Art's history is riddled with unanswered questions. Did Vincent van Gogh really paint his own version of da Vinci's Last Supper in his painting Café Terrace at Night? Is it true that the right side of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam is an anatomic representation of the brain? Was the face of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa really inspired on his lover Gian Giacomo Caprotti instead of Lisa Gherardini? How can we be sure these rumors are true?
Among all the mysteries in the field of plastic arts, few paintings have generated such complex debates for art critics and audiences like Diego Velazquez' 1656 painting Las Meninas. The painting has drawn attention for centuries, not only because of its impeccable technical execution, but also for the position and gazes of the characters featured in it. The mirror reflects the king and queen of Spain, Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, not to mention that the painter appears in his own commissioned work, and most importantly, he is painting inside the painting —on a huge canvas whose front part remains unseen. What is the real meaning of this scene?
The world seems to have accepted that this painting depicts the visit of infanta Margaret Theresa to her parents, the aforementioned king and queen. The scene takes place in the artist's studio, located in the old chambers of prince Balthasar Charles in The Royal Alcazar of Madrid. When the two monarchs enter the studio, their image is captured by the mirror in the back of the room. Margaret, who is in the center of the painting, looks at her parents and bows in reverence.
Velázquez also seems to stop painting his mysterious canvas to bow a little to the left and receive their Royal Majesties. The little boy in the right hand corner of the painting kicks the dog next to him. This can make us think he wants the animal to stand up and receive the distinguished guests.
At the back stands the most mysterious character in the painting: who is that man in black entering the room? Or is he leaving and has been surprised by the arrival of his majesties? Who is he? Where does he come from? Where is he going? Are just some of the questions that take flight when we admire Velázquez' canvas.
In chapter I of the book The Order of Things, French philosopher Michel Foucault makes one of the best known analysis of the painting: “As soon as they place the spectator in the field of their gaze, the painter's eyes seize hold of him, force him to enter the picture, assign him a place at once privileged and inescapable, levy their luminous and visible tribute from him, and project it upon the inaccessible surface of the canvas within the picture. He sees his invisibility made visible to the painter and transposed into an image forever invisible to himself. ” (page 4).
Maybe Velázquez's intention is to demonstrate how classic forms of representation can redefine the concept of space. It attempts to represent elements of all kinds through the imagery and the interaction of each character's gestures and faces with the spectator looking at the painting. The painting is self-aware and holds control over representation. The presence of those objects that are mysterious, enigmatic, or invisible to the spectator stands out more than the visually represented objects in the painting.
To Foucault, Las Meninas is an exchange of perspectives between the painter depicted in his own work and the spectator. This exchange is what establishes an object-subject relationship where one can take the place of the other. Then, bearing this in mind, what is Velázquez painting on the canvas? Could it be the thousands of spectators that have had the privilege to behold his painting over the course of time? After all, they are the reason behind the artistic endeavors of the author.
Las Meninas also inspired Picasso. He decided to come up with a series of 56 paintings that try to provide a new explanation about the details of the original painting by reimagining each one of them. He worked on these paintings from August 17 to December 30, 1957. These paintings can be currently found at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.
The art world is full of surprises and mysteries that, perhaps, will never be completely revealed. Check out paintings of horror only the brave can admire, or delve into the human fixation on revenge and how it's been part of many artworks.
Translated by Andrea Valle