Saturday, April 26, 2008

Las Meninas, 1656
Diego Velazquez (Spain, 1599-1660)
oil on canvas
Prado Museum, Madrid

Las Meninas by Velazques (1656)
The dwarfs dominate, at least theatrically.
The little princess near the center, illuminated
In her petulant reluctance to pose for yet
Another portrait illustrates an idea of order,
Not the governing parents, the mother and the father,
Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, mere reflections
In the distant mirror in the far places of the paint.
The commissioned artist accepts a royal order
Although he alone governs this pigment territory
Where dwarfs rule and ugliness flowers to virtue.
We look into the picture to watch a situation,
Into a tall room in the Alcazar hung with copies of Rubens.
The Infanta Doña Margarita doesn't want to pose.
She is five years old and has had enough of paint.
But forces are at work here: the perspective
That holds the room together and holds the Rubens
On to the painted walls. There are triangles
Of people whose duties are enormous, eleven in all.
Velazquez must paint, the ladies-in-waiting,
Las meniñas, must cajole and pass some chocolate
To the princess. The king and queen must
Be that, but here without a single power.
The man going up the steps must go up them.
In the right hand corner, the dwarf Nicolasito
Is stepping on the dog. Another, Maribarbola,
Stares out of her massive face to tell a royal story.
Her brief finery is the somber opposite of little
Margarita's bright and golden style. She rules
No empire nor ever will, but here she dominates the mind.
Beauty, a dog, and this wizened female
So ugly, so sad, so sufficient to this scene
As to make you wonder at the governments of men.
How detached the painter's glance now that he has
Put everyone in his place and upset the candor of Spain.
Nancy Sullivan
The history of the World as Pictures
University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Mo., 1965
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