This painted lie you see

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The poem that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz addresses to her portrait is often referred to in Spanish by one of its key phrases, “engaño colorido,” which may be translated as “painted lie.” The noun “engaño” (related to the verb “engañar”) may also mean “trick,” “swindle,” “cheat,” “fake,” “deception,” or “illusion.” Those meanings figure into her reaction to the falsity of the portrait itself as well as to the underlying concepts that she believes it conveys.

This one you see is painted foolishness

making everything a show of art,

splashes of false syllogisms, colors

that fool the senses craftily . . .

The poet suggests that the viewer should not trust their eyes. Art is a “show,” which can mean an exhibition or a pretense. Instead, they should consider the falsity of the image; it uses “colors that fool the senses” and portrays frivolity and “foolishness.” But she refers to a deeper sense of deception as well as the lighter frivolity in using “craftily” for the way the painting fools the viewer. The falsity takes the form of “syllogisms” (misleading or erroneous logical conclusions).

This one, in whom flattery pretends

to push aside the ravages of years

and conquer time's rigors

and triumph over old age and oblivion . . .

The portrait, in making the sitter look younger than her years, engages in “flattery,” which is another aspect of the falsity to which she just referred. That flattery only “pretends” to set aside the harsh effects or “ravages of years.” She uses the related militaristic metaphors of “conquer” and “triumph” to convey the aggression she sees in this falsity. The harshness of time is conveyed in strong terms; along with “ravages,” she uses “rigors” for time’s effects. In contrast to the false hope of youth and remembrance the portrait offers, she reminds the viewer of the harsh reality of “old age and oblivion.”

Is a vain artifice of care,

a fragile flower in wind,

a hopeless hiding place for fate,

a silly diligent mistake . . .

Increasing her criticism of the portrait’s misleading offerings, she points out its “vain artifice,” in the senses of being both “proud of appearance” and “futile.” She draws a contrast between the “fragile flower” and the inevitability of “fate” to emphasize the portrait’s weakness; in addition, the idea that one can “hide” from fate is “hopeless.” Returning to the idea of foolishness in line 1, she calls this a “silly” error.

a broken / urge, and, carefully observed,

is corpse, dust, shadow, nothing.

The poem ends with the inevitable extension of “old age and oblivion” from the poem’s middle. Finally, if one looks “carefully,” one must realize that a painted image is just “shadow,” and the end of physical life, or the “corpse,” is, like the end of the poem, “nothing.”

The quotations are from the translation by Pablo Medina (2010).

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