr 228).  A casual viewer of the painting might be tempted to yield to this type of interpretation, but Kahr exclaims that this would be an increasingly “anachronistic” thing to do (228).  Amy Schmitter clearly claims that the mirror is not centered on the vanishing point of the picture and therefore cannot realistically have reflected the king’s presence (258).  Likewise, Kahr doubts the probability of being able to correctly position the monarchs in such a way as to accurately reflect their portraits in the mirror (228), and that the absence of all chairs or tables would seem to indicate that Velasquez was not shooting for a real-life historical account (229).  It is much more likely that Velasquez set up this scene to depict something much more than just an honorary view of royal life.

There is little doubt Velasquez painted this to show a respectful, yet enigmatic portrait of the royal family of which he would have been very much indebted.  Schmitter argues that Las Meninas shows how power and representation are depicted to create a unique and transforming work of art.  She argues that only when the king steps in front of the picture does the true power of representation become complete (264).  She notes how first the king would see his princess in front of him.  She is the symbolic picture of the monarchy.  Then when his eyes would shift to the left, he sees the reflection of the royal couple in the mirror.   Schmitter contends that only when the king is contemplating the painting and analyzing his presence does the true representation of the painting become complete (264).   She seems to be saying that Velasquez has brilliantly created an art representation which cannot be truly complete without the subject itself standing in front of it.  This unique perspective would once again reinforce the power of the king – that all power and meaning is derived only from the presence of the monarch of which Velasquez himself is a prominent attendee to this show of power.  But likewise, Schmitter also points out that the unique structure of the painting puts the subject of the painting (the king), the painter (Velasquez) and all future viewers of the painting (all of us) in the same position (257).    She suggests that “the nature of the subject position, its relation to the representation, and the connections of the represented object are all functions of the representation itself…” (265). If this is truly the case, then the outside viewing position should yield some insight into the nature and meaning of the picture itself.  Perhaps contrary to what Schmitter is proposing, the elevation of the subject position into the same position as the viewer and the painter may not necessarily exalt the power of the monarch.

There is much contention about the fact that Velasquez, by putting himself in the painting, is not only exalting the status of himself into the echelons of royalty but is also exalting the status of the painter.  Kahr describes that at the time of the painting of Las Meninas, Velasquez “was motivated by his long-unfulfilled ambition to achieve the aristocratic rank of membership in a military order” (227).  This became a reality a year before his death.  But at the time of the painting, he had legitimate concerns that he and other painters should be looked upon as high class aristocrats.  What better way to do this than by painting his self-portrait directly into a scene of the royal court.  This would bring legitimacy to his cause.  It might be noted that Velasquez’s head is positioned higher than anyone else in the painting clearly wanting to make his presence known (Kahr 242).  Mary Volk points out that in the painting Velasquez prominently displays a key which is the symbol of the office of the head chamberlain to the king which he held (70).  There is little doubt that Velasquez relishes being able to emphasis his connection to the royal family.  This is in the long tradition of painters trying to elevate their status by showing their relationship to royalty.

Kahr attempts to show through historical research of the Flemish gallery paintings that many European painters of the previous century wanted to improve their standing among the social classes.  Flemish gallery paintings depict large rooms with famous works of art lining the walls.  Typically, various groups of individuals were shown in the foreground engaged in various activities.  These very ‘busy’ paintings seem to serve as a way to ‘publish’ the art collection of prominent individuals. Some of these gallery paintings depicted the rulers of the Netherlands in the company of artists sharing common interests (Kahr 234). One of the great gallery painters, David Teniers, painted himself in the company of the Archduke (Kahr 236).  In fact, Kahr claims that Teniers was trying to show how art was not a trade that belonged to the guilds but should be treated as a liberal art – an equal peer with literature and poetry (239).  Such a claim would thrust the artist into the highest echelons of society which any artist trying to earn respect would aspire to.  The image of the working painter had been used extensively prior to Las Meninas (Kahr 237).  The significance of this cannot be overstated.  The artist is not only trying to rise up into high society, but he is doing so by saying that the work he does is legitimate and important.  It is not only the work of art itself which is worthy of praise and adoration, but the painter also deserves those adulations.   Kahr claims that it is very likely that Velasquez would have had an opportunity during his time in Italy to see at least one of Teniers’ gallery paintings which, she implies, would have influenced him as he primed the canvass to paint Las Meninas (240).

Volk agrees with Kahr that Velasquez’s masterpiece does indeed extol the high status of the painter but counters that his painting diverges greatly from the style of the Flemish gallery paintings (73).   While Velasquez’s painting does show some works of art of the walls, it does not show a vast display of art belonging to a collector (Volk 73).  This means that though Teniers may have wanted to vaunt the art collection of his monarch in his gallery paintings, Velasquez was after something much different (Volk 74).  Volk explains that Madrid artists did not feel adequately recognized as a professional artisan, and they established movements to start art academies as a way to give academic legitimacy to painters (76).  One proposed academy would study things such as perspective, anatomy, symmetry and physiognomy (Volk 77).  Other theoretical writings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries emphasized that the artist needs to be schooled in “…not only mathematics and perspective, but also in literature and virtually all branches of knowledge” (Kahr 239).  It is clear that artists of that time were not satisfied to be looked at as part of a guild or mere craftsmen.  They wanted equality with the Liberal Arts.  The association they had with monarchs was testament to the fact that the visual arts “…pertained to the most respected of mental endeavors” (Kahr 234-235).  Volk and Kahr seem to clearly show that Velasquez’s intent and purpose go far beyond a mere scene of everyday royal life.  Art is often about what is not seen.  Besides the historical context of artists wanting to elevate their status, what else is “missing” from this painting?

CONTINUED in NEXT POST

 

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