The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck
Recently, a new interpretation has been put forth, suggesting that the painting might have been commissioned in light of some very particular circumstances. At the time that Las Meninas was painted, the crown prince Baldasare Castiglione had passed away in a riding accident and the Infanta Margarita was the King's only surviving child.
There has been speculation that before the birth of Carlos II, the monarchy was considering grooming the Infanta to eventually rule the country, like Queen Christina of Sweden. Las Meninas could thus be seen as an initial attempt to portray the Infanta as a powerful, divinely elected potential ruler, a difficult image to put over in the highly patriarchal Spanish society.
Evidence to support this interpretation is found both in contemporary documents, and in certain elements in the painting: the emphatic emphasis on the Infanta, for example.
In a more general sense, many art historians have proposed (undoubtedly with reason) that Las Meninas is essentially about the relationship between reality and illusion, life and art, a consuming preoccupation during the Spanish Baroque. Las Meninas explores this theme in many ways. First of all, the ambiguous relationship of the viewer to the painting calls the border between art and life into question. The viewer is unsure if he finds himself standing next to the King and Queen, or if he is viewing the scene through their eyes. Regardless, from his acknowledged vantage point, the viewer is brought into the world of the painting, a world inhabited by illusionary, though historically real, painted figures.
This contrast between reality and illusion is reinforced by the presence of paintings within the painting, and the mirrored reflection of the royal couple. The paintings on the back wall have all been precisely identified with the aid of inventories from the period, and constitute the painterly equivalent of the story-within-the story so common in literature of the period, which is also another variation on the play with framing in the picture discussed above.
The next point to consider is the all important one of the mirror. The mirror has been a symbol of paramount importance throughout the history of art, for its ability to reflect reality, just like a painting. Mirrors often appear in art for this very reason, most famously in van Eyck's Renaissance painting, The Arnolfini Portrait. Velázquez takes this concept and goes further than any other artist, putting his own unique spin on the device of the mirror.
The mirror, one of the brightest areas of the painting, gives a vague, but recognizable reflection of King Philip IV and his current wife (and niece), Mariana of Austria. The mirror seems to reflect the space from which the viewer perceives the painting-does this mean that we stand next to the King and Queen? Or that we are seeing the painting through royal eyes, effectively transforming into the monarch ourselves? Or, as the famous art historian Janson has suggested, does the mirror actually reflect the canvas that Velázquez is painting? In any case, what the mirror certainly does do is distort the viewer's understanding of truth and fiction, reality and art.
In art history, the mirror has traditionally been an emblem of the painter, because it reflects reality, as painting should strive to do. Here, Velázquez challenges the primacy of the mirror: which is more true, the reflected reality, or Velázquez's painting? For the matter, is Velázquez's painting more real than reality itself? When considered in this light, Velázquez's painting is a surprisingly modern reflection on the act of painting and the nature of art itself.
Since French philosopher Foucault's landmark essay on Las Meninas, many art historians and critics have commented on the role of the viewer in relation to the painting.
According to influential art historian Leo Steinberg, the painting might as well not even exist. As Steinberg points out, not much is actually happening in the painting, and the attention of almost all the protagonists (except for three) is turned outwards, towards the viewer.
In fact, we seem to have created the very composition that we see before us: just a moment before, there was perfect stillness, but the presence of the viewer has interrupted the scene, and all the figures have shifted to accommodate us. This is surely one of the first examples of so modern an interaction between a viewer and a work of art, a fact which led Foucault to cite Las Meninas as a landmark in the evolution of thought.
·View the work online
Artist: Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), who painted low-life scenes before becoming a salaried painter to Philip IV of Spain and one of the monarch's favourite courtiers, and providing him with portraits of princes, nobles, buffoons and dwarves.
Subject Prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646), son of Philip IV, whom Velazquez painted several times: on horseback, at the royal stables, as a hunter, always emphasising his destiny as a future king - before the prince'4s death at the age of 17.
Distinguishing features: This is a painting of a small boy - if painted in 1632 he was three - whose face is an exquisite image of childhood: cherubic cheeks, innocent gaze, golden curls. This perfect little prince is already preparing himself, with his sword and sceptre-like staff, for the kingly part he never lived to play.
When people commissioned portraits in the past they wanted something we now want from a photograph: a true likeness. More than that, in the 17th century the portrait became the grandest, most sophisticated, philosophical kind of art. By taking its premise seriously, Velazquez in Spain 4and Rembrandt in the Netherlands turned it into a metaphysical meditation.
Velazquez's paintings of the Spanish royal family and their retainers are so disconcerting that today we can't help seeing them as subversive. Why did he paint dwarves and jesters with the same dignity he gave noblemen? Velazquez was not just a court painter, he was a hugely successful courtier who was promoted from year to year and was trusted to mould the image of the Spanish royal family. He once even had the job of censoring portraits of the king.
In this painting Prince Baltasar Carlos is wearing silver, but although Velazquez records the opulence of his dress you know this is not what the picture is about. Whereas his contemporary Rubens, or Van Dyck, might picture royal power through the richness of appearance, Velazquez frames things differently. The prince is set in a space that is theatrical, with the open curtain to his right around him is darkness. It can be read as resplendent flattery: the boy is the light. His silver and pink satin garments and most of all his glowing face and golden curls illuminate the world. His stance - firmly clutching a staff and with hi4s left hand on his sword - announce that he is born to be king. The very adult hat on the cushion is there ready for him to put on when the time comes.
Yet behind him is that void. If this space is a theatre, it is to modern eyes a rather Beckett-like one. Velazquez isolates his subjects to heighten the mystery of identity. What makes one person different from another what is power, royalty? What is the illuminating magic inside this little boy?
In 1631 Velazquez painted the boy in the same pose, with one of the royal dwarves beside him. The dwarf holds a rattle which looks like a sceptre and an apple that looks like an orb while the Prince looks regally ahead the dwarf's attention is off to the left somewhere - it is mobile, unfixed, more how we look at the world. To be royal in both paintings is to lack the fluidity of others. It is to be a prisoner of one's own glory.
Did they like it? Yes. Velazquez continued to receive promotion and paint royal portraits until the end of his life and the royal collection of his paintings is still in the Prado, Madrid.
Where is it? Wallace Collection, London W1 (020-7935 0687).