I got a new take on Velasquez's celebrated Las Meninas this week. I'd never connected the large box like, almost theatrical space, with anything but Velasquez's own invention. But I found out whilst teaching that Las Meninas may have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, by a painting by the Flemish artist David Teniers. This artist painted a series of views of the picture gallery of his patron- Archduke Leopold Wilhelm- in Brussels. As Madlyn Millner Kahr says in her Velasquez: the Art of Painting (1976). Teniers's Archduke Leopold Wilhelm's Picture Gallery of 1653 hung in the Alcazar in Madrid, about 4 years before Las Meninas was painted. And there's a further connection between Velasquez and Teniers's patron: the Archduke was the cousin of Philip IV, the Spanish painter's most important patron; Philip wanted a visual record in Spain of his cousin's artistic holdings.
This link between Teniers's representations of his patron's art gallery and Las Meninas seems to have some currency with some scholars. A recent exhibition on Teniers, at the Courtauld in 2007, states that the picture may have influenced Las Meninas. After all, there is a door, slightly ajar, as in the Spanish painting, where the King's Chamberlain Don Jose Nieto, is mysteriously placed, almost between two worlds. What also encouraged Kahr to forge iconographical links between Las Meninas and Teniers is the presence of the rulers in the studio, which links royal and aristocratic patronage with the art of painting- it gets the royal seal of approval.
Kahr draws on the legend of Alexandra the Great visiting Apelles's studio, thus favouring the painter, and by implication, the art, with his august presence, But Velasquez's studio doesn't resemble a picture gallery like Teniers; there are copies/approximations after baroque mythologies deep within the gloom of the room, but they lurk there like silent specters oblivious of the painting of historical events below them. That's an interpretation I quite favour: the notion that Velasquez painted the infanta Margarita, so that he could be immortalized in history along with her and her family. Yet is Velasquez looking at the infanta, or is he as de Tolnay said, deep in some "dreamy rapture", thinking of the internal design- the disegno interno- or has he stepped back to view the King and Queen who may occupy the space in which the external spectator stands., although there are problems with that view. Velasquez's left eye looks fixed on something, but his right seems to be slightly askew. He could be in a dream state, envisaging his creation before making a mark on the canvas- or has he made the mark and his attention is wavering between canvas and model. Right at the start of his celebrated account of Las Meninas, Foucault drew attention to the brush, motionless between canvas and paints. de Tolnay would say that this would represent Velasquez's separation from manual execution, as part of his bid- like Teniers- for social advancement. For me, it suggests perfect balance between inner contemplation and the act of painting itself. There needs to be more written on manual execution and the mental state of the painter- not just Velasquez. I'll leave this idea suspended in mid-air- like Velasquez's brush.