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Foucault, Las Meninas (abstract)

  • Michel Foucault. "Las Meninas." The Order of Things. New York: Random. 3ñ16.
IN THIS FAMOUS chapter of Foucault's seminal book, Foucault examines the painting Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor, 1656) by Spanish painter Diego Valasquez. The painting represents the artist himself at work on a large canvas, only the back of which is visible. In the front center is the princess Margarita and her maids. On a mirror hung in the background are the faces of the King and Queen, looking straight back into their reflection, or possibly looking at us, the viewers, as it were. Aside from this "reflected" image, the King and Queen are not visible to us. 
    The painting evokes the reciprocity of looking: we can look at the painting, and it in effect looks back at us. However, is it looking at us, or are we standing in the place of the King and Queen who are reflected in the mirror on the opposite wall? The value of Valasquez's painting for Foucault lies in the fact that it introduces uncertainties in visual representation at a time when the image and paintings in general were looked upon as "windows onto the world." Foucault finds that Las Meninas was a very early critique of the supposed power of representation to confirm an objective order visually. This close textual analysis is an excellent introduction to the following enveloping treatise on the "order of things." (Brent Whitmore.)

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: <http://umn.edu/home/mh/txtimbw2.html>

Comments to: mh@umn.edu

Created 23 December 1997