What is Representation as a concept, using examples from Velazquez's Las Meninas?

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As it pertains to visual art, representation is the act of intending to show something with an image. A representation can therefore be understood as a symbol: It can be straightforward, like the image of a tree in a painting being there to represent a tree. It can also be...

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As it pertains to visual art, representation is the act of intending to show something with an image. A representation can therefore be understood as a symbol: It can be straightforward, like the image of a tree in a painting being there to represent a tree. It can also be abstract, like an oval with the barest facial features being meant to represent a face.

Velazquez’s Las Meninas is an iconic example of classical representation because it depicts multiple layers of representation. Philosopher Michel Foucault unpacks each layer in his book The Order of Things. First, the painting itself is a depiction, and therefore a representation, of a painting being made. Its subjects, which are themselves representations of a couple having their portrait made, are shown in the painting only through another representation. Their images are seen through a mirror separating the artist. They are also seen in a representation of a man standing in the representation of a doorway. A little girl, meant to represent the Infanta Margaret Theresa, is shown surrounded by subjects who represent her staff and companions.

Velazquez goes so far as to include a representation of himself. He is poised with a brush and pallet in front of the wooden back of what is supposed to represent a canvas. Our whole cast of characters are surrounded by yet more representations: paintings that line the walls and depict more subjects of more paintings.

Because of Velazquez's choice to represent a portrait scene this way, Foucault makes an argument that the painter is asking his audience to critically examine the way that representation comes into being. The portrait that might result from Velazquez’s assignment would only depict the two people in front of him. However, this critical reflection on representation demands that we as viewers do some analytical work to uncover what is going on, what is being represented, and who the subject of this painting actually is.

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