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Uncovering the Mysteries of Las Meninas: A Study of Michel Foucault's Interpretation

Diego Velázquez's painting "Las Meninas" has established itself as a highly intriguing piece of Western art, deserving of much analysis. It is regarded by many as a representation of art itself in a painting, showcasing the philosophy of art on canvas. The painting, also known as "The Ladies-in-Waiting," is Velázquez's most famous piece, and its composition is particularly captivating. Viewing it multiple times reveals new details that may have been missed on first inspection, such as the number of people in the painting and who or what they are looking at. This question has sparked numerous interpretations of the painting. The Museo del Prado, where "Las Meninas" is housed, describes it as one of Velázquez's largest works and one in which he put great effort into creating a complex and believable composition that conveys a sense of reality while also containing a wealth of meanings. The size of the painting, 318 x 276 cm, is almost life-size and adds to its impact. The painting also has a visual illusion, with Velázquez depicted on the left side painting on a large canvas. Some may argue that he is painting the very piece we are looking at, while others believe he is using a mirror to paint the royal couple, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana, who are reflected on the back wall.

This interpretation leads to the question of how Velázquez painted the scene from the perspective of the royal couple. He would have had to get inside their heads to imagine what they were seeing. Another interpretation is that Velázquez was preparing to paint the young princess, Infanta Margarita Theresa, when the royal couple entered and disrupted the scene. This interpretation, however, does not fully explain why Velázquez composed the painting in this manner. There is also the issue of the large canvas in the painting. If Velázquez is not painting "Las Meninas" on that canvas, how do we account for its size? The scale of the canvas is not typical for Velázquez and the only painting by him with a canvas of this size is "Las Meninas."

The depth and three-dimensional feel of the painting are also impressive, despite being painted on a two-dimensional canvas. The figure of the chamberlain, José Nieto Velázquez, leads the eye towards the space beyond the back of the room, while the mirror depicting the royal couple forces the mind to envision the space in front of the painting. The window on the right provides a sense of depth and size, but it is unclear how close the royal couple is to the foreground. These details make "Las Meninas" a true masterpiece, but we must move on to examining interpretations of the painting.

Why did I choose Foucault's interpretation of Las Meninas among the many other interpretations available?

Firstly, he devoted the entire first chapter of his seminal work, The Order of Things (1966), to analyzing this painting. This alone shows the personal significance of the painting to Foucault as dedicating an entire chapter of a book to analyze a painting is a testament to its impact on him. This connection was likely not just one-sided, as Foucault's philosophical ideas may have also been inspired by the painting.

It's worth mentioning that Michel Foucault is a well-known philosopher, associated with postmodernism and deconstructionism. He emerged on the scene during a time when French philosophers were shifting away from analytic philosophy and towards a philosophy that combined the human sciences, avant-garde art, and literature. Foucault's work, like Derrida's grammatology, is based on structural linguistics, but he applied this concept to history. He explored subjects like sexuality, madness, medicine, clinics, and correctional facilities, among others, and aimed to uncover the hidden power dynamics and control systems in Western civilization.

Foucault's impact lies in his work's focus on power and the power of discourse, which appeals to intellectuals and humanities departments with a radical outlook. However, as described by José Merquior, his thought is often taken in pieces and employed for various political issues, and this is what Merquior and others find problematic in Foucault's work. In The Order of Things, Foucault famously declared the "death of man," meaning that there is no such thing as the self. This anti-humanist concept of consciousness is crucial to understanding Foucault's interpretation of Las Meninas. He rejected the idea of the self as a foundation for our thoughts and instead argued that discourse and thought, directed by powerful entities, have created our conception of man. We do not exist without these conceptions, which are the underlying basis of society.

Foucault's interpretation of Las Meninas starts with an observation of the painting that is similar to other interpretations. He notes that the painter is looking at a point, which is represented by the spectator's body, face, and eyes. The painter's gaze is double invisible, as the object of his gaze is not represented in the painting and is located at the blind point where the spectator's gaze disappears.

However, Foucault takes a different approach from there, as he describes a complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints in the painting. The painter is looking at the spectator only because the spectator is occupying the same position as the model. The spectator is both greeted and dismissed by the painter's gaze, as the model was always there before the spectator arrived. Inversely, the painter's gaze, directed towards the void outside the picture, accepts as many models as there are spectators. This creates a ceaseless exchange between the observer and the observed.

The climax of the painting "Las Meninas" by Velázquez brings to light the instability of the relationship between the spectator and the model. The opaque fixity on one side of the painting makes it impossible for us to determine our own identity and role as spectators. The painter is capturing a constantly changing scene, but the subject of the painting remains elusive and invisible. Foucault concludes his analysis by stating that the invisibility of the subject is inseparable from our own invisibility as the spectator. The painting serves as a reminder that there is no original subject or person, only a series of illusions and representations without a foundation.

According to Foucault, the absence of a clear subject in the painting is a void that represents the necessary disappearance of the person, who is only a resemblance. This leads to the conclusion that representation is freed from its relationship with the spectator, allowing it to be seen in its pure form as a construction and artificiality. However, this assertion of nothingness is itself a belief and subject to belief, as it is the human tendency to seek meaning.

The author of the painting, Velázquez, offers two things to the viewer and the royal couple. To the viewer, he offers temporary displacement and a sense of intrusion and belonging, but also estrangement as the viewer is not the subject of the painting. To the royal couple, he offers a moment of life and reality to capture and keep, as well as a message to them and to us. The painting captures the significance of the royal couple's perspective, as they can recognize themselves through the familiar faces in the foreground, reminding them of the importance of their perspective and their centrality as the subjects of the painting. Finally, the author argues that Foucault's analysis of the painting is self-centered, as the painting was never about the absence of the spectator or the royal couple. The true portrait of the King and Queen is not in the mirror on the back wall, but in the people in the foreground who surround them. The self is recognized through the encountering and recognition of the people who surround us, not through mere representations or portraits. In this sense, Velázquez painted the truest portrait of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana by painting "Las Meninas" or "La Familia."


[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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