Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” has taken its rightful place as one of the most fascinating artworks to analyze in the whole of Western painting. Scholars describe “Las Meninas” as an embodiment of art itself within a painting: It is the philosophy of art depicted on canvas.

Not everyone might be familiar with the original Spanish title for Diego Velázquez’s famous painting, The Ladies-in-Waiting (1656). It is arguably the most famous painting by this leading painter of the Spanish Golden Age, namely for its intriguing composition (though my personal favorite is still his Portrait of Juan de Pareja). Look at Las Meninas once, twice, and then a third time, and you will pick up on details that were most surely missed at the first glance. For example, how many people are in the painting? Most people don’t get it right the first time. Of course, then comes the question: Who, or what, is everyone looking at?

This question has been at the center of numerous interpretations of the painting, and Las Meninas has taken its rightful place as one of the most fascinating artworks to analyze in the whole of Western painting. Most scholars and fellow painters describe Las Meninas as an embodiment of art itself within a painting: It is the philosophy of art depicted on canvas. In 1692, the Italian Baroque artist Luca Giordano deemed this piece to be “the theology of painting,” a phrase that was later clarified by Giordano’s friend and Velázquez’s biographer, Antonio Palomino, as meaning “that just as theology is superior to all other branches of knowledge, so is this picture the greatest example of painting.”[1] These are quite the remarks for a painting that is not as easily envisaged as Mona Lisa. This essay, then, will offer an analysis of the painting, followed by two interpretations: that of the famous philosopher, Michel Foucault, and my own.

The Museo del Prado, which houses Las Meninas as its crown jewel, describes it the following way:

This is one of Velázquez’ largest paintings and among those in which he made the most effort to create a complex and credible composition that would convey a sense of life and reality while enclosing a dense network of meanings.[2]

It is important to consider the vast size of this painting: 318 x 276 cm. Almost life-size. The painting is also quite a visual illusion: On the left-hand side, we can see Velázquez himself, depicted in the work, painting on a huge canvas. Perhaps the painting he is working on is the very one we are now looking at? Or is he painting us, the viewers? We might say, no: He is clearly looking at a mirror (apparently a giant one, at that) in order to paint everyone that we see in the painting, just as painters often used mirrors to paint themselves (van Gogh, for example). But, then, how do we account for the couple that is reflected on the mirror on the back wall, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana?

Now, the picture begins to come to life: Their reflection indicates, by logic, that it is this royal couple that is posing for Velázquez. He is painting them, and the people in the foreground of the painting are simply watching the royal couple pose for their portrait. In other words, what we are seeing in Las Meninas is the King and Queen’s view. Velázquez, then, is painting a scene that portrays the process of painting in the very piece we are looking at while also painting a “portrait” of the royal couple, albeit not directly. We are witnessing a painting come to life, but from the perspective of the person being painted.

But here’s the catch that I find incredible: If it is the case that the painting is a depiction of what King Philip IV and Queen Mariana are seeing, then how did Velázquez paint this scene? He would have to get into the heads of the couple to envision what they are seeing. Either he composed the whole work from imagination and memory, or he made use of a combination of mirrors to paint himself and the audience watching the royal couple being painted and also included the royal couple.

Another interpretation is that Velázquez is not actually painting the royal couple; rather, he is preparing to paint the Infanta Margarita Theresa (the young girl at the center of the painting in the white dress) when, all of a sudden, the royal couple comes in, interrupting everyone’s actions as they freeze to acknowledge their monarchs. This interpretation is also plausible, but it still does not explain why Velázquez chose to compose the painting in this particular manner, and it still requires Velázquez to imagine what the royal couple is seeing, whether or not they are the subject of his painting on the left-hand side of the piece.

There is another potential, perhaps small, problem with interpretations of the painting that claim that Velázquez is painting either the young princess or the royal couple on that canvas, but certainly not the very painting we are looking at: If Velázquez is not painting Las Meninas on the large canvas that we see in Las Meninas, then how do we account for the size of that canvas? The size of the canvas in the painting was not a typical scale for Velázquez, and the only painting by him with a canvas of this size is Las Meninas!

Besides the mystery behind the perspective and composition of the painting, there is another element that adds to Velázquez’s genius in this piece: Consider the depth that it achieves. The painting facilitates our envisioning of a three-dimensional space even when there is none in reality. This is no two-dimensional painting, even though, by definition, it is painted on a two-dimensional canvas: The chamberlain standing at the doorway, José Nieto Velázquez, is either descending or ascending stairs and leading our eyes toward the space beyond the back of the room (the vanishing point, not by accident, is also at the doorway). The mirror right next to this vanishing point, which depicts the royal couple, however, immediately takes our eyes and mind in the direct opposite direction and forces us to envision the space in front of where the painting takes place; that is, the space that comes out right at us, where we stand alongside the king and queen, maybe even behind them. The window on the right side that is shining light into the foreground helps us to grasp the depth and size of this room, but is the royal couple standing in front of the window or further back? Look at how the light shines on them in their reflection in the mirror: They are presumably standing where the light is shining on them, since the mirror shows their faces with light. Yet, the light is also shining on the ladies in the foreground. How close is the royal couple from them, then? How close are we?

These are just some details about Las Meninas that make the work a true masterpiece (we haven’t even discussed the subjects of the paintings that hang on the walls of the room, or the theories behind the reason why the royal couple’s reflection in the mirror is blurry, when Velázquez could have clearly painted a sharper reflection), but we have to move on to an actual interpretation of the painting, besides just basking in its brilliance.

Foucault’s Interpretation of Las Meninas

Of all the interpretations of this painting to juxtapose to my own, why choose Foucault’s? For one, he dedicated the entire first chapter of his popular work, Les Mots et Les Choses (1966), to analyzing this painting. To ground a book on a painting analysis, or at least to encapsulate a concept within an interpretation of a painting, seems to me a telling sign of personal significance: something about this piece resonated with Foucault and inspired him. Unless, of course, he was imposing his own philosophical views on the work; but that would be disingenuous, so I’ll assume that Las Meninas helped Foucault to make sense of one his central ideas, rather than the other way around.

Michel Foucault does not need much of an introduction, but a brief background on his philosophy might be helpful. Foucault came to the scene at a time when French philosophers, instead of making philosophy more rigorous along the analytic lines of their English friends, opted for a philosophy that combined the human sciences, avant-garde art, and literature.[3] Foucault’s name might be associated with postmodernism or deconstructionism—a correct assumption. Just as Derrida’s grammatology (which was eventually renamed “deconstruction”) was based on structural linguistics, Foucault took this concept and applied it to history. He took as notable subjects sexuality, madness, medicine, clinics, and correctional facilities, among many other things. His aim was to dismantle Western thought by removing its veil called civilization, revealing underneath an ugly truth: almost every western convention is actually centered around control and hierarchies of power, what the Brazilian intellectual historian and critic of Foucault José Merquior called a “romantic denigration, as passionate as that attempted by Herbert Marcuse, of Western reason.”[4] Merquior also sums up Foucault’s popularity the following way:

The main reason for the impact of Foucault seems to lie in the very content of his work. A discourse on power and on the power of discourse—what could be more attractive to intellectuals and humanities departments with an increasingly entrenched radical outlook, yet who have also grown sick and tired of the traditional pieties of left revolutionism?[5]

While this is by no means an impartial depiction of Foucault’s project, Merquior’s description of Foucault’s popularity (and my implied use of Merquior to introduce Foucault in this essay) does not ignore his influence and, perhaps even, the reason in his work. What it does imply, is that Foucault’s thought is often taken in pieces and employed for various ethico-political issues—something he certainly would have welcomed—and that these ethico-political issues, which are the consequences of his thought, are what thinkers like Merquior and myself consider problematic; not in themselves, but in their faulty epistemic and ontological claims.

In Les Mots et les Choses, or The Order of Things, Foucault famously makes the claim about the “death of man.” There is no such thing as the self, he asserts, and it is precisely this anti-humanist conception of consciousness that is key to understanding his interpretation of Las Meninas. What is the problem with the “self”? To put it, no doubt, too simply, asserting the self implies that there is a foundation, a founding, for our thoughts. This origin, and the ascertained primacy of all origins, is what Foucault rejects. Instead of man being the origin of his discourse and thought, as Descartes argued and as most German idealist philosophers expressed after him, discourse and thought—directed and constructed by powerful orchestrators—have insidiously made our conception of man. We, therefore, do not exist without these conceptions, and these conceptions underlie society. Apart from revealing this ugly truth that there is no such thing as “man” in the humanist sense, dismantling the individuality of man allows for deconstructionists to uncover our true, unconscious thoughts.

That’s enough of Foucault’s postmodern philosophy. Let’s move on to his analysis of Las Meninas. Foucault tells a story to describe what is going on in the painting. His initial observations are no different from the ones mentioned above. He writes:

The painter is looking, his face turned slightly and his head leaning towards one shoulder. He is staring at a point to which, even though it is invisible, we, the spectators, can easily assign an object, since it is we, ourselves, who are that point: our bodies, our faces, our eyes. The spectacle he is observing is thus doubly invisible: first, because it is not represented within the space of the painting, and, second, because it is situated precisely in that blind point, in that essential hiding-place into which our gaze disappears from ourselves at the moment of our actual looking. And yet, how could we fail to see that invisibility, there in front of our eyes, since it has its own perceptible equivalent, its sealed-in figure, in the painting itself.

But then there is a shift in Foucault’s description of Las Meninas. I mark the key words and sentences in boldface:

In appearance, [the painting’s] locus is a simple one; a matter of pure reciprocity: we are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject. We, the spectators, are an additional factor. Though greeted by that gaze, we are also dismissed by it, replaced by that which was always there before we were: the model itself. But, inversely, the painter’s gaze, addressed to the void confronting him outside the picture, accepts as many models as there are spectators; in this precise but neutral place, the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange.

Later, the climax:

The opaque fixity that [the painting] establishes on one side renders forever unstable the play of metamorphoses established in the centre between spectator and model. Because we can see only that reverse side, we do not know who we are, or what we are doing. Seen or seeing? The painter is observing a place which, from moment to moment, never ceases to change its content, its form, its face, its identity.

And, finally, Foucault summarizes his analysis of Las Meninas by concluding his concept thus:

It may be that, in this picture, as in all the representations of which it is, as it were, the manifest essence, the profound invisibility of what one sees is inseparable from the invisibility of the person seeing—despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits… [i]n the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping together and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation—of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject—which is the same—has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.[6]

That we cannot see the subject of the painting is an “inseparable” fact from our own invisibility. Las Meninas, therefore, serves as a reminder of this delusion: The belief that there is always a person, or subject, present. That there is no clear subject, moreover, is indicative of the “necessary disappearance of that which is [the painting’s] foundation.” In other words, the alleged subjects of Las Meninas, the King and Queen, are absent from the painting, even if they are dimly depicted in the back mirror, and this fact—their absence—stands as a “void” right at the center of the painting because they are not actually there in the space. This void, Foucault tells us, is the disappearance of the person, but this disappearance is not just imaginary: Even if there were a clear subject or person in the painting, it/he could never be real: Only a resemblance. In Las Meninas, then, we have a series of illusions of appearances, but the trick for Foucault is that there is no origin. There is no original subject, no original person, which is to say, no original “man” to initiate this sequence of illusions or of representations. Notice also that for Foucault, “mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits,” are synonymous with “resemblance” and “representation”: All a void. Once we free this image from the “relation that was impeding it”—the relation being to ourselves, the subject, “man,”—we can see these representations in their “true” form: that is, in their construction and artificiality, lacking a foundation because, of course, there is none.

A Concluding Response to Foucault’s Study of Las Meninas

If any credit should be given to Foucault, it is that his interpretation of this piece of art is hard to understand. He is hard to understand, and that is why people love to read him. More importantly, the difficulty is not entirely senseless. There is something there, and it is the point that there is nothing there. Nothing objective we can know, be it a subject, a man, an origin, or a truth. “Man” is a concept that has been constructed and continues to accumulate meaning along history’s trajectory until we place a definitive stop to it. This assertion, perhaps, is Foucault’s landmark. Being able to summarize Foucault’s analysis of Las Meninas is rewarding, because it feels like one finally understands this lofty, hyper-metaphysical, and enigmatic frame of mind that is Foucault. But there is a problem. Nothingness is as much a belief as anything else. It is a subject of its own. Postmodern art and literature, for that precise reason, find meaning in their lack of meaning, going so far as to deliberately avoid meaning at all costs, resulting in a mish-mash of words or images aimed at conveying this very meaninglessness: our life’s futility, “signifying nothing,” to quote the man and author who understood this reality long before Foucault. This method, however, be it artistic or philosophical (we might say they are one and the same) reaffirms the human tendency to seek meaning of any sort. Negations, in other words, are only meaningful when they have a belief to destroy; they are subject to belief and, therefore, cannot exist without it. It might turn out, then, that Foucault was reading his own views into Las Meninas after all and despite his alleged “death of man.”

As for Las Meninas, Velázquez is the truly the mystery behind the painting. Our efforts to understand what is happening in this piece are connected to our efforts to understand him and his vision. Had he confirmed to us that the painting is a self-portrait, or a painting of the royal couple, or of the young princess, or the mastiff, for that matter, we would wonder and admire the composition of the piece no less. The intention, and existence, of the author, to use this controversial phrase which Foucault refuted, is important not because it can settle the debate for us once and for all, but because everything we see originates in his vision, which, by the virtue of all art literary, visual, or musical, becomes our vision. This vision is a sharing of reality and subjective experience, and we’d be fools to ignore its origins in the author.

What does Velázquez, the author, offer in his painting, then? In this piece, he offers two things: One to us, the viewers, and another to the royal couple. The first is an accessory; the second, essential to the painting. To us, he offers temporary displacement. We are standing in a room in another place and another time, within a particular setting and among company we’d likely never have found ourselves. The intrigue of the piece comes from the dual sense of intrusion and belonging. Velázquez has let us in—he painted the piece, after all—but we know only for a brief moment. What took place before and after our arrival is forever hidden from us. We are, of course, not that important; the lady-in-waiting who is looking directly at the Infanta and the undisturbed mastiff make this point clear enough. There is an air of familiarity, but also of estrangement, since we are clearly not the ones being painted: It is their Majesties. We do not see them, however, except for their reflection, granting us a privileged vantage point that only they could naturally occupy.

But Velázquez shares this moment in perspective in Las Meninas not mainly to let us, the viewers, in. We must remember that he is painting the King and Queen, after all. To them, he is offering what I can only describe as a moment of “life,” or “reality” to capture and keep, perhaps also a message to them and us. If Velázquez was meant to paint a portrait of their Majesties, which is most likely the case, what better portrait than to depict the actual subject of their love, their daughter, and her place in this very moment as she is surrounded by so many familiar faces, reminding their Majesties of what they are seeing in the midst of being captured and portrayed for posterity? Their Majesties’ perspective is much more important than the perspective of everyone else because of the moment it captures: several family members, or friends, present that only they can recognize and feel sentimental toward (we should note that the title of the piece for some time was La Familia). The King and Queen can always be reminded of this fact—the importance of their perspective—because the painting itself gives them two options every time they look upon it: either focus on the people present at this very moment, in the foreground, or look back to see themselves hung up against a dark wall with other older paintings. The familiarity and self-recognition of the royal couple, and their centrality as the subjects of this painting come not from their identical portrait in the back wall (it is identical, after all, because it is a mirror), but from the people in the foreground.

It might also turn out, then, that Foucault’s analysis of Las Meninas, so determined to establish the absence of a subject, is ironically self-centered. Velázquez’s painting was never about us or the absence of us—the point remains that in either of these interpretations the painting continues to be about us in one way or another. But it was also never about the royal couple as the subject of the painting, despite their “technically” being the subject of the painting. The point Velázquez might be making is something deeper and, perhaps to Foucault’s chagrin, against the self insofar as it reminds us that we recognize ourselves through the familiar other, not by staring at a mirror. Here, then, is one point in which Foucault and I agree: The “self” does not exist in isolation. But the point of diversion comes from the realization that the self exists relative to the people and places that are our own. I may not know the people in the foreground of Las Meninas, but I know that their significance to the “subject” of the painting would have been similar to the significance of seeing this same painting with my family in the foreground. My image in the mirror on the back wall is not “me,” and only I can look at the people in the foreground (were they my family) and identify myself by their presence. In other words, we do not recognize ourselves through mere representations, portraits, or pictures, but through the encountering and recognition of the very people who surround us. In the most metaphysical sense, then, Velázquez painted the truest portrait of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana by painting Las Meninas, or La Familia.

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[1] Barry Schwabsky, “A Painter of Our Time,” The Nation.

[2] See the Museo del Prado’s own description of Las Meninas.

[3] José Merquior, Foucault (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 12-13.

[4] Merquior, p. 16.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2006).

The featured image is “Las Meninas” (1656–57) by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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