With pale face, drooping eyes, long chin and protruding underlip, the King looks on indifferently. Regardless of the passage of time, his face always looks the same… expressionless. What was life like for the court painter who spent more than 30 years painting the same King, his family, his two Queens and the comings and goings of mostly short lived children (courtesy of 16 generations of inbreeding)? What sort of friendship did these two men have through so many births, deaths and marriages, not to mention the constant waging of wars and loss of wealth that went with the slow and steady decline of the Spanish Empire. How did this affect the painters perspective and did his paintings reveal or veil what was really going on in the Royal court of the Spanish King Philip IV?
It all began in 1623 when Velázquez was a young man of 24. He was commissioned to paint the young King. The painting was so well received that he bagged the position of royal painter and the only painter that the King allowed to paint him. When they first met, the King was unhappily married to Queen Elisabeth with whom he had five children die before two, one legitimate son and heir who lived to the age of 16 and one daughter who lived into adulthood. In 1644 the Queen passed away and the son two years later. From 29 years of marriage, only one living daughter remained.
That same year the King remarried, this time to his young niece, Maria Anna. Theirs was also an unhappy marriage. They had three children who didn’t live beyond three, one healthy daughter Margarita Theresa, who lived into adulthood, and after a 15 year wait, his only living son Charles, who was born mentally and physically disabled. It’s no wonder the King was long in the face.
What was it like for Velázquez to paint all this? Clearly the men were good friends as the painter had a key to the King’s chambers, and the King had a key to the painter’s studio, which he would visit regularly for hours on end. Surely these men spoke of more than hunting and hounds?
In 1656, some 30 odd years into their friendship, Velázquez painted ‘Las Menina’s’, which became his most famous work. This painting is huge and the people in it are almost life size. Some three centuries after it was painted, it still confuses and confounds, as it looks like nothing’s really happening, and yet everything is happening. How much story telling is going on in one painting?
In the centre of the painting is the King’s only living child at the time to his second wife, his five year old daughter Princess Margarita Theresa. She is illuminated by the light of a nearby window, like the light of his life. She is flanked by her identically dressed maids (the menina’s) and two court dwarfs, one of whom is kicking a dog. She looks out at us nervously, and everyone else looks a little hushed. All are on their best behaviour too, except for the dwarf kicking the dog. Velazquez the painter is standing behind the princess and her court companions with brush in hand mid stroke. He’s looking out at us too. So who is being painted? We are looking at a picture in which the painter is looking out at us. In the dark distance at the back the room hangs a mirror reflecting the King and Queen. Is Velázquez painting them?
Velázquez was too devoted to the King to risk inserting meanings into his art that discreetly undermined what was the official Royal dogma at the time; this being that all was well and prosperous…. An heir would be born! Spain was not a crumbling empire! And all that inbreeding did not lead to impotence and disabilities that led to the end of the Habsburg lineage!
Everyone from the King to the court jesters understood the daily tension of living the lie, pretending and projecting an official reality that was at odds with the inconvenient and ugly truth.
My question is, did Velázquez the painter put us in the place of spectator to ask the question; Whether you be King or whether you be commoner, there’s something here for all us. There’s the struggle for power, status and wealth. There’s disappointed, sadness and loss. There’s shortcomings and wishful thinking too. With today’s obsession with social media, you need not look further than Facebook or Instagram to see reality re-branded. Much like the mirrors in the painting, how much of life is really smoke and mirrors?
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