Status is everywhere
This is Diego Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas”. It is widely acknowledged as one of the supreme achievements of western art.
We find ourselves in the royal palace, in 17th-century Spain. The girl in the center is the 5-year-old Spanish princess, the “Infanta” Margaret Theresa. She is surrounded by her maids, or, “Las Meninas”.
As we explore the painting for subtext, we realize that Velasquez is creating an overly laborious composition. On the left side is the painter himself facing us. We do not know for sure what he is painting, but we can guess. Because in a distant mirror in the back of the room, we can vaguely see the reflection of the royal couple. In the foreground is the infanta with her entourage (one poised to curtsy to the princess, the second kneeling and offering a drink, as well as two dwarfs).
Here is some background information you need to know: Velasquez is a royal painter. Also, this is a time where painters have a very low social status. They are considered “craftsmen”, not artists. As we look more, deeply for subtext, beyond what our eyes tell us, we discover how the scene is filled with hubris! Velasquez, a low-status craftsman, managed to place a portrait of himself surrounded by the entire royal family. This is not a painting of the Infanta or Las Meninas! This is Velázquez claiming status for both the artist and the art. Status! Velazquez is screaming: “I am more (vertical status)! And I belong here (horizontal status-affiliation)”.
Ah, status, what a driver of human behavior!
Of course, the theater of status does not end here. Every small gesture in the interactions conveys status. From the uncertainty of the queen’s chamberlain in the doorway in the far-right door to the Menina kneeling before the princess and the Infanta’s small physical size contrasting her evident air of importance.
Think; how every great work of art, be it a painting or drama, or novel, somehow negotiates status: who painted this, what is the subject dressed like, who is the painting placed alongside on the wall, who is going up, who is going down, who is next to who? By recognizing the theatrical nature of status in art, we may be better able to come to terms with the reality that life and marketing also operate in a similar way.
If you ever find yourself in Madrid, this painting is at the Museo Nacional del Prado, and it’s worth a visit!
Also, you might enjoy this blog (external link) of some modern renditions of Las Meninas: