Almost 60 years ago this April 2020, my father, mother, and I visited for the first time EL PRADO Museum in Madrid, Spain, on one of the typical "Free Sundays" when folks like us went inside gratis to view the works of various of Spain's masters, together with those by renowned  Flemish, Dutch, and French artists collected by Spanish monarchs ever since the museum's inception in the 19th century. 

So many years away from that Sunday outing, I close my eyes and see my parents and me there, just as we had entered the room which was designed especially  and set aside for the display of Diego Velázquez 1656 masterpiece, LAS MENINAS -- usually called The Maids of Honor in English.The freehand pencil drawing just prior to the beginning of this essay shows my recollection of that Sunday museum outing.

In my memory, I have drawn my parents and me having recently entered the  LAS MENINAS Room, with a large mirror right behind us on the left wall, the large oil painting of The Maids of Honor as it hung in that room then in 1963, and a smallish doorway just to the right of my parents and me in the middle corner of this room, which we would have just come through to view the MENINAS after spending some time admiring other great works in the Prado, including Francisco de GOYA'S Dressed and Naked Majas (which I must have giggled and oggled at as a typically precocious 9-year-old);  some of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's "Virgins of the Assumption";  and of course Velázquez very ominous Christ on the Cross, to name but a few.  After all these years I vividly remember  encountering these paintings for the very first time that day, rapidly, to be sure. At breakfast earlier that morning, my father had decreed that we were going to the Prado expressly to see Las Meninas.

I am certain we must have spent a good half hour in this room, and the part that follows of these memoirs contains more or less faithfully  the dialogue which I think must have taken place among the three of us as my dad, acting out  a bit like a tour guide, explained why this large painting was so famous and consequently why we were so fortunate to be there on that Sunday.

 

As he was an eye doctor by profession, this must have been much like an anatomy lesson for him. I will explain why!

Upon arriving in the museum, a member of the staff informed us that the 1656 masterpiece was set up in a small room adjacent to its artist's other works, which we located easily. In those times during the Franco regime, this space was what we would call now an installation:  some 3 meters square, this room had a large window to the tree-lined avenue outside, Diego Velázquez's Maids of Honor on the wall to our left as the 3 of us walked in, and on an opposite wall surface, at angles it turned out to the aforesaid painting, a mirror whose size matched that of the canvas. By the end of our visit to this room, my father had shown my mother and me how the oil masterpiece was almost looking at itself in the large mirror.  My dad told us this much almost hurriedly, but of course we had no clue what this meant.   Sixty years later, I hear my mother Mercedes typically protesting to my father to explain himself: "But, Pepin, tell us why there is only one painting in this room, and why this giant mirror is here too. Pepito does not understand!"

"The mirror," complied my dad, "shows the real painting reflected in it. Look, stand here where this bench is (in the middle of the room) and look at how the painting can be seen inside the mirror. If you stand in just the right spot of the room, it seems that the mirror is a window to another world of another Las Meninas."  He let us take our positions, I am sure, and view the magical effect of the painting and its reflection, full-size, in the large mirror. "Move to the left, move to the right," my father asks us, "doesn't the world in the mirror seem  like a double of the real one?"

 But I am not going to pretend here that Pepin, at this point would have baffled us with the optical problem of why or how a mirror would flip-flop the real  Las Meninas, and show its left hand edge on the right of the reflection, etc.  My Mom, if anything, would have voiced her exasperation at so much abstraction, surely too much for me as a 9 year-old.  She might have even protested that this museum visit was too intense for us newly-arrived from Cuba  after a long trans-Atlantic flight to Madrid from a country which we had just left in very dramatic circumstances: Castro's Cuba. But, with some composure Mercedes at this point would have asked my dad to tell us more about Velázquez painting. "Sí, Pepín: Who were 'las Meninas,' which figures are they here in the painting, and why did you want us to see such a strange and dark," she stressed the last word, "painting!"

At this point, my father was almost ready to do for us the "walkthrough" that I am about to  reproduce below, 6 decades, but of course he would have sighed in exasperation, too, when his wife nabbed him with this objection: "Pero Las Meninas no eran unas princesas de la Corte de los Reyes de España? ---Weren't the Meninas the children of the Spanish Queen and King?" 

"Why, Pepín," she seemed to be accusing my father of not telling us something he knew,  "the king and queen aren't even here in the painting!  Who are  these girls here ---- are they the  Royal princesses?" 

 

Just as my father was going to answer, my mother probably quipped: "They are all ugly. Why, look at this one here next to the dog and the window on the right: she looks like a dwarf!"

"What a strange painting, Pepito. What a strange painting, Pepín, and why have they placed such a group of homely people in a huge room -- all by themselves?"

 Of course so many years have passed since 1963, and I eventually studied this and so many other  masterpieces by Diego Velázquez, during my college years.... But I have probably retained a keen and not uncritical interest in my parents themselves and what made their bond in those days, what made the bond of the THREE of us in those days, and in the years to follow, and I have not ceased asking myself to now in what way Las Meninas and my recollection of our visit to its room with the Mirror, might hold some revelations and reasons about who we were as a family at that time and later. 

 I must say, even under the data forces of WIKIPEDIA since its inception in the 2000's -- we live in many ways under its Regime -- and the baggage and passports of my own career in the visual arts, philosophy, and architectural history and drawing,  I see the charming Infanta Margarita with her monumental pose and iconic skirt shining like a sun in the center of the composition, as almost defying WIKIPEDIA and some of my best research on this work. To me she is a sort of a Spanish Mona Lisa. Not only is she the pivot of the canvas, its main fact, the other figures posing in relation to her in the group painting, this short essay purports to portray us, too, in our relations to each other in a Las Meninas orbit. A family, a canvas!

My father in the ophthalmology profession which he loved. Photo by Jim Travers of the Wilmington Delaware Evening Journal, in 1969. 

 

But be this as it may, let me turn here to this curious photo of my father, José Ignacio GRAVE DE PERALTA Ibarzábal, born in Bayamo, Cuba, in 1917, and who was an eye physician by profession, and therefore interested in seeing and in ways to correct problems of vision. My doctor father studied not painting but his medical career at the University of Maryland, in Baltimore,  to subsequently excersise the profession alongside his father José Senior (his nickname "Muso"), at 305 Calle Independencia back in our native Camagüey. This period lasted until our family separated and my dad ventured to the U.S. during the 1960s of the Cold War.  While Muso was a graduate of the University of Havana, already prestigious in the early 20th-century, his son's specialization as surgeon of ophthalmology from Philadelphia's renowned Jefferson College, shortly after World War II. 

 

In 1963 -- the Sunday when he took my mother and me to see Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez ! -- we are fast-forwarding in the past now !  --the three of us had just arrived in Spain from Havana, hoping to meet my sisters Maria and Patricia, whom we had not seen in almost 3 years,  in the United States.  Our journey of our reunification had been a little espionage story in its own right, with the intervention of not only the Ambassador to Cuba from Madrid, but of this diplomat's stunning, redhaired Cuban lover, who was a beautician in Havana's art deco HOTEL CAPRI, and who would have puffed up my Mom's hair in the early 1960s style that she wore almost to her dying day, ironically in King's Court Rehab in Miami.  Anyhow, no sooner had my mom teased out of the red, hot cubana beautician her amorous liason with the Spanish minister, I can see her looking at the attractive redhead through the mirror, and asking her if we could meet him one day. 

 

Before we knew it, not more than 2 days later the almost elderly, dignified Ambassador of Spain in Castro's Cuba, was smiling at my parents across several tables of the Capri breakfast room, and stopping by our station on his way to the door to shake my hand with my parents' nodding approval and to ask me my name and age.  "So, since your son is over 7, he is not entitled to order eggs or milk, is he?" The next day the hotel waiter was treating us like foreign dignitaries and bringing the Pepito who is writing this, plenty of the forbidden items on the Communist rationing book, which of course he shared with my smiling mother and incredulous dad.  One thing, in fact, led to another, and the white-haired, blue-eyed diplomat was welcoming us to his office at the Embassy, and with a jovial gesture signing our 3 official VISAS to travel to Spain so we could reunite with my sisters in the U.S.  At some point my mother must have engineered in the beauty salon what was essentially the smuggling of a few golden rings and gem-studded pieces of ladies' jewlery belong to her and to one of my aunts, by way of official diplomatic conducts and other  becharmed  forces that had their origin in the still elegant mirrored rooms of the Capri Hotel.  For their sentimental and eventual resale value, these smuggled jewels would have been more than gold to us, and so when I think of how they got their Visa to travel out, this still makes me smile. My mother and her beauty parlors!

 

When my father made the difficult decision 3 years before to send out my adolescent sisters to the United States, for reasons connected to Castro's imposition of a ridiculous "military age" and his abolition of all private education -- there was in Cuba among the middle class a reign of terror brought about by the impending abolition in the new Castro constitution of the Roman Code clause regarding parental authority, patria potestad. My my, I will always remember hearing this somewhat frightening legal term for the first time in my grandparents' porch:  patria potestad  sounded to me like the thump one would hear in a black&white movie about the end of the world.  I must have been about 6 or 7 then, but I quickly found myself preferring to playing Cowboys with my cousins or riding bicycles in the neighborhood park, these adult -- and political --  conversation sessions in our grandparents' little grand Portal.   Somehow I think my mom's overprotective approval of my "intelligence," as she called it, formed a kind of shield around me so I could occasionally sit on one of the balances left vacant by an adult, and softly sway there. This, then was the backdrop to our family, both immediate and greater, eventually separating and leaving the country.  Years later I would fill in the blanks and learn that simultaneously to those conversations our private Catholic schools were being ordered to close down, small neighborhood grocery stores were being confiscated, and people's marches with Cuban and Soviet flags were broadcast for hours on all 3 channels of Cuban television to complement and celebrate Fidel Castro's ever-longer, politicallyangry speeches. This would also be the backdrop, of course, to our family visit to The Prado Museum, free to the public on those Sundays in Franco's Spain. But there was more background material.

 

Just a few months after a short family automobile trip to Santiago de Cuba and the shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, in the eastern part of the island,  our life radically showed the consequences of the forces I had heard about in the grandparent's porch.  My overunderage sisters and cousins were sent out of Cuba, to escape the consequences of the new "military" age for all males and females from 14 years of age, in essence forcing young people to leave their family homes and go cut sugar cane or plant potatoes in the fields as they chanted new political slogans and studied their math and history lessons with new state-authorized texts.  Under several  Catholic/U.S.State Department programs named Operation Peter Pan,  the bourgeois, Middle-class Cuba of my parents and grandparents' time, countered the Communist Cuba changes in education which at heart disempowered any parents' claims of patria potestad. .... So when my parents had reached Spain, thanks to the Spanish visa, and one other dangerous escape route which I will discuss later, my sisters were anxiously waiting for us in Florida and certainly in almost every other discovery we made about Las Meninas and Diego Velázquez. x

 

Well, ours was not the typical Grand Tour visit to a major European site -- like that of aristocratic people of culture like Wolfgang von Goethe or Thomas Jefferson in the 18th Century.  Dictator Francisco Franco's Spain was still a Medieval world in many ways, despite the grand movie billboards and the outdoor caffe elegance of the Gran Via, and the pension where we first found inexpensive lodging was anything but regal or romantic. Yes, the famous Ava Gardner, we heard, was in town filming  The Fall of the Roman Empire, but my parents and I had little money and we were getting used to the new used winter coats smelling of moth repellent from the Refugee Center --- so our angst of exile would have made our entrance to the Prado Museum exceptional in ways I am only now beginning to appreciate.  But be this short essay and my humble drawings a tribute to the three of us with our political and almost religious baggage, and to how readily we proceeded to transform our situation into one of learning and bonding. 

 

By June of 1963, we had reunited  my siblings and settled in Wilmington, Delaware. But this time there was no beauty parlor, or buxom curves that my mother could work with. The last days in Cuba and even the Madrid sojourn had taken their toll. Plus now we had to seek help in  Miami, Florida, and not with a Spanish Ambassador and his redhaired lover or even people with whome we could discuss Las Meninas! Miami was Ellis Island for us Cuban refugees in the early 1960s. Therefore before returning full-circle to where this story began, in Madrid, I have to say a thing or two about two cities without which I would not be sitting here today remembering all this:  Miami and Wilmington, Delaware.  

 

Enter my Aunt Eva and her husband Miguelito, in Cuba a dentist, who was working at a gas station in South Florida, and whose innocuous little 2-bedroom bungalo in the Northwest area of Miami -- surrounded outside by Poincianas, hibiscus, and stately Royal Palms -- was refugee for my parents, 2 sisters, and me, plus for about ten other relatives, mostly of Miguelito, constantly coming and going to their school or place of work during the day, or so it seemed to me.  The atmosphere of Evita's bungalo during the day bordered on mayhem, as each one waited their turn to use the toilet of take a shower.  Suitcases and sleeping cots lined the little hallway like the corridor of an Emergency Room,  the little Florida house was full way beyond capacity with us and other newly-arrived relatives from our native Camagüey. Beyond the bathing schedule, tabulating dinner times and menus, plus sleeping arrangements for the 15 or more of us in these cramped little tropical quarters left my aunt and uncle exhausted by the end of the day.   One of our cousins, in fact, confided to us other children that she could hear Aunt Evita sometimes screaming "Ah! Ah! Ah!" in the dead of night in desperation, even though in the morning, in all her composure, she would say when she was having her coffee that she had slept like a sloth.  In the brief time we stayed at Aunt Eva's my mother and I accompanied my father a number of times to Miami's "Freedom Tower" at the Cuban Refugee Center downtown,to gather up used clothes or bring canned corn meal, powdered milk, and canned meat to feed Eva's Noah's Ark-likehousehold.  One day when the Miami summer heat and the canned carne del Refugio began to weigh on us 5 Peraltas, my father came hoe from his Refugee Center expedition with the news that he and another friend from Camagüey had been interviewed by a lady named Anne Marcial  who  spearheaded an effort by her parish, Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville, Delaware, member of the World Council of Churches, to relocate Cuban refugees to the  Delaware area.

"Delaware?  Where is Delaware, Pepín???" my mother cried, and I heard in her voice the same tone of exasperation she had first voiced when we stood in the center of the room of  Las Meninas, looking at the huge mirror. But my dad raved about this Anne Marcial. "She's charming and speaks Spanish, Mercedes, and was married til recently to a Spaniard named Carlos whom she doesn't stop talking about."  My mother of course quieted down, and paid attention when Pepin went on, in his typically calming manner; "Wilmington is right near Baltimore where I studied medicine! We went near there on our honeymoon.   It is like Baltimore, very green and beautiful."  I even felt that he wanted to say We will be happy there, but he shied from such dramatic statements because he knew this was not the way to make Mercedes. It was too much like her own voice and type of persuasion. So, 4 or 5 years later when the photograph at the top of this page was published in the Wilmington Evening Journal, journalist  Jim Travers made the case that our family's remarkable relocation to the U.S. had been a success. To put it another way, when my mother gave in and happily thanked her sister Evita for their 2-month hospitality in their holy Ark,  she coiffed her hair to fly with us and another Cuban family to Wilmington, and she told Anne Marcial and the Richard King family from Christ Episcopal -- in tears -- that she  believed we would be very happy there as a family, but adding : "Now that we have lost Cuba!"  In in the Wilmington Evening Journal article, the journalist wisely paraphrased my father's word choice and attributed his sense of accomplishment to his physician's love for both ophthalmology and freedom.  

 

"Dr. Jose Peralta," reads the newspaper caption, "Wilmington ophthalmologist, adjusts an eyelamp in his office.... He is one of the successful Cuban refugees in the Wilmington area."  When I look at him pictured in the setting of his medical office, I am sure he did not let on to the mild-mannered journalist much of the marital drama that laced my parents' pursuit of freedom or his own success as a Wilmington ophthalmologist. And I doubt he would have told Travers how he had coaxed my mom Mercedes and me to see Velázquez Las Meninas in the Madrid Museum, freshly off the airplane from Havana. The most I can guess -- and hear -- the reporter asking Dr. Peralta right before he snapped the picture if  his only son would follow him and study medicine one day!  Pepin, of course, in his genteel demeanor would have looked almost kindly at the journalist, and replied: "I don't know. Only time will tell."

Finding Vista Hermosa

 

A Vista Hermosa is a beautiful sight to behold, but it is also the name of the suburban community that our parents called home in our provincial Camagüey when my sisters and I were born.  In the early 1950s my mother's father, Francisco Don, purchased with a partner several acres of unused farmland along the southern edge of the city and developed them into an American-style residential grid. Our back yard full of mango and avocado trees connected with the grandparents' home, and other houses in their part of Vista Hermosa aligned themselves in like fashion with those of siblings or grandparents. This may illustrate why when I first heard, as a 7-year-old child, the term patria potestad, which in the words of my uncle the attorney, the Cuban Revolution could use to take children from their parents, I felt that our world was coming to an end and that all I wanted to do at the end of the afternoon was run to hear more and more about this debacle in that porch facing Vista Hermosa's spacious Calle Tres.  And I recall how one evening, while one could still see the sidewalks and hedges clearly along the front yard, when one of my aunts or uncles objected that these were exaggerations and that things were going to improve with the Castro government, my uncle the attorney, Paquito, leaned forward in his rocker and said, pointing out: "Those tracks left there on the street by the tanks when Castro's Rebels paraded right here in front of the house just after they took over the city, are tracks of Russian tanks! And just as in Hungary in '56 when the people tried to rebel the Soviets stopped them with their tanks, Cuba will be another Hungary, and life will never be the same here!" Uncle Paquito's prophecy left everyone in silence, and from that point on, perhaps, the soft family mythology in the names Vista Hermosa, that utopia, and indigenous Camagüey, pure romanticism, showed a scar.  Ah yes, when my maternal grandparents who hosted their rocking-chair tertulias closed their house on Calle 3 and moved with us to Wilmington in the late 1960s, he, especially, pined for his Paradise Lost. 

 

At this point, though, and perhaps in dad-like fashion avoiding the tears, I need to scroll up this very page and insert my hand inside his newspaper photograph  and take several lenses for my eyelamp here in Rome. Here I go. And as I do so, lo and behold we are in the Prado Museum ... in the very room with the famous mirror where Dr. and Mrs. Peralta have just arrived to view the Infanta Margarita and her Maids holding their poses for court painter Diego Velázquez  ! 

 

 

 

 

We are lucky. The three of us are alone in this room where the painting and the mirror are. Remember, it is 1963.

 

But the color-pencil illustration we are looking at here, from 2020,  is allowing us, in some way, to hold an eyelamp to 1963.

Let's see and hear my father. "Go stand there where the bench is, Pepe," he says, addressing me in the more grownup version of my nickname. "Stand there and look at Las Meninas on the right, in the real painting on this wall. And now look at the girls' reflection in this mirror!" 

 

 

With his hand on my shoulder, my father gently pushes me closer to the canva and explains in a matter-of-fact tone, as he points to the tall figure with beard and mustache standing on the left, "That is the artist himself, Pepito, the Painter. Look at him there; do you see him, Pepito; Diego Velázquez; do you see him here standing in the painting?  He is holding his brush and his palette. Look at how he tilts his head, maybe to see better. But what or who is he looking at? Do you see, Pepe,  to paint himself there inside his painting he must have had a huge mirror in front of him, turned toward him and the rest of the people in the room."

 

"But look, you two," Pepín is now addressing Pepito and his mother, "the room where he and Las Meninas are standing is so large, he would have needed a mirror as large as the one in this room here in the Prado, to see everyone. " We are silent.  "This was that mirror!"

But, Reader,  this where the plot thickens and where things got pretty tough for my father the eye physician and for him as husband of a lady like Mercedes. Yes, he had the canvas  to work with. And the 1963 mirror installation. He might have, oh yes, he might have said: "Do you see how Diego Velázquez is standing next to the back of a large framed thing, shaped like a tall triangle almost,  and he is looking at us as he paints?  How did he know what he looked like as he stood there, what would he need to paint Las Meninas, who were next to him, but not in front of him where he would need them to stand so he could paint them? Even the dog!" my father would have paused.  "To paint what the dog looked like, wouldn't the artist have needed a mirror?" Well, I can't be sure now, but in April 1963  Dr. Peralta might have been reading from a museum chart or leaflet of some sort  to introduce my mother and me to the figures in the canvas. 

In 2020, my father may not be here, but as his mouthpiece or medium in this story, I have had to pick up my pencils and sketchbook to turn the words  that he was saying as he showed us the great masterpiece 60 years ago, figure by figure, into something that made sense. This is what the Wilmington journalist may have asked my father about at the end of the interview. The series of freehand drawings in this page are my reading of his reading. My vision of his vision that Sunday. My eyelamp and choice of lenses to bring into focus our vision that Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silence again and Mercedes and I take in just this part of the work.

"Look at the mirror here in this room that we are in.  Here in The Prado.  Couldn't this have been the same mirror that Diego Velazquez used?" my father asks with wonder and excitement as I seldom heard in his voice.

My mother and young Pepito are quiet. She might be fixing her dark hair, her calobar sunglasses, or her  favorite, wide 1950s skirt that she brought from Cuba. Her favorite, carefully chosen, since travel restrictions there only allowed individuals leaving the Island to carry 3 sets of clothes.

Who knows what the boy is fidgeting with. At this point he might be looking from the mirror to the canvas, and to the mirror again. Or feeling curious as to the names and roles of the other figures in the canvas, the boy turns to his father questioningly, and asks him to continue. 

"Who was this Infanta Margarita?" the boy addresses his father, now raising his voice so that two other tourists in the room look towards us disapprovingly.   

 

"Shhh--- she has a story, Pepe. She was Spanish but she was born who was born in Austria, another European country. Although she is the Infanta, or the Princess, people call all three of them Las Meninas!  And, look, the three girls and Velázquez are the center, the most important part of the painting," my father concludes triumphantly. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mercedes and I were quiet.

"Pepito tiene hambre, he is hungry, Pepín," protests Mercedes, and as fond as she was of wide skirts, tall hairdos, and stories about love affairs, she would have added in her dramatic way, some remark about her Meninas who, "anyway, were more beautiful than those three girls in this famous painting!" Although in Portuguese the word is the plain equivalent of "young girls,"  Meninas in Spanish is a highly formal, almost stilted and archaic way of referring to young females.   

 

Here I am guessing at things hard to gage with my eyelamp  as I think about that 9-year-old boy in those days and in those circumstances. Heaven knows he was being battered by own dreams and fears, back and forth, back and forth between Vista Hermosa and the word exile juxtaposed on the rocking chairs. Who knows he may have heard in the swoosh of the windblown leaves of the trees outside that open window in the Prado, some of the cadences of the several smaller, simultaneous conversations that could suddenly hover over each other or intertwine themselves with his grandmother's jovial announcement that Julia would soon be bringing out the gaseosa to cool everyone off.   Those porches of old and new Camagüey, which had heralded for him perhaps too many events before they happened -- but they happened -- they were here in The Museo del Prado.

 

 

 

Epilogue -- Of sorts  

"But over and beyond these central figures and the dozing dog here to the right of the canvas," Pepin consults the leaflet in his hand and continues explaining, "there are a couple of adults in the room, perhaps looking over the children."

 

"Papi, is one of those two adults a nun? Why was is there a nun there?"  Knowing my father, he would have given me a short, not too specific answer about the nun's hairpiece and told me that this was not so important, and he would have told me to pay attention to the back of the room.

 

"Do you see how deep and dark the room is? Velazquez  was such a good painter that he could use his brush and his colors to paint what seems like real space and distance."

 

"But let's see what is back there," the eye-doctor in my father would have asked. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"See! Here on the center of that back wall, but towards the right a man in a dark suit is going up some stairs. And here to the left, just behind Velázquez painting, is a painting of 2 people. A painting...--"

"But wait!" Mercedes interrupts with a mixture of excitement and exasperation:   "There is a painting of two people inside this painting?   Who are they? Why can't we see them clearly or tell who they are?" Couldn't he explain all this?

"Do you see two figures in a large framed picture in the back? Next to the figure of a man going up the stairs?"

Mercedes and I were quiet.

"Pepito tiene hambre, he is hungry, Pepín," says Mercedes again. 

"The man and woman," finally clearing his voice he explains to my mother,  "are standing under what seems like a little red triangle-shape cloth in the corner of their frame." She and I listen and look.

"That small triangle is in their frame," my father must have gone on. "Ese es el misterio del cuadro: one of the mysteries of the painting!"  And maybe, just maybe, my mother would have ventured this phrase: "They are the Queen and King. The parents of the girls." 

 

Mercedes looks from the picture in the painting to my father, as she circles to the other side of the bench in the middle of the Prado room, making a flying sound with her skirt, as he tilts his head, Velázquez-like,  and whispers this lament to her so I wouldn't hear him:     "Mi hija." 

 

To metaphysicians and art experts like Michel Foucault who have written pages on Velázquez's Meninas those 2 figures in that distant mirror or frame are the most pivotal element in the entire painting. That last hanging frame detail, on the back wall of the large room, located immediately to the right of the Painter,  might indeed be not a hanging portrait but a mirror reflection of the King and Queen who have casually entered the room where Velazquez is in the act of painting Las Meninas and the rest of the court figures. In short, the composition may be or sum up  in a casual, scientific way, the view or vista of  the room, just at the moment when the monarchs entered and passed through the room almost silently, unannounced. If this is the case, they would have been looking at this view or vista from where we are today if we are fortunate to visit the Prado, or from where my parents and I stood just next to the bench, in the middle of the room.  We and the King and Queen are one, caught in the very act of vision and of looking. Looking. Seeing. La Vista that my father would have been so fascinated by all of his life!

 

Perhaps my parents  identified more than I realized with everyone in the painting that we had gone to see. Forget Las Majas de GOYA, or El CRISTO  de Velázquez.  In Madrid, they were having deep second thoughts about leaving their land, or finding a new Vista Hermosa outside of Cuba.  The fact that there were no thrones, scepters, and crowns in the entire picture, moreover, as surely my mother remarked at some point, this sort of plainsclothes version of royalty, or of a royal court of characters in reverse, turned inside out ... made it to us that much more familiar. 

**********

The 6 Freehand Drawings steps of the making and reading of Las Meninas, as my father the eye physician might have wished me to describe not just the painting, but our visit there to the inside of the painting these 60 years into the future.

 

 

  

 

"Do you see how Diego Velázquez is standing next to the back of a large framed thing, shaped like a tall triangle almost,  and he is looking at us as he paints?  

 

"How did he know what he looked like as he stood there, with that great Red Cross on his black tunic?"

 

"If not for the mirror, which would have stood more or less where we are here in the room, he may not have been able to paint this huge work!"

Silence

 

"And now look at one of the Meninas here in profile, and the great Young Princess there with the wide, hooped skirt on the right? 

"That is Princess Margarita. She is the most illuminated part of the entire painting!"

Step 1 : the Canvas back and the Painter
Step 3 : the Canvas, the Painter, la Infanta and the Meninas, the dog, the Dwarf, and the Buffoon
Step 5 : the Canvas, the Painter, la Infanta and the Meninas, the dog, the Dwarf, the Buffoon. and two adult court attendants  to the right, the hanging portrait of the King or Queen in the back, and the silhouette figure on the stairs
Step 2 : the Canvas, the Painter, la Infanta and the Meninas
Step 4 : the Canvas, the Painter, la Infanta and the Meninas, the dog, the Dwarf, the Buffoon. and two adult court attendants  to the right
Step 6 : the Canvas, the Painter, la Infanta and the Meninas, the dog, the Dwarf, the Buffoon. and two adult court attendants  to the right, the hanging portrait of the King or Queen in the back, and the silhouette figure on the stairs, plus several large canvases hanging high on the back wall.
El Cristo de Velázquez
The real Las Meninas de Velázquez