Las Meninas (1656), by Diego Velazquez
I remember the professor in Art History 102 at UCLA pointing to the slide in the darkened lecture hall, telling the students that the painting was satire. She pointed out the relatively huge sizes of the dog and the dwarfs—the five-year-old Infanta Margarita’s playmates—compared to tiny King Philip IV of Spain, and his wife, Queen Dona Mariana, reflected in the mirror on the far wall. And that the artist, Diego Velázquez, was at the center of it all. The royal court of Spain, the professor explained, was in decline, and the dashing, good-looking court painter, the self-portraitist himself, had envisioned an immortality for himself that would be far more enduring than that of the unattractive, aging king.
Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (The Handmaidens) has been studied, analyzed, copied, and re-interpreted since the year it was painted, 1656. After visiting the Prado a few years ago, I’ve become a Las Meninas aficionado, collecting images and photographing sightings of sculpture, graffiti, and knickknacks based on the work and its cast of characters. However, it’s become apparent that the derivative works are not focused on the attributes discussed by art historians: The painting’s composition, scale, perspective, visual riddles, or even the psychological profiles of the characters.
It’s all about the dress.
I also admit to being fascinated by the TLC show, “Say Yes to the Dress,” a mixture of family soap opera and conspicuous consumerism in which every bride wants to be a princess in a designer gown. Because most of the dresses the brides try on these days are strapless, the key decision is the silhouette, the shape of the skirt. Do you know the difference between the ball gown, A-line, fit-and-flare, mermaid, and trumpet? Infanta Margarita, her mother—Philip IV’s wife, Queen Dona Mariana of Austria—and her handmaidens, must have, even if they were a bit behind when it came to mid-17th-century fashion.
The Infanta and her handmaidens are wearing what costume historians call the Farthingdale, a petticoat with graduated hoops of cane, willow or whalebone. It was fashionable in European courts of the 15th century until 1620, when it went out of style. Farthingdales had bolster-like “bum rolls” stuffed with padding or held out from the hips with reeds, creating the distinctive domed shape. The shape of the figure in the skirt is the key visual element in all the examples in this post.
I’ve seen the figure abstracted in everything from rough clay candlesticks at craft fairs to paper dolls for sale in museum shops. It’s like a brandmark: simple, bold, direct. It works well in color and in black-and-white in all sizes from 2000-lb. bronze sculptures to half-inch logos on greeting cards. According to costumes.org: “The poor Infanta is trapped in a huge French Farthingale more than 40 years after the French dumped the fashion.” Oh well. She and her dress have lived on longer than any little girl might have dreamed. And unlike the princesses caught in today’s strapless trend, she had the benefit of a neckline and sleeves to flatter her youthful face and figure.
^ Across the street from the Prado, a display above a gift shop/restaurant, which I photographed in 2006. Velázquez painted six individual portraits of Infanta Margarita, in 1660 in a peach and beige gown with diagonal stripes on the skirt. This unknown sculptor changed the beige to light blue and added the wave. The figure on the right is the solicitous handmaiden of “Las Meninas.”
^ Between August and December 1957, Picasso painted 58 re-interpretations of “Las Meninas,” which he donated to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. Picasso wrote, “Little by little I would paint Meninas that would seem detestable to a pure copyist… these are my Meninas.”
^ Graffiti in the Ciutat Vella quarter of Barcelona, photographed earlier this year.
^ Life-size paper sculpture, “Lady Dulcinea,” by Brooklyn artist and designer Eloise Corr Danch. It was exhibited at the Anthropologie Gallery in New York’s Rockefeller Center in 2008. Danch explains: “Inspired both by Cervantes and Velázquez, I made a wire ‘panier’ that sits underneath the dress and acts as a skeleton for the unique boxy shape of the skirt.”
^ To make the dress “fabric,” Danch adapted a blue-and-white print from antique Bavarian wallpaper, which she made into a repeat pattern in Photoshop and printed on rolls of heavyweight paper used to drape the dress. The sculpture is now owned by a private collector. (Photos by David Zuckerman.)
^ Two massive bronze “Reina Marianas” (2005) by Spanish artist Manolo Valdes at the south entrance to the 72nd Street subway station in New York City. Two others are at Columbus Circle. (Photo by Noel Y.C.) There are 16 Valdez sculptures are on display along Broadway from Columbus Circle to 166th Street in New York City until January 23, 2011.