The transmutative power of painting, as observed by Velazquez


by Millie Bysh



At the centre of The Rokeby Venus (Velazquez, 1651, 122.5 x 177 cm) is a mirror, held by cupid, tilted up to grant the viewer with a blurred image of Venus’ face. Venus herself if turned away from the viewer, and we can only glimpse her profile: rosy cheeks and chestnut brown hair swept into a loose bun. Her reflection, however, is cast in a darker light, revealing a softer jawline, darker hair and heavyset eyes hidden in shadow. The angle is slightly off: we should be seeing a reflection of Venus looking back at herself, yet what we get is a shadowed face at the centre of the painting looking directly back at the viewer.

It is a shock to see art that is so self-aware, redefining painting as a vehicle to contemplate the relationship between the observer and the observed, rather than as a passive object. Prior to the Baroque period, sculpture had been (debatably) the most interactive form of art, with sculptors such as Bernini using strong diagonal lines of composition to push in and out of the viewer’s space. But midway through the seventeenth century, Velazquez was challenging this, re-establishing painting as perhaps one of the most powerful modes of art.

Five years later, Velazquez again placed a mirror at the centre of a painting – but this time on a much larger scale. Las Meninas, (1656, 318 cm × 276 cm) was painted at the height of Velazquez’s career as court painter: despite a royal commission by Philip IV, the painting takes a rather congenial tone, presenting the ‘ladies in waiting’ in the foreground, leaving the King and Queen only to be glimpsed in the mirror that hangs on the back wall. The mirror sits so far in the distance that the monarch’s face is blurred; art historians have even debated whether it is indeed Philip IV looking back at us in the mirror, however his distinct moustache and long face leave me in little doubt that it is indeed the King. Placing one’s King so far in the background as to have his identity confused is a subversive move, undermining the viewer’s idea of what is to be focused on.

The true focus of the painting is arguably Velazquez, who depicts himself stood to the left painting with his brush poised in mid-air. With this motion he captures the action of painting: the moment life is observed, contemplated and transferred onto canvas. He gazes directly at us, and his gaze triggers the realisation that we are in the place of the King. The viewer has become the subject, the observer has become the observed. His brush points our gaze towards the large canvas he paints on, which we can only see the back of, forcing our gaze back towards something we hope to see its reflection in: the mirror, which we now realise falls at the centre of the ‘X’-like composition of the painting. The piece is intensely metatheatrical. In Foucault’s words, ‘The mirror provides a metathesis of visibility that affects both the space represented in the picture and its nature as representation’. The painting is more than an object: it is a source of reflection.


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