Las Meninas and other mirrors of Diego Velázquez

Ante Scriptum:  I wrote this post long ago, before even this art-mirrors project formally commenced. It wasn’t even written about mirrors per se, but to comment on another posting, about the re-interpretations of the Diego Velázquez’ Meninas (you can find it here too, see Contemplating reinterpretations).  When transferring it here, I decided not to edit it too much, and leave as is, even though today I would write it differently.

To start, let’s have a look at the painting itself:

It’s a stunningly famous work of art, I bet it is in the top ten most recognisable paintings in the world. As often happens in such cases, it makes the task of writing about it both difficult and easy. The easy part is that one shouldn’t really write about it at all, or at least can skip the ‘basics’, and this knowledge about the years of creation, the sizes, and plot, the heroes, and who are the maids, and why the cap is read etc etc. In case you don’t know all that and really want to, the wikipedia is all yours.

The difficult part is, of course, related to the tremendous popularity of this painting. This work is not just over-researched, it’s hyper-over-research, the only bibliography of ‘serious’ publications about Las Meninas already comprises a relatively large book. And it is hugely popular both among artists (and art critics) and more theoretical folks, like historians and philosophers.

Michel Foucault in the first chapter of his Les mots et les choses (1966) made a claim that this is THE most important, pivotal work for the European civilisation that reflects (sic!) the very formation of modern identity, and modern way of thinking about and perceiving the world (and us as a part of this world).

According to Foucault, Velázquez was the first who employed this clever trick, of putting us, the viewers, into the place in front of this painting in such a way that we inevitably understand that this is the very position where the kind and the queen are standing. In this way we are becoming the kind and the queen, and theVelázquez-in-the-painting is actually painting us on his canvas-in-the-painting.

Few years later this argument was support by John Searle, a renown American philosopher, who suggested that the painting (re)presents, in a paradoxical way yet very accurate way, how we perceive this world and at the same time what can be (re)presented by art  – see his paper Las Meninas and the Paradox of Pictorial Representation (1980) [pdf].

However, Searle believes that if would be able to look at the canvas-in-the-painting, we would see not the king and queen (or us), but this very Las Meninas! It is interesting how all these complex debates can be distilled to a very simple issues, of what is actually depicted on that canvas-in-the-painting.

The classical version (also endorsed by Foucault) says that what we see is a moment of sitting, of the Spanish king Philip IV and his wife, Mariana of Austria, for their joint portrait, to be painted by Diego Velázquez, the court painter. The session is interrupted by the visit of their daughter, infanta Margaret Theresa, who entered the room with her entourage of the maids (=meninas). John Searle obviously suggests a more paradoxical version, but still within a framework of ‘pictorial representations’, as they call it in the art-speak.

Few years later Joel Snyder, Professor of the Chicago University and a research of perception (including of art), has published his critical response to the above argument, in the paper titled Las Meninas and the Mirror of the Prince (it used to be online in full, but now I see only the first page).  His reply can be also called hyper-critical, as he basically levels to the very ground all the arguments of Foucault-Searle (and to my taste in a very mordant style; they try to avoid such style these days).

Basically, Snyder sees nothing ‘paradoxical’ in this painting (and in general is against applying this term to art, suggesting instead to use ‘peculiar’ or simply ‘strange’). Some, but not all, drawings by Escher are deliberately paradoxical, yet there is nothing ‘paradoxical’ about Las Meninas. There is no such things as the ‘placement of the viewer into the shoes of the king’, alluded by Foucault or any other similar ‘games of perception’.

According to Snyder, if we would carefully reconstruct the room in its entirety, we would easily find a spot where we could stand and observe this scene, of the painter making the portrait of the royal couple. We are not the ‘king and queen’ here, but the visitors who actually intruded the scene (and thus everybody looks at us with a certain bewilderment.)

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I always see all these perspective reconstructions of this painting with a great deal of scepticism – if only because the original painting was of very different size, unknown to us now. What we know is that it was much bigger (wider), but it was damaged by the fire in a royal palace, and this damaged part was simply cut off. Later it was also moved from one room to another, and cut again, most likely from the right size. Knowing that, all these contemporary reconstruction in search of the magical ‘points of viewing’ are no more than wishful thinking.

Above is one of the  versions of the original painting constructed by Eve Sussman, who later also made a short movie (89 Second in Alcazar) reenacting this famous scene in the royal palace. Sussman also assumes that the painting was much larger (the red square is what we have left today).

However, this reconstruction is no better – or worse – that any others, and without the exact data on the original sizes any theoretical constructions remain to be sortilege of a kind.

</tangent >

But Synder went even further, acting now not so much as a researcher of perception, but a researcher of (art) history. He actually argues that Velázquez-in-the-painting paints nothing, i.e., there was no ‘portrait’ of the king and queen intended. What he is making is yet another portrait of the young infanta, commissioned by the king, and as with any other portraits of her, before and after that, he is loading it with a certain morality.

In this case, Velázquez is exploiting a certain play of words (and meaning) which Snyders analyses in details.

Let’s take the front page of the book that was very well-known back then in Spain, so called Idea de un principe politico cristiano, by some Diego de Saavedra Fajardo. We see that instead of canvas it depicts a mirror.

The issue is that another, better known title of this boos was ‘The Mirror of the Christian Politician (Ruler)‘, whereby the word ‘mirror’ was used with a meaning of a ‘codex’ or a ‘corpus (of laws)’. This was not that only book of such sort, of course. In fact, there was a large assortment of various ‘mirrors’ at that time, such as ‘The Mirror of a True Gentleman’ or ‘The Mirror of Respectable Husband’ and so on.

Below, for example, is a front page of the‘The Mariner’s Mirror’ (1588) written by Lucas Jansz Waghenaer, famous Flemish explorer and cartographer.

Basically, Snyder argues that the ‘mirror’ we see on the painting is not more than an allusion to this meaning of the word, and thus the purpose of the work was to depict the infant with a mirror, in other words, with the admonishment of the king to his daughter.

Velázquez panted numerous portraits of the infanta, depicting her different ages (and I compiled only a few of them in the collage I started this posting with).  Many of them indeed have similar symbolic messages. For instance, the fan on the left painting below signified a certain age (and the status) she reached, after which she had to point to the objects only by such fan, not by hand. The painting with the globe shown on a background of another portrait was to signal the start of more serious studies she had to go through (but of course also manifested the vase Spanish possessions of land in Latin America).


This last portrait is also an example of another theme, of motif of the Velázquez’ oeuvre, namely ‘Painting in the painting’. I think it’s a very important element of his art, and largely unnoticed (or at least I never read any detailed analysis of this topic).  To comment on this, albeit very briefly, I have to start from his earlier works (per se having nothing to do with the mirrors).

Below is a typical work of early Velázquez, made in the so called bodegón genre (from Spanish ‘bodega’, a tavern or a wine cellar); appropriately, it depicts lots of food stuff and kitchen utensils (the official title of the painting is ‘Old Woman Frying Eggs‘, 1618):

He made a number of such works, and they were all of good quality, but also were not able to bring neither fame nor income; the latter two were given for either religious work or portraits of nobility. I think Velázquez found an interesting bridge between these worlds and the subjects more familiar to him.

Here is also one of his earlier paintings, so called Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c.1620):

At the first look, this is a very simple illustration of the famous story from the Bible, about pragmatic Martha and devotional Mary (not the Saint Mary, though).  Yet the painting contains a puzzle, of what is actually depicted in its upper left corner. Is it a painting? a door? or, perhaps, a mirror?

But before even answering this question, the very depiction of the figure of Christ was transferring this otherwise simple bodegon into a symbolic art-work, thus also elevating its author on a higher professional level (or so I think).

The latter version, about mirror, is very unlikely, of course, because the mirrors of such size were very rare and VERY expensive back then (and under ‘back then’ I mean the times of Velázquez, not Jesus Christ). One wouldn’t expect to see in the house of modestly living family of Martha and Mary.

Interestingly, though, this version was quite popular at some point, partly because the conditions of the painting. It was getting darker with time, but the restoration efforts mostly meant cleaning certain areas by saliva, so with time the area with Christ became the brightest spot, while the frame turned to be into one dark area.

When the painting was restored, it became obvious that depicted is the painting on a wall. However, as a more careful analysis with the use of X-rays revealed, Velázquez perhaps intended to make it a ‘door’; the lower part of frame appeared much later during the process.


Either way, what we see here is a trick employed by some painters, namely depicting a picture inside a painting. Velázquez used the same trick in another work of about same time, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (с. 1620)


Soon after Velázquez will travel to Madrid, and soon propelled into the court painter. His tremendously quick take-off is mostly due to his talents and skills, of course, but also the result of multiple serendipitous circumstances (right-time-right-place kind of things; he came to Madrid in March 1622, and in December of this year the previous court’s painter suddenly died, being relatively young by then.)

He painted a portrait of his first patron in Madrid, Don Juan de Fonseca, who liked it, and who showed to the king. A portrait of the king was commissioned, and was completed basically within one day, after just one sitting, in August 1623. Apparently, Philip liked it so much that he ordered to withdraw from circulation all the previous painting of him and granted to DiegoVelázquez and exclusive right to paint the king, together with a position of the new court painter, the position he officially took from 1624. In less than two years Velázquez made a journey from an unknown master to the painter of the mightiest monarch of that time, simples.

Velázquez will paint numerous portraits of the king, and later his family, as well as portraits of nobility. His style will be gradually becoming more gentle, compared to the stiff and sober manner of his earlier works, and also inevitably more pompous (though he will never reach the grandiosity of Rubens, very fortunately). Interestingly, but he met Rubens who came to Madrid in 1928, at the peak of his fame, though the latter didn’t have much influence on still quite young Diego Velázquez.

Rubens, however, has made on the fate of the Spanish court painter, as it was most likely him who finally persuaded Velázquez to travel to Italy, to learn about, and from Italian art. Diego Velázquez spent almost a year and a half in Italy, and came back to Spain a very different painter; art historian often divided his works on two periods, ‘Before Italy’ and ‘After Italy’.

One major difference is a much better understanding of human anatomy, that Velázquez could learn both from the famous works of art but also from the real (nude) models, the opportunity he was obviously lacking in still very dogmatic Spain. If before his human figures were more like ‘walking costumes’, now he could paint human body in an accurate, thus very powerful way – just look at his Christ on the Cross (1632), a giant and almost hyper-realistic work, currently in Prado Museum.


His portraits are becoming more and more powerful too; interestingly, though, but we don’t see the return of his painting-in-painting ‘trick’ for many years. It will appear again only after his second trip to Italy, where he as again sent in 1649.

This time it’s not so much to learn but to show his own style and also collect famous works of art for the Spanish royal collection he was also curating. It was during this trip he would paint now famous portrait of Pope Innocent X (again, basically after one sitting):


However, for me his second trip to Italy is mostly interesting because it resulted in his first mirror-in-art – and also his only nude, the famous Venus del espejo – which is, by the way, also an example of painting-in-painting:

There are relatively detailed life records describing many works of Velázquez – when any particular was started, who commissioned it and how much was paid etc; besides being a painter, Velázquez was also in charge of certain court property (the paintings and other art work, but also furniture, valuable tableware, and so one, and kept detailed records of these items).

A bit suspiciously, therefore, that there no records related to this work, and we even don’t know who is depicted here. That inevitably resulted in speculations that she was not just a ‘model, but a mistress of the painter in Italy. There are also no data on the actual process of painting, i.e., whether it was a real sitting or a work created from memory.

This later aspect is important, because Velázquez – similar to many other painters depicting mirrors – made a typical mistake, known as the Venus Effect (the article about this subject on wikipedia is illustrated by this very painting, though historically speaking it was Titian who made the first ‘wrong’ Venus with mirror).

In essence, if it would be a real scene, we wouldn’t be able to see the face of the woman – or, rather, if we see the face, it means that she is not able to see herself in this mirror. Which in turn means that the cupid is not there to show to the goddess her beauty, but to aid her to play the (visual) tricks with us.

Speaking about modernity, and perception of art, Foucault should have better used this painting, not Meninas, for his far-fetching conclusions, because it does represent a very clever inter-play with the viewer, including his ‘placement’ into a certain position (if not physical, then social).

The history of the work is quite perplex (I told that the date of its conception is unknown, but neither is neither is the date of finish – according to one version,Velázquez brought it back from Italy to Spain deliberately unfinished, to avoid and conflicts with the church authorities.  In any case, the work was eventually completed, and was in the royal collection until the beginning of the 19th century, when it was brought to England, to the so called Rokeby Park, which also lead to another name for the painting, the Rokeby Venus.

Later in 1656 Velázquez will create his Meninas (see above the debates about this work, to which I only wanted to add this one dimension, of a painting-in-painting aspect).

Shortly before his death in 1660 Velázquez will create another beautiful and very enigmatic work, yet another example of painting-in-painting – though this time he even exceeded himself, creating the third layer, so it is painting-in-painting-in-painting:

The work is called Arachne (1659), and depicts a group of the weaving women (although also an allusion to the Greek mythological figure of Arachne who challenged Athena, lost and was transformed into a spider).  As a backdrop of this scene the painter used another painting, which in turn depict a tapestry.

As a way of conclusion

When I write ‘actually’ or ‘in fact’ in relation to the content of the painting, I am actually not in search of any final truth or the real-real version. I think my motivation is to multiply rather than reduce meanings; the more the merrier kind of logic. I don’t really consider Foucault ‘wrong’, or Snyder ‘right’ in their debates about Meninas. They all certain valid points, and thus right to exist, but what I really like is when these multiple viewpoints also lead to the emergence of even more complex frameworks and considerations (and evenconsiderations-in-considerations).

Basically, that’s why I even started not from the work itself, but from its various re-interpretations and remakes, and then reinterpretations of reinterpretations, as in the case of David Hamilton’s recycling of Picasso’s version of Meninas.

By the way, the vase majority of these re-interpretations that I gathered point that the mirror was one of the least interesting object for the authors. It is there, most often, but the key focusing triangle is invariably The Girl – Her Skirt – and The Dog.


One of my favorite remakes is the version by Martín La Spina, called Meninas detras del espejo (Meninas behind a mirror) (2004) where in the mirror we see the very Velázquez. I think he deserved this place more than anybody else.


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