Foucault and Painting: Las Meninas by Velazquez

What a painting can tell us? A story in a particular time and era? The feelings of a painter? An inventory of brushstrokes and techniques?   For french philosopher Michel Foucault, none of these issues are relevant; instead, he considers painting as “artifacts” and “documents” in their own right, revealing key considerations about “subjects” and “problems” in a particular  period. For him, paintings can be historical documents, but also they can reveal groundbreaking ways of understanding the world. In exploring the notion of discontinuities (or disruptions for the purpose of this paper), Foucault’s take on Las Meninas follows his interest in illuminating an epistemic shift in our Western culture- a discontinuity in the ways of understanding the world, from the Classical Era to the Seventeenth Century:

“this archaeological inquiry has revealed two great discontinuities in the episteme of Western culture: the first inaugurates the Classical age (roughly half-way through the seventeenth century and the second, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, marks the beginning of the modern age. The order on the basis of which we think today does not have the same mode of being as that of the Classical thinkers. Despite the impression we may have of an almost uninterrupted development of the European ratio from the Renaissance to our day… all this quasy continuity of the level of ideas and themes is doubtless only on a surface appearance; on the archaeological level, we see that the system of positivities was transformer in a wholesale fashion at the end of the eighteen and beginning of the nineteenth century. Not that reason made any progress: it was simply that the mode of being of things, and of the order that divided them up before presenting them to the understanding was profoundly altered.” (Foucault, 2002: xxii)

In this archaeology, Foucault approaches Las Meninas by Spanish artist Diego Velasquez, as a point of change, a discontinuity in the value of painting and representation, the role of the painter and the viewer, in a complex theatre of gazes, networks, relationships and interdependent meanings.  Here, Foucault revealed a novel way of understanding paintings, going beyond their “literal” meaning, but exploring networks, configuration, scenes and scenographies, choreographies of power, in which not only kings and princesses take prominence, but also the painter, the viewer and even the lowly dwarfs and court baffoons!

In my previous blog, I talked about the Ship of the Fools (focusing on the painting by Hyeronimous Bosch) and the changes in the consideration of madmen: from visionaries to sick people, the image of the Ship of the Fools conveys an historical fact and also a particular way of considering madness in the classic era. In this post, I will highlight how this view about paintings as historical documents gains complexity and richness, and how Foucault’s view actually refreshed the field of art history by broadening the tools by which we can understand or read a painting. In the preface of his third book The Order of Things, Foucault recognises the difficulties of “talking” about paintings:

[T]he relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can they be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. (Foucault 2002: 10)

Foucault, thus, invites us to keep an “open” view and acknowledge that the incompatibility between speech and images should not be an obstacle but an starting point. He focuses on Las Meninas, by Diego Velazques, one of the most cherished and celebrated works of art of all times. Living permanently in the rich Museo el Prado in Madrid, this painting occupies a place of honour in the museum, at the heart of the building, like a sun which rays irradiate throughout the whole solar system of the museum. Indeed, the painting touches the viewer from different angles, as many entrances to this main room of the museum.  And what to we see?,_by_Velazquez.jpg


In principle, Las Meninas represent a complex scene of a domestic interior in the royal household. The centre is taken by the five year old princess Maria Theresa, surrounded by her maids of honour (Las Meninas), the court dwarfs and even an sleepy mastiff. Behind them are the princess chaperone, a bodyguard and the royal chamberlain. In the centre left, a mirror reflects in the distance the King Philip IV and his wife Mariana de Austria, as protective figures of the whole Empire… and far left, the painter himself: dressed in the robes of the Order of Santiago.  We are meant to believe that the scene is a real-life description of life in the court, but what Velazquez presents goes beyond the royal spectacle of domesticity, revealing roles, and symbols, gazes and ambitions.

Indeed, through a meticulous description of Las Meninas, Foucault weaves a number of threads previously ignored by the (sometimes exclusive/excluding) domain of art history (Gresle, 2006). As argued by Yvonne Gresle (2006) in her article about Foucault and Las Meninas,  art historians have been more concerned about the artist, his/her life or social mileu, or the technical aspects for the execution of the painting, rather than the painting itself. Their role, as gatekeepers of something that should be of public domain, can explain the gap between art and other disciplines. It is if “art” is something so precious, so special, that cannot be grasped but by certain experts.  What Foucault did was to offer a richer view in which not only the superficial aspects of the painting, reached through description (archeaology), but he tries to decipher what is the “dispositif” behind the painting (genealogy).

“The painter is looking, his face turned slightly and his head leaning towards one shoulder. He is staring at a point to which, even though it is invisible, we, the spectators, can easily assign an object, since it is we, ourselves, who are that point: our bodies, our faces, our eyes. The spectacle he is observing is thus doubly invisible: first, because it is not represented within the space of the painting, and, second, because it is situated precisely in that blind point, in that essential hiding-place into which our gaze disappears from ourselves at the moment of our actual looking. And yet, how could we fail to see that invisibility, there in front of our eyes, since it has its own perceptible equivalent, its sealed-in figure, in the painting itself? We could, in effect, guess what it is the painter is looking at if it were possible for us to glance for a moment at the canvas he is working on; but all we can see of that canvas is its texture, the horizontal and vertical bars of the stretcher, and the obliquely rising foot of the easel. The tall, monotonous rectangle occupying the whole left portion of the real picture, and representing the back of the canvas within the picture, reconstitutes in the form of a surface the invisibility in depth of what the artist is observing: that space in which we are, and which we are. From the eyes of the painter to what he is observing there runs a compelling line that we, the onlookers, have no power of evading: it runs through the real picture and emerges from its surface to join the place from which we see the painter observing us; this dotted line reaches out to us ineluctably, and links us to the representation of the picture. In appearance, this locus is a simple one; a matter of pure reciprocity: we are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject. We, the spectators, are an additional factor. Though greeted by that gaze, we are also dismissed by it, replaced by that which was always there before we were: the model itself. But, inversely, the painter’s gaze, addressed to the void confronting him outside the picture, accepts as many models as there are spectators; in this precise but neutral place, the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable, or rather in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at a right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles infinity. And here the great canvas with its back to us on the extreme left of the picture exercises its second function: stubbornly invisible, it prevents the relation of these gazes from ever being discoverable or definitely established. The opaque fixity that it establishes on one side renders forever unstable the play of metamorphoses established in the centre between spectator and model. Because we can see only that reverse side, we do not know who we are, or what we are doing. Seen or seeing?


This lengthy description of a painting that we have seen so many times contain some key aspects that I would like to explore.

1. The interplay of gazes: five of the nine figures in the painting are actually looking to the viewer, but they are also gazing amongs themselves. But it is the gaze of the painter which is most intriguing: he is actually looking at us, we are not only “seeing” but being seen across the centuries by the painter. Thus inviting the viewer, who is already looking at the painting, into being part of the “spectacle” represented. The painting seems to be “speaking” or “looking” to each of us, individually, as in a loud whisper, through the interplay of gazes and the fact that we as viewers become also part of the scene. As Foucault remarks:

“Our first glance at the painting told us what it’ is’ that creates this spectacle-as-observation. It is the two sovereigns. One can sense their presence already in the respectful gaze of the figures in the picture, in the astonishment of the child and the dwarfs. We recognize them, at the far end of the picture, in the two tiny silhouettes gleaming out from the looking-glass.”


2. Indeed, as argued by Foucault, this is a painting that represents a representation. While the Ship of the Fools is a representation of “madness”, Las Meninas are a representation of a “spectacle”, a form of presenting, a choreography of loyalties and hierarchy, the “space” of multiple views and meanings. Because here we have implausible actors in a scene: it is unlikely that king, queen, princesses, maid of honour, bodyguard, chaperone, servants and dwarfs, were posing for the painting. Foucault explains:

“Here, the action of representation consists in bringing one of these two
forms of invisibility into the place of the other, in an unstable superimposition – and in rendering them both, at the same moment, at the other extremity of the picture – at that pole which is the very height of its representation: that of a reflected depth in the far recess of the painting’s depth. The mirror provides a metathesis of visibility that affects both the space represented in the picture and its nature as representation; it allows us to see, in the centre of the canvas, what in the painting is of necessity doubly invisible.”


3. This group “selfie” of Velazquez, also talks about his role and the consideration of painters in this historical period.  As argued by art historian Shearer West: Velazquez, in inserting himself into the work, reveals the prominence of his place in the household of Phillip IV of Spain. And this in a time in which “artists were usually considered well beneath their sitters in class terms…. In normal social interaction such classes did not meet, but in the portrait transaction they had to come together on quite intimate terms” (West 2004: 39).Moroever, Velazquez acknowledges his role in the spectacle, he is both “servant” (crafter) but also royal staff, indeed, he is portrayed as a “Knight” (an imaginary position, because although Velazquez had ambitions to go beyond his humble origin, still it was just three years later that he is granted his membership on the Order de Santiago. This is another element of the representation of networks and spectacles: this is not a “literal” painting, it is a theatre where three elements interplay: the actors playing certain assigned role, the viewer invited by the game of gazes into the scene, and the sense of “a reality”, in the sense that the scene constructs certain notion of the world, with hierarchies and prompts and gazes creating a notion of being in the world linked to our western culture.

In summarising, the painting, as historical document or archeological find, points out at a “change” or “disruption” in the way in which a “reality” is being represented. This is the orderly world of the seventeenth century, a world in which the Spanish monarchy ruled the world according to certain choreograph or scene. In this scenography, painting take the role of alter narrator, a representation of mirrors, where the participants play a role: the royal household and its different actors including the omnipresent King and Queen, but also, new actors are invited to play. For the first time in western painting, the artist himself is present in the scene (a mixture of self-portrait, but also, as another character in the configuration of the composition), thus, reflecting a change in the consideration of the artist, from “crafter” to “noble”.  Further, the game of gazes and looks, make that the viewer, who is looking at the painting, becomes part of it. The combination of the direct gaze of the different characters depicted and that mysterious gaze of the painter toward the viewer makes of this painting or this scene a sort of time machine: traveling and impressing viewers across the centuries. This directness, the unequivocal call of the painting to the viewer (and perhaps also the strategically positioning of this painting in the architectonic configuration of the Museo el Prado), carries all the might and impressive power of this painting. This choice by Foucault is not coincidence: undoubtedly “Las Meninas” is a milestone in Western art.

Also, it is important to reiterate the key elements in Foucault approach to paintings:

a.  Foucault is not interested in the social history of the painting, neither he is concerned about the author/painter. As claimed in one of his essays: What is an author, he aims at separating our attempts at guessing what the artist was thinking/doing/being, but focusing on the work itself: the book, the text, the image.

b. As remarked by Foucault in this book, he is not a structuralist, in the sense that he is not trying to reveal the “underlying” structures of language or meaning. Likewise, he is not interested in offering a framework to understand or to read images. As mentioned before he acknowledges the difficulties in reconciling “word” and “images”, but he suggests to overcome this by allowing the painting to speak by itself… In the Preface of the english edition of The Order of the Things, Foucault clarifies:

“In France, certain half-witted “commentators” persist in labelling me a “structuralist”. I have been unable to get it into their tiny minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts, or key terms that characterise structural analysis. I should be grateful if a more serious public would free me from a connection that certainly does me honour but that I have not deserved. There may be certain similarities between the works of the structuralist and my own work. It would hardly behove me, of all people, to claim that my discourse is independent of conditions and rules of which I am very largely unaware, and which determine other work that is being done today. But it is only too easy to avoid the trouble of analyzing such work by giving it an admittedly impressive-sounding, but inaccurate, label.”(Foucault 2002: xv)

c.  Further, Foucault acknowledges the existence of different “realities” and ways of knowing those realities. He distances himself from “structuralism” and also from the “modernist” way of thinking in which history is a progressive evolution towards something “better” (more developed, more contemporary, more illuminated).  Instead he approaches his “archaeology” in the sense of “digging up” multiple possibilities and different interpretations… He explains:

“I am not concerned, therefore, to describe the progress of  knowledge towards an objectivity in which today’s science can finally be recognised; what I am attempting to bring to light is the epistemological field, the episteme in which knowledge, envisaged apart from all criteria having reference to its rational value or to its objective forms, grounds its positivity and thereby manifests a history which is not that of its growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility.”

     (Foucault 2002: xxiii, xxiv)

 In trying to explain the disruption or discontinuity in the episteme (ways of knowing the world), Foucault invites us to dive into paintings as directly and nakedly as possible. This is not “art-history”, it does not attempt at revealing ulterior motives of the painter, or to depict a reality or a truth. Foucault is not looking for the truth but ways of revealing our own present… which takes me to the next post concerning the birth of modern art in Manet’s paintings.




Alpers, S. 1995 Interpretation without Representation, or, The Viewing of Las Meninas. In:

Fernie, E. (ed.) Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology. Phaidon: London.

Fernie, E. (ed.) 1995 Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology. London: Phaidon.

Foucault, M. 2002 The Order of Things. London & New York: Routledge.

Gresle, Y. 2006. Foucault’s Las Meninas and art-historical methods. Journal of Literary Studies. 22 (3-4). pp.211-229

West, S. 2004 Portraiture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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