Velazquez- Las Meninas: Analysis and Interpretation
Diego Velazquez
Velazquez's selfportrait
Las Meninas
By Diego Velazquez

Velazquez - Las Meninas: Meaning - The King's Point of View
Michel Foucault - Las Meninas
Svetlana Alpers (1983, p.31) speaks enthusiastically about Foucault’s philosophical analysis of Las Meninas. She wrote: “Velazquez's Las Meninas is surely one of the greatest representations of pictorial representation in all of Western painting. Why has this work eluded full and satisfactory discussion by art historians? Why should it be that the major study, the most serious and sustained piece of writing on this work in our time, is by Michel Foucault? There is, I shall argue, a structural explanation built into the interpretive procedures of the discipline itself that has made a picture such as Las Meninas literally unthinkable under the rubric of art history.” But despite her original enthusiasm she brushed aside Foucault’s enquiry into the archaeology of knowledge and its significance in the writing of art histories.

Michel Foucault's study of Velazquez's Las Meninas was first published in the volume Les mots et les choses: Une archeology des sciences humaines in 1966 which was followed, in 1970, by the English translation titled The Order of Things. Velazquez's Las Meninas (which is the title of the opening chapter of The Order of Things) marks a threshold in the history of the systems of thought.  

As I have already said, Velazquez distances the spectator from Las Meninas visible world by placing him behind his easel. But the visible world of Las Meninas is not completely untainted from the intervention of a human agent. According to Foucault, when we first look at the painting straight ahead, we, as spectators, look at the visible world
of Las Meninas from the king’s sovereign point of view because we stand in the same area that he stands behind Velazquez’s easel. The king and queen are supposedly "outside" the painting, yet their reflection in the back wall mirror also places them "inside" the pictorial space. Although they can only be seen in the mirror reflection, their distant image occupies a central position in the canvas, in terms of social hierarchy as well as composition. The meticulous etiquette that is exhibited in front of the king by Infanta Margarita and her maids of honor was directed towards the king’s gaze. Nevertheless, despite all the etiquette, Infanta Margarita succeeded to surprise the king and captivate his mind beyond his expectations. After the completion of Las Meninas, the painting was taken from Velazquez’s studio and transferred to Philip’s private study. “Until the time of his death he was the only person allowed to gaze upon it.” (Ana Martin Moreno (2003, p.28). Las Meninas, trans. Nigel Williams. Madrid: Aldeasa. Quoted in: Joseph J. Tanke (2009). Foucault's Philosophy of Art: A Genealogy of Modernity. Continuum. Kindle edition). Infanta Margarita succeeded to surprise the king thanks to Velazquez’s insightful and masterful representation of her portrait. The absence of the royal couple in front of Velazquez’s easel creates at the edge of this very large painting a blank space which extends beyond the painting and engulfs us. The blank space, at the edge of the painting, allows the spectator the freedom to interact and explore the painting through three different points of views.

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Jan Vermeer, The Milkmaid Fig. 12. Jan Vermeer, The Milkmaid
Jan Vermeer. The Milkmaid.
Velazquez’s Las Meninas is a portrait of Infanta Margarita, the daughter of King Philip IV. This article focuses on the way Velazquez painted Infanta Margarita’s psychological perplexity in front of the large window of his studio. It also focuses on Infanta Margarita’s beauty, her intelligence, and above all her interest in the beauty of the visible world!
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Jan Vermeer, The Milkmaid
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