This is the first of a projected series on the afterlife of a painting that has resonated in myriad ways in debates about art since its inception in 1656. I'm going to look at its afterlife: its re-appearance in a variety of disparate contexts such as copies and exhibitions; its use as a trope in art history writing inside and outside the field; and Las Meninas as a symbol of the successes and failure of art history itself. Phew! Time will tell if I live up to these grand objectives!
For the first installment, we'll look at Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo's The Artist's Family- 1664-5. Velasquez died in 1660, but he had made provision by appointing de Mazo, his pupil, one of his executors as well as admitting him into the family. Del Mazo had married the master's daughter, Francisca. Sadly, Francisca Velasquez pre-deceased her father in 1554, leaving de Mazo to re-marry, Francisca de la Vega; she appears in this painting.
Clearly Las Meninas preyed on de Mazo's mind, since it is recalled in his nigh-obscure version. Lacking the power and grandeur of the original, del Mazo groups his family in awkward poses resulting in a clumsy and unbalanced composition. This isn't a cohesive group family portrait such as we see in Holbein or Hogarth, but a desperate attempt to yoke domesticity and the studio together, a tricky balancing act for a busy court painter who served Philip IV. We're reminded of this by the portrait of that monarch on the rear wall- a mirror in the original. We're also reminded that del Mazo and his family are his subjects, although they wouldn't be for much longer as Philip was to follow Velasquez into the great beyond about a year after this painting was executed. Perhaps it's not coincidental that the king's face has a ghastly, skeletal hue- death would not wait long. Here's another painting by del Mazo showing the infanta Margarita-, Philip's favourite daughter, the little girl in Las Meninas- mourning the death of her father in 1666.
The most fascinating, and enigmatic detail of del Mazo's family painting, is the figure at the rear of the high-ceilinged room, who paints before an easel. According to Janis Tomlinson in her comprehensive Painting in Spain, this figure could either be del Mazo, or even Velasquez himself. If it is de Mazo, then the painting could be seen as legitimization of the pupil's status as court painter, the successor of the 17th century genius. A successor, or maybe to use a French word, a remplaçant. Remplaçant could be translated as "successor", but it could also mean stand-in, a substitute. I find that interpretation more helpful: it suggests occupation of physical coordinates in space, simultaneity rather than a line of descent across time, diachronic, although that is also part of the equation. Las Meninas could be viewed as a way of framing debates about origins and artistic legacies: a space in which every subsequent interpreter or remplaçant would have to stand, like Velasquez himself, although in his case it was the model or inspiration for Las Meninas that he looked at; and with the epigones, it is Las Meninas itself, either known directly, or grasped through reproductions. In the original, Velasquez is creating ab nihilo, like God making the world, but once the world is created, it's either a case of annihilating it in order to start again from scratch- moving permanently out of Velasquez's studio -a kind of de-infantilisation- or using it as a blueprint for the replication of similar artistic worlds, a continuum of studios receding into infinity. Every painter who comes after Velasquez could be seen as an echo of the master divine painter, trapped in Velasquez's studio and his creative paradigm; and the whole project of keeping Las Meninas alive could be viewed as a relay, a race run by athletic painters of different strengths trying to keep up with Velasquez who can never be outrun.
Let's say that this artistic relay begins with the man framed in the doorway in Las Meninas, whom Hubert Damisch quite rightly calls 'Velasquez 2." "Velasquez 2" is in a privileged position because, as Damisch says, he is behind "Velasquez 1" and therefore sees Las Meninas itself being painted, a private view denied to we non-painters who only witness the race, not participate in it. So, within that numerical sequence, del Mazo should be called "Velasquez 3." It is appropriate then that he -I think it is del Mazo- labours at a canvas in a room which resembles the studio-room in Las Meninas. Later, as the relay gains momentum, things will get more complicated. By the time the baton has been passed on by Picasso, artists will make a composite of Picasso and Velasquez in order to reorient themselves relative to both the classical and modern epochs. Here del Mazo merely strives- and fails- to come to terms with the era of classical representation only. He is, in terms of the race that Las Meninas initiates, quite literally a non-starter.