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

Was the painting “Las Meninas” meant to be a criticism of the Spanish Royal Court? Let’s have a look. You can read part I HERE!

Waite, in his Marxist approach to Las Meninas, states that we cannot clearly see everything that is depicted in art.  He expounds that there is no adequate way to describe the appropriate socioeconomic history of a painting (249).  Can we really see everything that is present in a picture?  Or perhaps more importantly, can we see everything that is absent?  Biberman seems to agree that art cannot be fully understood by merely looking at the finished canvass.  She writes, “….viewing a picture, however, is fragmentary by nature; its temporality is not necessarily successive and does not correlate with the strict criteria that narrative structure demands….visual surplus that cannot be verbalized” (237).  According to this, there is no way that a painting can tell a complete story.  There is too much left unsaid.  What are the issues left unsaid in Las Meninas.  Waite takes the approach of looking at the painting through the eyes of revolutionary Marxist leader Lenin.  What is left unsaid that would speak volumes to Lenin?  Before looking at that, what is the context of the actual Spanish empire when Velasquez paints this picture?

The reign of Philip IV was one of great conflict and turmoil for Spain.  The great Spanish empire was waning.  The gold from the Americas was drying up and there was precious little economic activity happening at home to make up for the difference.  By 1656 the mines of the West Indies nearly exhausted and the economic boom which once abounded by the extracting of resources from the new world was nearly finished (Waite 274-275).  All that was still be accomplished in the Spanish American colonies were being done on the back of the beaten down native peoples.  Waite describes Philip’s rule as being full of “bread riots, abandoned towns and serious demographic changes, terrible crop failures, contagion….troop shortages” (268).   It is perhaps without a hint of sarcasm that Waite describes the handmaidens of Velasquez’s picture as literally having more money in their pockets as King Philip has himself.  Waite points out that the whole structure of the painting is made to point out the reality outside the painting itself (260).  The mirror certainly plays a significant part of that.  However, the barren ceiling, the hidden picture, and the light coming through the window also play a part as well.  Biberman claims that “the Infanta [Margarita] demonstrates how vision comprises, beyond what is being represented, a missing thing” (250).  It might be explained that the two focal points of the mirror and the Infanta are somehow merged together representing the royal subject who is actually missing from the picture.  However, what if it was looked at in the sense of what is truly missing from the picture – a legitimate heir to the throne?

Waite contends that it is impossible to know all of Velasquez’s intentions or to question his political ideology (269), but there seems to be plenty left unsaid in the painting which could illuminate a Marxist view of Spanish society.  Waite poses the question as what exactly Lenin would see if he looked at this painting.  Waite speaks of a “determinate absence” of what cannot be seen by the consensus (265).  What exactly does he mean by this?  When looking at a painting, most people see a certain thing which the majority can agree on.  When looking at Las Meninas, it is easy to see the prominent positioning of the artist on the left, the charmed royal daughter delightfully posing around her court entourage, and the enigmatic mirror in the background showing the faces of the monarchs.  But for Lenin, what is missing from the picture would be the very real and determinable reality of life under a cold, unforgiving, authoritarian regime.  The consensus view or the bourgeois view can only try to conceal the barbaric reality of Spain under the reign of Philip IV (Waite 265).  Waite reveals how the mirrored image of the king and queen show them to be reversed from the normal way they would stand for a portrait with the queen standing on the king’s left in the painting’s viewing position (258).  Is it a show of disrespect – conscious or otherwise?  Waite shows how Lenin sees a monarch upset over the lack of a real, legitimate heir to the throne.  Indeed, the impotent, deformed last son of Philip ended his family’s rule with an unmemorable reign (271-273).  Perhaps this was a symbol of Spain’s own fallen image in the light of its crumbling empire?  Waite argues that this picture does not represent real power but a power that is on its way out where capitalism and authoritarianism is nearly finished (270).  Even the empty chandelier hooks point to a Spanish empire which is destitute, powerless and too bankrupt for even the basic lighting requirements of the seventeenth century (278).  As Waite describes, Lenin would see the “abyss” behind the pleasingly aesthetic picture (282).  Waite is playing a kind of game with the painting albeit an interesting one.  Biberman argues in his psychoanalytical view of Las Meninas that the image that we see when we look at a painting, as Freud would argue, “serves as a cover for an unknown, unconscious, repressed event” (243).  Lenin, in Waite’s view, would uncover the meaning of the event in a predictably Marxist way. In hindsight, one may not be able to argue much with some of the historical socioeconomic facts of the time in light of the Spanish empire’s decline during this period.

Whether Las Meninas was truly meant to be an indictment on the Spanish royal court remains to be seen. However, it is unmistakable that King Philp IV and Mariana of Austria “must give up their ‘privileged position’ in front of the scene to any other viewer in history” (Waite 280).  Whether they give up their privileged position in order to elevate the artist, to elevate the viewer or to demonstrate their own power by giving meaning to the painter with their presence is a point of argument which may never satisfactorily be resolved.

This is perhaps the great genius of this work of art.  The “reality outside the surface of Las Meninas” (Waite 260) is vast.  It is a reality where the painter is exalted for doing his art.  It is a reality where the viewer gets to stand in a position usually reserved for royalty.  It is a reality where the common man is one step closer to being in the position of power alongside the monarch.  Privilege and power are being unmasked by a society in turmoil.  With so much to be said about what is ‘missing’ from the canvass, Las Meninas is in an enviable position among works of art which will be discussed and interpreted for years to come.


Works Cited

Biberman, Efrat. “On Narrativity in the Visual Field: A Psychoanalytic View of Velázquez’s Las Meninas.” 237-253. Ohio State University Press, 2006.

Kahr, Madlyn Millner. “Velazquez and Las Meninas.” Art Bulletin 57.2 (June 1975): 225.

Schmitter, Amy M. “Picturing power: Representation and Las Meninas.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 54.3 (Summer96 1996): 255.

Volk, Mary Crawford. “On Velazquez and the Liberal Arts.” Art Bulletin 60.1 (Mar. 1978): 69.

Waite, Geoffrey. “Lenin in Las Meninas: An Essay in Historical-Materialist Vision.” History &     Theory 25.3 (Oct. 1986): 248.



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?