Las Meninas 2.0
My most recent painting pays homage to one of the greatest portraits in history. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez painted Las Meninas in 1656 for King Philip IV of Spain and his second wife Maria Anna of Austria. It has been described in many ways, including History’s First Photo-Bomb and the Canonical Masterpiece of Western Painting. It is not just a picture of a royal party. “It is an endlessly fascinating labyrinth of reflections on the relations of painting, painter, model and beholder.”
At the center of the painting is a small child in a ridiculously elaborate dress. Her name is Margarita Teresa. She is flanked by two young hand-maidens, an attendant female dwarf, a boy dwarf and the family dog. This casual grouping of royal “playmates” is timeless. You could find such a snapshot on Facebook or Instagram. As you move backward into the picture plane, however, other groups in gradually less distinct lighting become apparent. To Margarita’s right, directly behind a huge canvas, stands Diego Velázquez, the painter. To Margarita’s left there are a female chaperone in a nun’s habit, and a guard. These figures are not as common in the average picture of five year old children. Further in the distance, at the center of the picture plane, is a rectangle that is painted so close to Margarita’s head, it could be a thought bubble. It is actually her parents, the most powerful people in the room. Reflected in a mirror are the King and Queen of Spain. Surprisingly, the brightest light, other than the glow of Maria Teresa in her silk dress, is from the open doorway that frames a mysterious figure. Opinions vary, but this man is Don José Nieto Velázquez —the queen’s chamberlain during the 1650s, and head of the royal tapestry works—who may also have been a relative of the artist Velázquez.
In Las Meninas 2.o the scene is populated with slightly less historic figures. The relationships between the figures reflect a new social order between model, beholder and painter. Three hundred and sixty years later the dynamics between parents and child, artist and subject, patron and artisan, caregivers and charges have been redefined. The majority of the world is no longer ruled by kings or queens. Painters have been almost entirely replaced by cameras or fancy phone apps. Playmates are less subject to the implied hierarchy of their parents income or job titles. Commissions through nepotism are not as common a social lever for the hard working artist. The value in direct comparison of these two paintings’ historical context is not achieved through words alone. In choosing the composition and taking great care to recreate a very specific moment, I wanted to capture it in paint.
At the center of Las Meninas 2.0 stands a lovely golden haired child in no less a ridiculous dress. Suited up for a dance performance entitled Marionettes and Puppet Masters, Eleanor is awaiting her turn in front of the camera. Like Margarita Teresa she is caught in a very present moment. In spite of her costume, she is momentarily off stage. Margarita Teresa would grow into many titles, including Holy Roman Empress. None of them would prevent her early death at the age of twenty-one. There’s no indication of this future on her chubby cheeked, five-year-old face. There is only the puzzled look of a child surrounded by people intent to please or provide for her. Eleanor’s gaze is that of an older child, ten years old to be precise. No titles await her, but she is no less treasured by a loving family and friends who comprise a more democratic retinue. At ten she is more aware of how others see her. A performance, after all, is a social contract. The audience pays to be entertained. The weight of this sits in her eyes that don’t look directly at the camera. The stage is not set, but Eleanor’s carefully practiced choreography informs every smile and gesture for the audience. The beauty of this moment is that Eleanor is not entirely sure of the who or where of that audience.
The central group of Las Meninas 2.o includes three people: Eleanor and her two friends. Unlike the two girls who attend Margarita Teresa, the marionette dancers are independent of one another. In Velázquez’s Las Meninas one hand maiden is poised to curtsy, while the other is kneeling as she offers a red cup on a golden tray to the future empress. The two attending dwarves on the right are doing their best to rouse the mastiff at just the right moment and in just the right way for Margarita Teresa’s pleasure. The marionette dancers in Las Meninas 2.o are also waiting to perform–not for Eleanor, but with her. The power dynamic of a dance studio often feels no less ruthless than currying favor in a royal court. At the heart of every dancer is the hope that she will one day be a prima ballerina performing a solo. It will be a brief moment in time and hardly the reign of an empress. For Veláquez’s Meninas, the spotlight will always only shine on their royal playmate.
What of the adults in the room? The greatest debate concerning Veláquez’s Las Meninas are the near absent subjects of the painting. The painter has painted a royal portrait by only including the King and Queen as reflections in the background of their first born daughter’s painting. The dynamic is true to biology. King Philip IV had lost his first wife, Elizabeth of France, in 1644. Their only son, Balthasar Charles, died two years later at the age of sixteen. With his second wife and niece, Maria Anna, Philip would eventually produce a male heir, but Charles II would be sickly. Philip ascended to the throne at sixteen, so to lose a male child at the age he came to power must have been a huge shock. In 1656 when Velázquez painted Las Meninas, Philip was fifty-one and had been king for thirty-five years. His own father had died at forty three. There was a lot of hope resting on the tiny shoulders of the king’s only living child. As a psychological study of a shy King, Veláquez’s Las Meninas supports the artist’s contemporary description: “he mistrusts himself, and defers to others too much”.
The Blue Ridge Studio for the Performing Arts is a corner stone in the lives of many families in Clarke and Frederick County, VA. Although it is not the Royal Alcazar of Madrid, it has produced local minor royalty ruling their own realms of family and friends. The flowers and lack of parking at June performances attest to this. Dance practice begins in September for every level. Dedicated dancers in level three ballet come to class two times a week. For busy parents, it takes a large commitment of time and money for their children to participate. Each year my own son glows after the performance, professing his love of Blue Ridge and desire to take multiple classes the following year. This enthusiasm wains when the leaves fall, but each year he’s a little less hesitant to attend weekly practice.
In a social media driven community, regular reports and pictures of ballerinas and dancers populate photo streams. I too look forward to the yearly progression: practices, costume measurements, professional photo session, rehearsal week and finally the performance. I can’t resist the tutu pictures. For parents with girls, the gradual reveal amounts to a yearly coming out party. As many of us put all our energy into the enrichment of our children, we often fade into the background. For the average well rounded kid, weekly schedules can involve not only dance, but also team sports, music lessons and academic clubs. A few lucky souls might even get chauffeured to a painting class. For parents eager for their children to develop all of their potential talent, the normal becomes an over-scheduled life of running from one practice to the next. For the average family, there are no chaperones and guards to assist in the process of rearing children. If we are lucky, we have a community of fellow parents with whom to car pool and share other responsibilities. The result is becoming very efficient administrative assistants to our children. We shoot from the hip with our phones to do everything from capturing precious moments to researching the minutia of infinite daily choices. We have to trust ourselves and google.
In a final comparison of both versions of Las Meninas come the artists. By 1656 Velázquez had been part of the Royal Spanish Court for thirty-five years. Philip IV was a great patron of the arts. He had given Velázquez the Pieza Principal (“main room”) of his late son’s living quarters, by then serving as the palace museum, to use as his studio. The grand room housed many gems in the royal art collection, which Veláquez was entrusted to curate. Regardless of whether or not the other Velázquez in the painting, Don José Nieto, got his cousin a cushy job, Diego managed his position to great advantage and influence with the king.
The relationship between patron and artist today is no longer a symbiotic survival in a world of political and/or cultural intrigue. Parents rarely commission portraits of their children. Dancers in satin, sequins and nylon tulle are the exception; but even then, it is a photograph and not a painting that parents will purchase. Where does this leave the artists? At best, photo studios are given one day to photograph the entire cast of performers. Picture Day at Blue Ridge is as heavily choreographed as any of the dance numbers. Twenty-five classes are each given a fifteen minute slot between 11:30 am and 5:30 pm to show their stuff for the camera. The product is a set of proofs sent to each parent/patron to choose a picture package. Prices range from $10-$17 per photograph depending on the size of the print. Even with several hundred captures, this hardly compares to a room at the royal palace, but it’s a living.
Last, but not least, is the painter of Las Meninas 2.0. Where am I in this painting? The answer is not exactly nowhere. In this complex composition I also wanted to capture my position in the various rings of power dynamics. The photograph for this piece came from a friend and fellow parent who is reflected in the background. Against the wall with her phone in her hands, she is a surrogate for my eyes. The composition has been altered to contain only half of the people she originally captured in the moment. Blue Ridge Dance Studio can be an overwhelming space to a painter. With two walls covered floor to ceiling in mirrors, there are infinite details to paint. At the center top of the painting circled in red is an important nexus of walls, a focal point for the viewer. There are three reflections that are indicated by the red numbers 1-3, the last being the actual photographer. Of the three marionette dancers, only one is reflected three times, which is marked above by the yellow A, B and C. The second dancer in pig tails, is reflected twice, as indicated by the blue 1 & 2. The focal relationship between mother and daughter, however, is only depicted once. The daughter, Eleanor, is central and real, never diluted in reflection. Her mother, positioned as close to her head as a thought bubble or ghost of conscience, is barely painted, yet ever present.
In 2016 parents are busy. The job of raising children may not exactly compare to ruling a country. There are, however, many more roles a parent must play to ensure a child’s success. We have become regent, chaperone, artist, guardian and chamberlain to our most precious assets. We marshall all of our resources to prepare them for an increasingly complicated world. Negotiating the labyrinth of modern childhood can feel like a hall of mirrors. Our constant companions are often only reflections of reality. Magnified through social media, other parents and children can heighten our anxieties in facing the challenges of educating and nurturing the next generation. The parents in Velázquez’ Las Meninas, King Philip IV and Queen of Maria Anna of Spain, were embroiled in a 30 Year War that involved most of 17th-century Europe. In Las Meninas 2.0, one parent is reflected in a new 30 year struggle, that of successfully rearing a child in the twenty-first century.