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Thursday, January 18, 2007

heart breaker, heart breaker, I want to tear your world apart

Part two of two on Velázquez. See entry of January 17, 2006 for part one.

Royal children have their own set of rules in Velázquez's work. No matter what may be happening around them, they remain preternaturally calm and unmoved, as in the painting Infante Baltasar Carlos on Horseback (1634-1635). His horse is not just galloping but leaping right out of the frame, yet the infante is completely unperturbed and does not deign to take notice of the commotions of the mundane world. Perhaps the pose was meant to imply that he would one day ride the horse of state with the same dignity and regal bearing.

And then there's the Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress (1659), a frightening painting that appears to break the rules and that genuinely broke my heart. It's a painting that shows the court painter working in a spirit of subtle critique. According to the catalogue, Margarita (the infanta from Las Meninas) was promised in marriage to her uncle, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, when she was a young child, perhaps as early as three or four. In order to keep Leopold updated on his far-off child-fiancée's development, Velázquez would paint her every few years and send the painting on to Vienna. Here she is at the age of eight—his final portrait of her.

I don't think the online reproduction captures them, but this portrait is marked by the most mournful baggy eyes I can recall seeing in a painting. Her too ruddy cheeks are given the lie by her sad, hangdog eyes. She is undoubtedly all dolled up for the occasion, but she wears the look of a frightened girl facing sexual peril but—someone please save this child—resigned to it. I can't help but think that Velázquez took a personal risk here and that the look on Margarita's face was meant as a critique of the trafficking in girls' bodies, or at least this girl's body, that constituted courtship among the Habsburgs. I don't know what else to make of a painting whose every feature but one follows the rules of royal kiddie porn, but that one feature—her painfully sad eyes—forecasts danger ahead.

But what if I'm wrong? What if seeing that critique is mere wish-fulfillment on my part? The catalogue says nothing of the sort. It does say that she died in childbirth at the age of twenty-two and that only one of her four children survived infancy, none of which I knew when seeing the painting, yet none of which proves anything.

That risk—of possibly being wrong—is a necessary part of the act of interpretation. My reading proceeded from the evidence of the painting: I based it first and foremost on what I saw and combined that with whatever other experience and knowledge I possess. I could do more research and see what turns up, or I could take the other next step: offer my reading to the public and invite conversation and critical exchange. Art and intellectualism offer many rewards, but at this moment of doubt and wonder, I keenly appreciate the joys of community and conversation that art makes possible. So, Reader, if you have anything to share about the Infanta Margarita, do feel encouraged to join in.


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