8. Poussin and Velazquez

Issues of Representation





“Velazquez … creates a void where the sovereigns would have been that is filled by the viewer instead. When viewers occupy this void, they are able to meet the eyes of the sovereigns in the mirror, and this gaze helps the viewer to realize that he or she is standing in their place.”

Art theorist Hienrich Wölfflin’s five principles of art history distinguish sixteenth-century Classical art from seventeenth-century Baroque art. These principles note a shift in method and style of artists from one century to the next and influenced subsequent art theorists to acknowledge art techniques as typical of a certain historical style. Erwin Panofsky and Louis Marin acknowledge Wölfflin’s distinctions in their discussion of Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds by stating that the painting reverts back to the Classical style. However, their analyses then take different paths. Panofsky takes an iconological approach to Poussin’s work. An iconological approach looks at a piece of art and relates it to the time in which it was produced. Panofsky analyzes the techniques used in Poussin’s painting that are common to the Classical style and discusses what this reveals about Poussin’s era. Marin also acknowledges Wölfflin’s principles, but, unlike Panofsky, his approach to Poussin’s painting remains iconographical and does not stray into iconological analysis. The iconographical approach focuses on the painting itself and its formal qualities. Marin looks at the formal qualities that Wölfflin acknowledges as being common to the Classical style and his analysis centres on how an economy of gazes conveys meaning about Poussin’s painting to the spectator. What Marin’s analysis of Poussin’s painting shows is that an iconographical approach, which focuses on the economy of gazes among the figures and the spectator, uncovers a truth about painting in general: all painting is an exploration of its own medium. Painting is about painting, and, thus, paintings are not limited to one “message.” Moving on from Poussin, Marin’s iconographical approach can be applied to Velazquez’s Las Meninas, a composition where the economy of gazes signals that it is a painting about the act of painting. Foucault’s theorization of Las Meninas provides a crucial point of departure for my own iconographical analysis of the painting: Velazquez’s Las Meninas can be interpreted as a painting that explores issues of representation by being itself a representation of a representation.

In “Principles of Art History” (1915), Hienrich Wölfflin concentrates on situating painting historically. He differentiates between Classical painting of the sixteenth century and Baroque painting of the seventeenth century, with the use of five principles. The principle that received the most recognition from subsequent art theorists was Wölfflin’s second principle. It notes the development from the lateral arrangement of forms in sixteenth century painting to the use of the vanishing point in the seventeenth century (Wölfflin 116). Wölfflin’s categories culminate in a discussion of unity, which he believes both centuries strived for, but achieved in different ways: the Classical combination of independent components and the Baroque painting being one main component (122).

In “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition” (1936), Panofsky acknowledges Wölfflin in his discussion of three paintings: Guercino’s Et in Arcadia Ego, painted in 1618-22 (fig. 8.1), and two subsequent versions of the same scene by Poussin called The Arcadian Shepherds. The first painting was executed in 1627 (fig. 8.2) and the second in 1638-9. Panofsky’s analysis of these paintings notes a shift in representation over time, recognizing Poussin’s second version as typical of the Classical style: “it is in harmony with the principles of Classicist art theory, which rejected ‘les objets bizarres,’ especially such gruesome objects as a death’s-head” (Panofsky 258). Panofsky’s application of Wölfflin to Poussin leads into an iconological analysis of the Arcadian Shepherds when Panofsky asks what the iconography used in Poussin’s paintings illustrates about the time periods in which they were painted. Panofsky interprets Poussin’s move from Baroque back to Classical representation as a reflection of the shift in attitudes towards death in French society at the time: “It is consistent with the more relaxed and less fearful spirit of a period that had triumphantly emerged from the spasms of the Counter Reformation” (257).

Panofsky asserts that Poussin’s first version of the scene copies Guercino’s Et in Arcadia Ego (Ibid.). He explains this statement by noting that Poussin’s first painting maintains the same drama and surprise, a similar motif of the skull, and conveys an identical moral message that warns against avarice and reminds the viewer of the inevitability of death (Ibid). Poussin’s second adaptation, on the other hand, contains no element of surprise and no moral message (Panofsky 258). Panofsky argues that this work depicts a group of Arcadians engaged in “calm discussion and pensive contemplation” (Ibid.). His iconological analysis of Poussin’s painting explores the shift from a fearful confrontation with death to a calm contemplation of death.

Marin also recognizes Wölfflin in his 1980 article “Toward a Theory of Reading in the Visual Arts: Poussin’s ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’” when he notes that Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds has been “interpreted historically as a move from a Baroque organization to a Classical one” (Marin 271). Marin’s application of Wölfflin’s second principle to Poussin’s painting observes a shift from the depth in Poussin’s original to a more linear arrangement of figures in the second work (Ibid). Marin takes his application of Wölfflin further than Panofsky. He declares that the shift from Classical to Baroque seen in the comparison of Poussin’s two paintings is made possible by the displacement of the vanishing point from the “deep visible structure of perspective […] to the central point of the legible foreground […],” and the distribution of figures into a frieze of “two symmetrical groups where the equivalence of the viewpoint and the vanishing point appears simply reversed” (Ibid.) He elaborates that “the viewpoint of the formal representational network becomes the starting point and the final point of the represented story, and the vanishing point becomes the central event, the moment of representation that is the focus of the story” (Ibid.) Marin’s iconographical approach argues that the shift from recessional organization to plane organization in Poussin’s second version emphasizes what is being represented in the painting, which is the internal thought processes of the figures (Wölfflin 116). This is indicated by how the figures are arranged symmetrically around the tombstone. Marin’s discussion of this exchange among the figures causes him to separate himself from the iconological analysis initiated by Panofsky. Instead, he focuses more on the iconographical and whether or not the economy of looks between the figures effectively communicates the painting’s message to the spectator without the use of cultural and historical associations.

Marin argues that the figures in Poussin’s painting purposely do not look at the viewer in order to better convey that they are contemplating the message of death that is being represented to them (Marin 266). Marin notes that “the shepherd on the extreme left […] is looking at his kneeling companion. […] Iconically, he emits the kneeling man as a visual object while the shepherd on the right points to that same man and the woman beside him ‘receives’ that object by looking at him” (Marin 269). Marin continues, writing that once the woman looks at the kneeling figure, “we may interpret her gaze simultaneously as a way of closing the model and as an enigmatic answer in the dialogue that the figures are involved in” (Ibid). The exchange of looks between the figures in Poussin’s painting creates a system that is closed off from the viewer and communicates a message: the kneeling figure is repeating the implications of the tombstone to the other figures by pointing at the inscription. In his analysis, Marin asks the question that paintings ask in some sense: “what does it mean ‘to represent’?” (Marin 270). The gestures and exchange of gazes between and among the figures are centered on the “story of enunciation, or of representation,” therefore, “what is represented is the very process of representation” (Marin 272). According to Marin, the kneeling figure carries out the same function as the viewer in that he “beholds, reads, ‘speaks’ the written text on the tomb,” just as we, as the viewers, would “behold, read, ‘speak’ the painting” (Marin 270). In this sense, the kneeling figure represents a representation; he communicates (represents) the function of a painting (representation). Marin analyzes Poussin’s painting without reference to cultural and historical content and considers the broader concept of the function of painting as a medium.

Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656) (fig. 8.3) is one of the most difficult paintings to decipher, but it can too be interpreted as a painting about painting. Michel Foucault’s discussion of Las Meninas is a production of an iconographical interpretation. Contrary to Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds, a “closed system” where the viewer is not acknowledged by the figures, Foucault states that Las Meninas “reaches out to us ineluctably, and links us to the representation of the picture” (Foucault 402). However, in the same way as the viewer is “greeted by that gaze, [he or she is] also dismissed by it,” since the artist is looking at the space in which the viewer stands, and therefore, the viewer is replaced by the model because he or she is standing in the place where the artist’s model would stand (Ibid.).


Foucault points out that the large canvas on the extreme left, since we can only see its back, prevents the viewer from knowing what the artist sees (Foucault 406). The mirror opposite the viewer, on the wall at the back of the room, presents the possibility of revealing what the canvas keeps secret (Foucault 405), but none of the figures in the painting are looking at the mirror, and the mirror reflects nothing that is represented within the painting (Foucault 407). Thus, this representation is “visible yet indifferent to every gaze” (Ibid). The man in the doorway is also treated with indifference by the rest of the figures in the painting and his gaze is projected to the other side of the scene where we stand as viewers (Ibid.). Five of the eight figures in the foreground are looking straight out towards the viewer (this includes the artist) (Foucault 408). The princess’s gaze is the most prominent since it is emphasized by her centrality (Ibid.). The mirror is a “superimposition of the model’s gaze as it is being painted, of the spectator’s as he contemplates the painting, and of the painter’s as he is composing his picture” (Foucault 410). The place where the viewer is standing is the starting point that makes the representation possible (Ibid.). Therefore, the exchange of looks between the figures in Las Meninas is between the five figures looking at the viewer, the viewer looking at the mirror (in order to make sense of the artist’s gaze), and the figures in the mirror looking back at the viewer.

According to Foucault, the painting “accepts as many models as there are spectators; […] the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange” (Foucault 402). The mirror reveals the identity of the recipients of the artist’s gaze: the King and Queen. The viewer and the sovereigns observe each other. Foucault’s iconographical interpretation of Velazquez’s painting reaches the same conclusion as did Marin about Poussin’s painting. That is, he suggests that Velazquez’s painting is a representation of a representation. Foucault states that this “representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being” (Foucault 411). Velazquez, in limiting the inclusion of the King and Queen to a reflection in a mirror, creates a void where the sovereigns would have been that is filled by the viewer instead. When viewers occupy this void, they are able to meet the eyes of the sovereigns in the mirror, and this gaze helps the viewer to realize that he or she is standing in their place. The position of the King and Queen allows the viewer to see the scene as it would have been seen from the eyes of the sovereigns: a scene in which the artist is caught in the moment of representation. The scene depicted in the painting represents the artist in the act of representing.

Marin and Foucault’s iconographical analyses shed light on the fact that painting is always self-referential, since artists are always trying to find new ways to exploit the medium. Marin explores how the exchange of looks in Poussin’s painting helps to convey that a representation of death (signified by the inscription) is being related to the figures in the image. The exchange of looks in Velazquez’s painting focuses on the artist and his task. By maintaining an analysis that focuses on iconography and the formal elements of painting, Marin and Foucault reveal that a painting can convey more than one message. Paintings can take on different meanings depending what the viewer infers about the cultural and historical background in which the work was created; the viewer engages in an iconological analysis of the painting in this sense because he or she is relating it to history. An iconographical analysis of a painting’s formal qualities reveals that conclusions can be drawn about a painting by looking outside of the painting itself. Nonetheless, the fact remains that painting consistently explores the functions of its own medium. Looking at iconographical qualities of Velazquez’s Las Meninas leads to such a conclusion and adds a new dimension of meaning to the painting that can be appreciated on a universal level.



Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Las Meninas.” In The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Clive Cazeaux. New York: Routledge, 2000. 401-11. Print.

Marin, Louis. “Toward a Theory of Reading in the Visual Arts: Poussin’s ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’”. In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Donald Prezoisi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 263-75. Print.

Panofsky, Erwin. “‘Et in Arcadia Ego’: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition.” In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Donald Prezoisi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 257-62. Print.

Wölfflin, Hienrich. “Principles of Art History.” In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Donald Prezoisi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 115 – 126. Print.



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Andrea Dixon is a fourth year student completing an Honors Specialization in Art History and Criticism at the University of Western Ontario. Next year, she hopes to go on into the Continuing Studies diploma program in Gallery and Art Museum Practices.