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Velasquez’s System of Reflexive Presentations

Diego Velazquez is famously known for his reflexive paintings. Many of his paintings depicted the protagonist of each particular picture as the main object. Some of his greatest reflexive paintings include the Las Meninas, which is a depiction of the Spanish palace and Las Hilanderas or The Spinners. His paintings were baroque and portrait. Velazquez’s paintings were mythological compositions that portrayed complex and sometimes hidden meanings. His paintings, particularly Las Meninas were said to look out into the audience in the same way the audience looked into them. His reflexive paintings portrayed the paradox between the natural and the artistic. His reflexive paintings contained symbols of the materials he used in his paintings. Velazquez’s reflexive paintings influenced the king to grant him stay at the palace where he further developed and established his reflexive style. The stay at the royal Spanish palace in turn had a considerable influence on his painting style. His reflexive style is also said to have inspired the works of other renowned painters such as Picasso.

Velazquez was born in Seville in1599 and learnt his painting from Francisco Pacheco one of the best painters in Seville during his time. His father was a Portuguese lawyer. Velazquez married when he was 19 years old and moved to Paris. His mastery of artistic painting would later surpass that of Pacheco. Pacheco earned a place at the royal court when he painted the portrait of King Philip IV. He was 24 years old when he painted this portrait. The king was impressed with his artistry that he made a painter at the royal court. The king trusted his painting so much that he only allowed Velazquez to make portraits of him. While at the court, Velazquez was granted access to the collection of famous royal paintings. During his time at the royal palace learnt the styles of famous Italian painters such as Titian. Velazquez also visited Italy while he was at the royal courthouse. During his visits, he copied the styles of great Italian painters. His contact with the Paintings of Jusepe de Ribera and Carravagio informed his painting style in which he harmonized the use black and gray colors. From Italy Velazquez carried the paintings of artists such as Titian and Tintoretto to be displayed in the king’s royal gallery. The royal household’s trust in him grew considerably, and he rose in rank. He was accorded with the responsibility to make paintings of members of the royal household. While in the courthouse, Velazquez was promoted and made officer in charge of the courthouse. Velazquez held this position until his demise on August 6 1660. In addition to other paintings, he also made paintings of the courthouse. Among his famous paintings, include the paintings on King Philip IV of Spain and Las Meninas. Other paintings included The Spinners, Pope Innocent X, the Infanta Maria Theresa and Christ at Emmaus. The palace presented a change in this style of painting. His reflective style is usually compared to that of Italian artist Titian whose works Velazquez encountered at the royal Spanish palace. Velazquez favored a more natural style in his paintings. Velazquez painting style later influenced many great painters. Some of his proteges include Bartolome Murillo, Pablo Picasso, Camille Corot, and Edouard Manet among others. Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon have acknowledged Velazquez’s artistry by reworking some of his famous paintings.

Velazquez stay at the king’s courthouse can be credited to have influenced his self-fashioning. From his first painting of Philip IV the Spanish king, Velazquez developed a different painting technique from those he had already done. The first portraits that he painted in the royal courthouse followed the traditional techniques used for royal portraits. However, his later paintings took a different unique style. The paintings not only tried to depict the natural self of his subjects but also conveyed a reflection on their inner personalities. This new style was a creation of his great intellectual ability to depict the psychological factors of his subjects on canvas. This new technique enabled the audience to get a more detailed description of the subject from a deeper analysis of the painting. One example of such artistic masterpiece is the portrait of Philip IV that was reworked by Velazquez. In this photo, he manages to reveal minute detail that enables the audience to understand the intrigues of the painting process. Velazquez therefore attains a mastery of another niche, which he could only have mastered while in the royal courthouse. Some critics say that this artistic revelation is inspired by the works of the Italian artist Titian. Velazquez was exposed to Titian’s unique style at the royal gallery and he is said to have taken profound interest in the artist’s style of painting.

Velazquez’s role as the curator at the king’s royal courthouse greatly influenced his style. The conduct at the courthouse required that the paintings be done in a rigid manner with no depictions of emotions or personality. However, his painting of Innocent X shows that out of the limits of the royal courthouse he had the freedom to portray the inner self. The courthouse provided a great environment for carrying out his reflexive painting. His uninhibited access to the royal gallery also enabled him to study the works of other contemporary artists before his time. The royal courthouse was a source of immense knowledge to him and presented the perfect setting to practice his new style. The stay at the king’s court slightly changed his style of painting. A comparison of his earlier paintings such as The Immaculate Conception and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and his later paintings in the Royal house reveal a slight change in painting techniques. In the Immaculate Conception, Velazquez focuses on the supernatural and tries to express his understanding of the Holy Book. In Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Velazquez still expresses his spiritual beliefs in the painting although he applies a blend of the modern and the ancient in this picture. This latter painting contains a slight semblance to his paintings at the royal courthouse but lacks in the reflexivity that is characteristic of his paintings. Las Meninas on the other hand is a perfect example of the style he adopted while at the courthouse. In his new reflective style as can be seen in Las Meninas, Velazquez style concentrates on representing natural events. In fact, most of the figures in this painting can be identified. According to Natalia Rivera, only one of the characters in Las Meninas has not been identified. In this acquired style, Velazquez demonstrates irony, ambiguity and literary symbolism in paintings that seem natural and concise to the natural eye. This kind of ambiguity and literary symbolism can be traced through Velazquez’s later works at the court. It is important to note that this ambiguity and literary symbolism are only evident in the works he painted after living in the royal courthouse. In his previous works such as Christ at the house of Martha and Mary and The Immaculate Conception, this ambiguity and symbolism is lacking.

Another of Velazquez’s painting that signifies his unique reflexive style is The Spinners, which is known as Las Hilanderas or The Fable of Arachne. The Spinners was not painted for the king but for a private individual. In this painting, Velazquez captures the mythological challenge between the Greek goddess Athena and a woman Arachne. Visually, it is difficult to comprehend how a physically small portrait like the Spinners would contain too much information[1]. In this portrait, Velazquez depicts five women working on their spins. All these women are at work. One of them can be seen reaching f or wool in the floor, another is spinning the machine, and a third holds the wool for the spinner. The fourth woman rolls the wool into a ball. Another woman can be seen leaving behind the curtain with a round of finished wool. According to Alpers, this painting resembled the works of Titian[2]. She says that Velazquez is more interested in a group of working women and illustrates many details of the room in which the women are gathered. Farther into the painting, one cannot fail to notice the challenge between Minerva (Athena) and Arachne and somewhere beside them, one can make out Europa and the bull. “Europa and the Bull” was painted by Titian. Watching the contest are three women.

One striking characteristic of Velazquez’s new style is the depiction of one woman who looks out as though acknowledging the fact that she knows she is being painted. This style can also be seen in Las Meninas where the little Infanta, and the king and queen in the mirror look out into the audience fixing their attention on something. In this painting, Velazquez portrays a lot of movement. The wheel of the spinner is rotating and the women’s limbs are all moving. In this painting unlike his other paintings, it is difficult to figure out the inner expressions of the characters. The spinners contains some sort of mystery within it, within the painting, he portrays women spinning yarn and adds finished tapestry. He deliberately ignores the weaving process. In normal Spanish society, the weaving was done by men so tapestries would not be found where the spinning was being done[3]. Using this impression Velazquez tries to compare Arachne’s status withy that of her opponent (Athena). In reality, Velazquez tries to elevate the status of the artist and his art. In the painting, Athena and the woven tapestry represent the artist and the art respectively. This style possesses a striking semblance to many of his post-courthouse portraits. This style is however not present in the previous portraits discussed above. This style distinction therefore separates the two eras. Velazquez’s job as the curator was thus a major influence on his painting style.

Many artists have taken after Velazquez’s style. One outstanding artist among them is Picasso. Picasso did major re works on the paintings of other great painters. His paintings never diverged from the styles established by major artists. He had a remarkable prowess in the art of reworking the paintings of other painters. In fact, Picasso not only repainted pieces of art but also reinvented them in a new and unique way. It is important to note that even Velazquez did reworks of major paintings at the royal gallery. These paintings included that of Philip IV and like Picasso, his rework revealed more details to the audience than could have been identified in the original work. Picasso made variations to some of Velazquez’s works some of which were almost three hundred years old. Picasso was an established and renowned artist and he therefore wanted to redo Velazquez’s work in a unique style in order to create a distinction between his work and the original works. Picasso went on to repaint Las Meninas, which was released on August 17 1957.

This new painting of Velazquez’s “Maids of Honor” was horizontally oriented unlike the original. The painting is also done in a gray palette giving it some kind of darkness. This was the characteristic Picasso way of painting. These were the only differences that Picasso had introduced in the painting. As Elenkrantz says the paintings, “Lineage is clearly with Velazquez”[4]. The rework of Las Meninas contains some similarities to the original work. First, it retains the majesty through which Velazquez depicted Infanta and her maids. He also depicts Infanta with a similar white dress like the one in the original portrait. The king and queen in the mirror are also intact in this rework. However, the king and queen’s expression in this version of the Las Meninas are portrayed in a comical way. The maids in this painting only exist in the form of dark silhouettes and some items have shifted position. In this painting, Picasso alters the painter on the left side in such a way that he exists only as an imaginative figure. The painter is depicted as a blurry image. Picasso also alters the visibility of the queen’s chamberlain, Jose Nieto. He also brings him slightly above Infanta this brings the audience attention to Nieto because he becomes the most conspicuous object in the painting. Picasso, in characteristic Velazquez fashion draws the audience into critical thinking he inspires the audience to brainstorm on the position he gives Nieto. By painting the Las Meninas in his own unique style, Picasso avoids a confrontation with the original picture and brings a distinction that is richer in flavor and detail just like Velazquez did to the portrait of Philip IV.

One example of modern art is the David Thomas portrait, Amid our Narrative. This painting is Enamel on photograph on dibond portrait. It was painted in November 2006. It is a portrayal of four characters, two on either side of the painting. The two sides are separated by a table. The four characters are separated by a rectangular shape of ambiguous black space in the middle. Both sides of the portrait contain some similarities. On either side of the table is a woman seated concentrating on the dark bar of space. On each side, also there is a figure standing. The two figures are probably men going by the kind of clothing they are wearing. Thomas introduces another black space at the bottom of the right side of the portrait. The characters in Thomas’s portrait look as if they have their attention on the same thing. The two dark colored spaces seem to be hiding something from the audience’s view.

This is a reflexive representation of a house with four people. Thomas’ however puts two doors on either side of the portrait. The audience cannot distinguish whether the portrait represents one house or two houses. The dark spaces created by Thomas are supposed to attract the imagination of the audience. The dark spaces represent some act of spectatorship by the characters. Their concentration is captured by an ambiguous space that is hidden from the audience. The presence of two doors and an empty space in between may be taken to show some disconnect between the two sets of people. Some emptiness separates the two couples. The couple on the right side of the painting looks older while the other set looks younger. Perhaps Thomas might be trying to show disconnect or the generational gap that exists among people of different ages. This is a kind of reflexive art represented by modern artists. Thomas follows the reflexive example of Velazquez in his portrait by incorporating ambiguity in the midst of a natural setting.


Alpers, Svetlana. 2007. The vexations of art: Vela?zquez and others. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Rivera, Natalia. “Velazquez’s Las Meninas.” 26 Mar. 2009.

Erenkrantz, Justin, “The Mask and the Mirror.” 20 Aug. 2010.