Power Relations In Diego Velazquezs Las Meninas English Literature Essay

The author of the painting Las Meninas (1656), Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) worked at the court of Philip IV, thus at the centre of the centralised power structure of one of the original nation-states of Early Modern Europe. Las Meninas has been argued – both in Velázquez time and in ours – to be his masterpiece.

My purpose in this essay is to argue for an interpretation of this painting and its shaping by an exploration of power relations rather than by perspectival considerations. My interest in the present essay will be to analyse Las Meninas within the perspective of power relations, in an effort to provide an alternative reading to the literature based purely on the technical aspects of the painting. A lot has been written regarding the great unclearness that the painting Las Meninas seals, but, there is a question that we must acknowledge in presence of the visual intricacy of the painting, what indeed did Velázquez paint? I am not looking to provide the final answer to this question in this essay. However, I believe that by analysing Las Meninas within the perspective of power relations, I can contribute to the scholarship on Velázquez and provide an approach that can also contribute to the answer of this question.

Las Meninas (fig. 1) (Spanish for The Maids of Honour) is an oil on canvas painting with 318 cm Ã- 276 cm. The setting is a large room and it has long been unclear whether the interior represented in the painting is real or imaginary. F. J. Sánchez Cantón identified the room by the paintings in it as the main chamber of an apartment in the Alcázar of Madrid that had been occupied by Prince Baltazar Carlos before its assignment to Velázquez. [2] However, F. Iñiguez Almech was unable, when analysing the seventeenth-century plans of Alcázar, to identify any room that would correspond to the one in the painting, being possible that Velázquez did not depict any actual room. [3] 

Fig. 1. – Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museu Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Available from: Museu Nacional del Prado Galería On-Line (accessed 29 March 2010).

The painting presents a composition distributed in well organised spatial structure that provides to the depicted room a sensation of realism, proximity and depth, being the composition concentric, with the Infanta Margarita María de Austria as its focal point. [4] The depth of the painting is accentuated by the frames on the wall on the right, by the canvas on the left and by the two empty chandeliers on the ceiling. In addition, the painting combines discreet colours, providing harmony to the painting (white, grey and black of the attires with details in red, beige of the canvas, and again tones of black and grey in the non-illuminated parts of the room). [5] 

On the right of the room, one has an oblique view of the wall with apertures which seem to be windows that let light into the room. On the left, the view of the room is cut by a large canvas seen from the back. The painter himself, Diego Velázquez, is portrayed in front of this canvas with a paintbrush on his hand, who seems to have just stopped working on the canvas for a moment in order to gaze out his models. Velázquez was fifty-seven years old when he painted Las Meninas and depicted himself in it, but without wrinkles, white hair, or any other sign that could indicate his actual age. The canvas Velázquez is working on is not visible to the viewer. More or less to the centre of the canvas stands a little girl identified as the Infanta of Spain, Doña Margarita María de Austria, who also gazes out in the manner of a portrait, and around who “the other figures gravitate . . . like planets of an intricate, subtly ordered system, and reflect her light.” [6] She is surrounded on both sides by two young women attendants (the meninas of the title), being the one on the left (Doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor) kneeling at the feet of the Infanta and offering her a búcaro in a tray, while the other on the right (Doña Isabel de Velasco) inclines a bit to the Infanta and turns her glance outwards the canvas. To the right of this group, in the corner of the canvas, stand two dwarves of distorted appearance, also court attendants. The woman named María Barbola gazes outwards, while the midget who steps on the dog is Nicolasico Pertusato. On a more distant plan is Doña Marcela de Ulloa, lady of honour, who turns her head to address a man (escort for ladies of the court), who stands beside her and looks outwards. Some distance behind them is the rear wall of the room, which has a door where stands Don José Nieto Velázquez, Aposentador of the Queen, also gazing outwards. To the left of José Nieto, the King Philip IV and the Queen María Ana de Austria are reflected in a mirror. Some of the figures in the painting present little problem of identification, namely Velázquez and the Infanta; the others are less obvious. This identification of the figures in the painting is based on Velázquez earliest biographer, Antonio Palomino, who named the figures in Las Meninas on the basis of the known population of the court in Book III of his Museu Pictórico y Escala Óptica, which was first published in 1724. [7] Palomino also identifies the two paintings in the upper part of the back wall with the then current royal holdings: Minerva Punishing Arachne and Apollo’s Victory over Marsyas, both originally by Peter Paul Rubens. [8] 

The Infanta occupies the centre of the visual focus, together with the King and Queen’s reflection on the mirror and the painter. The superior half of the painting is occupied with lamps and spots of light that enter trough the openings on the right wall; there are shadows covering the back superior part of the wall. The scene is taken from an angle that closes itself in the right with an opening in the wall. In the left, in another diagonal plan, the painting that is being painted by Velázquez leaves the figures in second plan and cuts obliquely the space. In the back, the mirror and the door make allusion to unknown spaces, which together with the spatial configuration of the portrayed room open the painting to the exterior and pulls the viewer to inside of the composition. As Madlyn Millner Kahr points out, “the mirror in the painting contributes its own special brand of magic. In Las Meninas it directs the observer’s attention to events going on “outside the picture” (the presence of the royal couple), which in turn brings the observer within the picture area.” [9] 

On her article “Velázquez and Las Meninas,” Kahr divides “the cast of characters” with a “wide range of ages and physical types” into different groups. [10] One of these groups is the dog, the midget and the female dwarf. According to Kahr, these three characters form a group apart due to “their position in space and their compositional unity.” [11] The central group, as Kahr argues, stands behind them, being constituted by the Infanta and the two meninas. The painter, Doña Marcela de Ulloa and the guardadamas forms another group; and the last group is composed by the Aposentador of the Queen standing in the stairs and by King Philip IV and Queen María Ana reflected on the mirror. [12] Thus, Kahr divides the characters in groups of three. This division provides unity, coherence and structure to the painting, and by placing the group of the Infanta and the two meninas as the central one, Kahr’s group division concurs with Palomino’s consideration that the painting is a portrait of the Infanta. [13] The light that enters the room by the right side wall apertures mainly illuminates the Infanta, Doña Maria Agustina Sarmiento and partially the other menina, that are highlighted in relation to the darkness behind them, reinforcing the conception that Las Meninas is a portrait of the Infanta of Spain. Carl Justi also described Las Meninas as a portrait of the Infanta Margarita as the centre of a recurrent scene of the palace life. [14] 

Joel Snyder agrees that considering the painting as the portrait of the Infanta Margarita, as Palomino and Carl Justi do, is a movement in the correct direction, “but it fails to explain the presence of all the other figures in it that compete for our attention.” [15] Jonathan Brown states that the subject of the painting is no one in particular, but that the painting is a claim for the nobility of Velázquez’s art. [16] However, Snyder points out:

To suggest that Las Meninas is a demonstration of the nobility of painting and of its proper place in the liberal arts, as Jonathan Brown does, is to locate the interest of the painting in the conditions of its origination and in the means employed to produce the demonstration. This is surely interesting and, if correct, revealing; but, again, it does not bring us to terms with the subject of the painting – with what the painting is tout ensemble. [17] 

Firstly, the tout ensemble of the painting may be explored individually (considering the power relations between each figure in the painting), in order to then identify the subject of the painting.

In approaching this issue, one should agree that one can identify the presence of the centralised power in the painting Las Meninas. The power in this painting may be recognized in several aspects. There is in the painting two distinct social groups: the working class and the one that enjoys the labour of those who work. On the one hand, we have the painter, the maids, the lady of honour, the escort for ladies of the court, the Aposentador of the Queen, and the dwarfs represented; while, on the other hand, we have the aristocracy represented in the Infanta that occupies the centre of the painting and King Philip IV and Queen María Ana de Austria reflected on the mirror.

When one questions why Velázquez depicted himself together with all the members of the royal household, the answer may be that he wanted to indicate that he also belonged to this illustrious circle. Sira Dambe states that “in Golden Age Spain, the art of painting, still relegated to the rank of craft, had not yet been accorded equal status with the higher arts, such as music or poetry.” [18] Therefore, this painting may be seen as “Velázquez’s proclamation of . . . power and status as a creator.” [19] The ecclesiastic power is also present in the cross of the Santiago’s Order in the chest of the painter, which was not originally painted by Velázquez, being painted after the artists’ death by the King’s demand. [20] When analysing the Fable of Arachne and Las Meninas, Jonathan Brown states, “[Velázquez’s] claim for the nobility of his art are firmly embedded in these multi-layered works,” and in Las Meninas “the gentleman painter, stands confidently at the easel, basking in the glory of the monarch’s person. And on his breast, the vibrant red cross of Santiago marks the artist as a nobleman.” [21] 

In addition, one can also identify the presence of the artistical power of the painter over the remaining figures due to the dominium of the artistic language, but at the same time, the artistic needs to obey to a superior power, and in this case, the kingship. This statement finds support on the royal couple pictured in the mirror that accordingly represent the royal power. On her article “Picturing Power: Representation and Las Meninas,” Amy M. Schmitter affirms:

The King’s representation is a force of power, a manifestation of royal power that embodies, displays, and extends it. It is a representation that acts, that represents by presenting, exhibiting, or exposing titles and qualifications, by figuring them in painting, by being a sign, by bringing to observation, and by playing in public. It thereby constitutes its subject, the royal power and the royal office, by representing it. [22] 

One can agree that the depiction of the King Philip IV and the Queen María Ana de Austria on the mirror and of the Infanta Margarita as main focus of the painting represents directly in the painting the royal power – it represents those that should be looked with reverence and submission. Furthermore, with the glances one receives and returns in the painting, the represented royal power gazes with control and vigilance over everyone else.

Regarding the power relations between the remaining figures of the painting, one can argue that the meninas, the guardadamas and the lady of honour, by their own social condition are subordinates of the kingship. The two dwarfs are also condemned to the royal power and have as their function to entertain the royal household. The dog that is being stepped by the dwarf on the right is condemned to an even lower position (a submissive animal). In this perspective of power relations, the presence of José Nieto Velázquez becomes enigmatic. Despite being the Aposentador of the Queen and therefore ruled by the royal power, he is portrayed in profile on the stairs of the back door, seemingly indicating an indecision of staying under the gaze of the royal power or leaving. From this analysis, one can agree that all the figures of the painting are entangled in the webs of power.

Although the delimitations of power are well defined in the painting, representing the historical, political and economic conditions of seventeenth-century Spain, another way of looking at this issue is through the indirect allusions also present in the painting, such as the dwarf, positioned in perfect diagonal alignment with the painter. The two associate by contrast: the painter as the creator and admirer of what is beautiful, and the dwarf as symbol of deformity. In common, there is the fact that both are represented images of social groups placed aside from power. One should, nevertheless, consider this opposition from another angle. From the contrast itself between what the painter and the dwarf represent, one can obtain an exchange of parts by acknowledging that the arts represent both the sublime as well as the grotesque. Therefore, there is in this aesthetical inscription a subversion of the institutionalised values of power.

The power of kingship is also central in Michel Foucault’s chapter on Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, being this the opening chapter of his book The Order of Things. [23] According to Foucault the function of the mirror reflection of the King and the Queen is to bring to the painting what is external to it. In the chapter Las Meninas, Foucault attributes the theme of the painting to the external space and gives the Infanta and her maids (internal space) the function of entertaining the King and Queen that are in front of the representation (outside space) as Vélazquez’s models. [24] 

Foucault’s critical analysis derives from the observation angle of the Infanta, the King and Queen in the mirror and how their gazes define the centre of the picture. The mirror in the back leads to the conclusion, as Foucault states, that it is about a question of what looks and what is looked. From these encounters of gazes and perceptions, the author notes that the notion of double arises from this painting. To Foucault the double reveals itself in the painting from inside the painting itself. The painting that Velázquez is painting in the portrait will be the representation of the reflexion of the King and Queen in the mirror at the back. [25] 

On the chapter dedicated to Las Meninas, Foucault argues that the “Classical age,” roughly the period from the seventeenth-century to the eighteenth-century, was a period when the intellectual world focused on the representations of the real. Accordingly, Foucault defines the subject of Las Meninas as the representation itself. To quote from Foucault:

Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velázquez, the representation as it were of Classical representation, and the definition of space it opens up to us . . . But there, in the midst of this dispersion which is simultaneously grouping together and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form. [26] 

Therefore, Foucault argues that in Las Meninas representation tries to interpretate itself. In contemporaneous philosophy, it is the language that is going to establish the relation between the similarities with the world, making possible representation. Thus, one can affirm that the turning point from “classic” epistêmê to “modern” epistêmê is the passage of language as mediator (in representation) to object of knowledge. In the “modern” epistêmê, language does not reveal more directly the identity of the world, but it reveals the relations between things and the Man. It is from here that occurs the questioning of Man as centre around whom all the knowledge is created. Thus, Velázquez painting represents what is to come. The “modern” epistêmê is anticipated in Velázquez’s Las Meninas – it is the utopic function of art of anticipating the future. Consequently, to Foucault, Las Meninas is represented in an epistemic system – the subject of representation should remain invisible (the empty space of the kingship is the place that in the modern episteme will be occupied by the Man). Foucault points out:

At once object – since it is what the artist is copying onto his canvas – and subject – since what the painter had in front of his eyes, as he represented himself in the course of work, was himself, since the gazes portrayed in the picture are all directed toward the fictitious position occupied by the royal personage, which is also the painter’s real place, since the occupier of that ambiguous place, in which the painter and the sovereign alternate, in never-ending flicker, as it were, is the spectator, whose gaze transforms the painting into object, the pure representation of that essential absence. [27] 

Moreover, Foucault argues that the mirror portrayed in Las Meninas portrays the confrontation between representation and reflexion, being that a painting is different from a mirror and a representation goes beyond a reflexion. Therefore, the painting is a representation for the observer, and in the painting of Velázquez one has the painting itself, and inside it one has other represented paintings and also a canvas in first plan viewed from the back. In all, this painting is a representation that has as subject a kind of empty place that we can fill with several models. Foucault argues that instead of instituting a simple relation of mimesis as the main theme of the painting, the figures of the royal couple would be indicated as a kind of essential emptiness. [28] 

According to Foucault, the canvas on the left is the place for a dichotomy between visible/invisible. What the painter looks is doubly invisible, because it is not represented in the painting, and because we cannot see ourselves. The mirror in the back is the only visible representation, but despite that fact, no one looks at it. However, what is there represented, has nothing to do with what the painting presents, it reflects something that is exterior to the painting. In the place occupied by the spectator, are the models of the painter. Therefore, the painting allows to see what is doubly invisible. The characters in the mirror are the less noticed, but it is around them that all the representation happens. It is to them that all the other character’s look – gazing outwards the painting. [29] Thus, there are three looks that meet on the outside of the painting: of the model, in the moment he is being painted, of the spectator that contemplates the scene, and of the painter in the moment he paints the painting (the one in front of us, and not the one represented in the painting). Quoting from Foucault’s The Order of Things:

Of all the figures represented before us, they [the royals] are also the most ignored, since no one is paying the slightest attention to that reflection [in the mirror] which has slipped into the room behind them all, silently occupying its unsuspected space; in so far as they are visible, they are the frailest and the most distant form of all reality. Inversely, in so far as they stand outside the picture and are therefore withdrawn from it in an essential invisibility, they provide the centre around which the entire representation is ordered: it is they who are being faced, it is towards them that everyone is turned . . . from the canvas with its back to us to the Infanta, and from the Infanta to the dwarf playing on the extreme right, there runs a curve . . . that orders the whole arrangement of the picture to their gaze and thus makes apparent the true centre of the composition, to which the Infanta’s gaze and the image in the mirror are both finally subject. [30] 

One should note here that Foucault’s theory emphasises the “interior look” – it constitutes the interior from the exterior – as a device built from the outside to the inside of the webs of power. Las Meninas, in Foucault’s interpretation help us see this paradigm. By observing the painting, it is noticeable that the “modern” subject is constituted by surveillance, by the absent look (but at the same time very present), of a power that determines everything, from the character’s clothing, gestures, attention, social position, in sum the ways of feeling and seeing are determined by a power that sees all and controls all. In view of these arguments, Foucault points out:

In the profound upheaval of such an archaeological mutation, man appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as a subject that knows: enslaved sovereign, observed spectator, he appears in the place belonging to the king, which was assigned to him in advance by Las Meninas, but from which his real presence has for long been excluded. [31] 

On his article “Velázquez’ Las Meninas,” Leo Steinberg presents similar arguments to Foucault’s, including the viewers of the painting as part of a “sphere which the partitioning picture plane cuts in two.” [32] As Steinberg points out, “if the picture were speaking instead of flashing, it would be saying: I see you seeing me – I in you see myself seen – see yourself being seen – and so on beyond the reaches of the grammar.” [33] What particularly interests me in Foucault’s and Steinberg’s approaches is the placing of the “modern” Man (in Foucault’s case), and the observer (in Steinberg’s case), as pivotal figures in the interpretation of Las Meninas, being that in their approaches the Man/observer holds the power – he occupies the place of the royal power.

To conclude, when one considers all these different approaches to Las Meninas, one is presented with a complex web of power relations. Firstly, the painting was produced in seventeenth-century Spain, a original nation-state of Early Modern Europe, and in and with the court of Philip IV – the centre of a centralised power structure. Secondly, the painting depicts the royal power interiorly with the portrayal of the Infanta and the King and the Queen in the mirror, and at the same time exteriorly trough the implied presence of the royal couple reflected on the mirror. Thirdly, the painting also portrays all those ruled by the monarchic power, such as the maids of honour, the lady of honour, the guardadamas, the dwarfs, the Aposentador of the Queen, and also the painter. Fourthly, it also depicts Velázquez’s proclamation of power by portraying himself in the royal household as a nobleman, and at the same time it celebrates his artistical power. Finally, the painting invisibly portrays the Man/observer that occupies the same place of the royal couple outside the painting, and that this way holds the power both as subject of representation and holder of knowledge. Therefore, one can conclude that what Velázquez did indeed paint in Las Meninas was power – royal power, artistical power, and intellectual power. The setting and the figures of Las Meninas are merely incorporations of power relations, being the painting on his whole a metaphor of power.

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