Diego Velazquez Las Meninas
Not only does the viewer retain the privileged location of perspective but in Diego Velázquez’ 1656 masterpiece the viewer is King, subject, and sitter. It is a remarkable turn of visual phrase, a challenge to the notion of dominant linear perspective, and a staged version of a discussion which has ever since lay at the heart of Western art. It is a work of profundity and poignance, the subject of which is the creation of a portrait, a depiction of the King, Philip IV of Spain, and his Queen. Yet, the work documents the view from the sitter's line of sight, not from the painter's. The artist is posed centre-frame, contemplating how to capture the likenesses of the royal couple and how to best please his monarch. It is a moment frozen in time, achieving a feeling of perpetuity with far greater resonance than most other portraits of any age could hope to achieve. Indeed, time is frozen in a state of anxiety, as a bizarre menagerie of courtly life surrounds the scene. 'Maids of Honour', or Las Meninas in Spanish, are named as the subject of the work. Yet the focus looms larger than these inconsequential little girls, the title seems only to highlight the scrutiny under which the surrounding scene is placed.
One of the most recognizable paintings in the world and one of the emblematic works of the Spanish Golden Age, Las Meninas centralizes the figure of the Infanta Margaret Theresa and her cohorts, maids of honour, and entertainers. Looming like apparitions in the mirror behind are the posing figures of the King and Queen. Yet, like the ominous figure in the doorway, these are reflections of the viewer as voyeur, subject, and participant in the creation of this startling tableau. We are implicated in the exploitation of the court dwarves who serve as jesters, just as we laugh or wince at the dog being kicked by one of the dwarves, and likewise we are set up as the future subjects of the young infanta who gazes with controlled reserve at the scene before her.
Puzzling and labyrinthine, Las Meninas is a critic's favourite, rich as it is with disparate opportunities for interpretations. It seems that each subsequent generation has found their own embryonic principles therein. It is a world of silence and echoes, the expanse of the hall stretching back in the mind's eye to include the emptiness of the palace. A work of staggering ingenuity, Las Meninas bridges the gap between power and perception.
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