Per Arin and Chris' suggestion, I have changed this into a three-part series on portraiture, so look forward to two more related posts this week. Also, now it's not one ridiculously long post.
Today I am going to start where I finished off a few posts ago: with Don Velázquez's Las meninas. I argued that by naming the larger-than-life painting Las meninas, the artist shifts our attention away from the princess to her handmaidens. It is a reminder that there is a lot more going on than just this central figure. However, the young girls aren't the only other characters of note in this image. In fact, the oversize painting is composed of several portraits, forming a patchwork of different, dizzying, and often contradicting narratives. I have no intention of explaining the entire image; after all, Las meninas is quite possibly the most studied paintings in Western art history. But today I am interested in thinking about this painting in terms of the genre of portraiture.
Diego Velázquez, Las meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado
We all know what portraiture is, right? I always think of pictures of dead white guys, like Rigaud's ostentatious Louis XIV. Or the cheesy Hall of Presidents, where the National Portrait Gallery displays all of the mugs of former commanders-in-chief followed by a mirror ("You too could be the next President of the United States!"). My general response to this kind of portraiture: snoozefest.
But there is more to portraiture, and that is what this blog post aims to tease out. Okay, yes, portraiture stems from a tradition of representing the privileged and the stuffy. In the hierarchy of genres, portraiture is just under all the Jesus-y allegorical paintings. That means it was highly regarded as an art form, unlike all that landscape rubbish.*
Velázquez (pintor del rey, rey de pintores) was the chief royal painter for the court of Philip IV, so it could be argued that his portraits, too, depicted only the wealthy and famous. But this is where Las meninas gets interesting. Yes, it is a royal portrait, but there are many quite unroyal characters embedded in the composition. Let's take a closer look.
Standing the center, in a spot often reserved for the most important figure, is the girl princess la Infanta Margarita (1). Her image closely matches the portrait I saw at the Louvre Atlanta exhibition a few years. I rather prefer her portrait in Las meninas, with her head turned coquettishly away from her body.
As discussed before, those girls wearing ridiculous bustles are her handmaidens (2 and 3). To the right of them, we have two dwarves, Maribarbola of Germany (4) and Nicolas Pertusato of Italy (5), with the latter kicking a dog (6). Behind the dwarves stands doña Marcela de Ulloa (6), the princess' governess, who is talking to a guardadamas (8),** or bodyguard. Very small at the back of the room we glimpse the queen's chamberlain Don José Nieto (9) as he pauses in the doorway, possibly relaying an important message. To the left of him we find the painting's smallest figures, hazily reflected in a mirror. That's King Philip IV (10) and Queen Mariana of Austria (11). Some interpretations posit that the royal couple are posing for their portrait where we, the viewers, stand, allowing us to face Velázquez (12) as he peers out from behind the enormous canvas on the lefthand side of Las Meninas.
So: We've just identified the twelve figures (canines included) in this painting. The smallest figures are, ironically, the two most powerful individuals in Spain at the time. Chamberlains, handmaidens, chaperones--these are not the sort of people that generally shared canvas space with royalty. It was pretty bold for Velázquez to include himself, life-sized, alongside the King and Queen, let alone the slew of other characters. (Some claim he got away with it because the King loved him.) Who would have thought that, four centuries later, scholars would be digging up the biography of the dwarf Nicolas Pertusato?
Las meninas is on my mind because I have lately been thinking a lot about portraiture as a means of empowerment.
*The hierarchy of genres and my aesthetic taste are inversely correlated. The lower down an artwork is on the traditional pecking order, the more I like it.
**Literally, "lady watcher."