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How Students Used a 364 Year-Old Painting to Reinterpret This Moment

As part of an art history class, students reflected on “Las Meninas” to try and make sense of everything from COVID-19 to the Black Lives Matter movement
How Students Used a 364 Year-Old Painting to Reinterpret This Moment
A section of "Las Meninas" by Diego Velázquez.

Jul 22, 2020

Diego Velázquez’s famous 1656 painting  “Las Meninas” is one of the most written about artworks in history. With a multitude of characters and lots of movement, the painting is open to a variety of interpretations.

It also stands out because the artist included himself in the painting in a way where he’s staring back at the viewer as if he were painting the viewer’s portrait. This connection with the viewer, says CNM art instructor Lindsey Fromm, is why she asked her students to put themselves in the painter’s shoes and recreate the painting, any way they wanted, as part of their Art History class. 

“This is a painting that asks the viewer to see themselves in the work,” Fromm says. “You can be the viewer and part of the painting at the same time.”

The student work Fromm got back touched on everything from personal struggles to the pandemic to the current political climate. In one piece by Ashley Vigil, for example, all the characters in the original painting have been turned into silhouettes of murdered black men and women (below). Next to each character, Vigil wrote “Can’t ...” and then a phrase that relates to what the person was doing when they were murdered, such as “Can’t go jogging” next to Ahmaud Arbery, and “Can’t Sleep” next to Aiyana Jones.

Photo of artwork by Ashley Vigil

In another piece (below), student Lindsey Strong changed one key aspect of the painting. In the original, Doña Margarita Maria of Austria, the first child of Philip IV and his second wife Mariana, is being cared for by the meninas, or the ladies-in-waiting, who would accompany and attend to the young princess. In Strong’s version, however, Doña Margarita is sick and in bed.

“This painting connotes wealth, and how the wealthy young Princess has her ladies-in-waiting to serve her and provide for her every want. In this recreation the intent was to show how some things are more powerful than wealth making all men equal,” Strong wrote in her artist statement. “The current real life pandemic of COVID-19 created an equalizer to Princess Margarita’s wealth in that even though she was wealthy, she was as sickened by this virus the same as her less wealthy ladies-in-waiting.”

Photo of artwork by Lindsey Strong

Strong’s painting also shows Diego Velázquez with black circles over his eyes and a broken paint brush. “No matter the greatness of the artist, there are things of this world that can break even the most talented,” Lindsey wrote.

Going forward, Fromm says she’ll continue to use “Las Meninas” the assignment, even if we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. Whatever students are facing, she says, recreating the piece will help them think about that moment.

“Art always has and will continue to help us interpret the world in really important ways,” she says.