By Greg Holden
Image by © The Gallery Collection/Corbis

It is essential to view Las Meninas from different angles because it is a representation of a representation of a painting.”
—Philippe Desan

Like a set of Russian dolls, one inside the other, Las Meninas has posed a puzzle for viewers since Diego Velázquez painted it in the 17th century. For second- and third-year College students studying European civilization, the masterpiece proved to be both text and metaphor, helping them interpret a single scene from many different viewpoints.

Together with Philippe Desan, the Howard L. Willett Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures, History of Culture and the College, the students traveled last winter to Spain, where they could get a first-hand look at Las Meninas and other classic pieces of art, while plunging into the everyday life of a different culture.

“Actually being in the presence of the painting and other adjacent paintings provides insights you wouldn’t get from books,” says Desan, who is also on the faculty of the Committee on History of Culture and the College.

“It is essential to view Las Meninas from different angles because it is a representation of a representation of a painting. Our class covered the period between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, so being at the Prado Museum in Madrid illuminated our discussions about the development of the modern concept of the individual in Europe. That, in fact, is the subject of the painting itself.”

An occasion for self-discovery

For fourth-year Margaret Yopes, the course became an occasion for self-discovery.

“Descartes’ and Rousseau’s texts, and Picaresque novels like Don Quixote reveal how we define ourselves through opposition with an ‘Other,’ ” she says. “Having stimulating discussions based on these philosophical writings while I was living among, in essence, the ‘Other’ was remarkable for me personally. It illuminated characteristics and habits about myself that I couldn’t see until I was living among people who did not share them.”

Being able to evaluate art in their home museums and walk the streets where great artists and thinkers lived had an immediate impact on fourth-year Gerald Waddell.

“For me, the idea of the creation of identity through opposition with an ‘Other’ hit home, not by viewing paintings at the Prado, but by living abroad and experiencing the opposition first-hand. I felt more American while living abroad because I saw how Europeans labeled me, as well as having to defend my American identity. I don’t think this opposition helped me feel more like an individual, but rather more like part of a group,” he says.

Fourth-year Kate Casey found other unexpected benefits in encountering the subject first-hand.

“Seeing the painting in person was phenomenal,” she says. “The scale is so large that you are able to incorporate yourself as part of the scene. You get caught up in the details. The museum arranged the painting as part of the royals’ own collection of art, which captured the essence of the time period and made the experience really compelling.”

When the class traveled to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona to view a series of 1957 works that Pablo Picasso based on Las Meninas, students gathered information as they broke down the meaning of the pieces.

Contextual art and cultural history

“At the University of Chicago, you can’t talk about one thing without a comparative equivalent to it. So students really got into playing with important ideas. It was possible to have fantastic discussions because so many of Picasso’s paintings were in the same room,” says Desan.

Going to primary sources is a central aspect of a Chicago education, and Desan has found that something powerful happens to students who see objects in their original context.

“When we can relate materially to a culture, it becomes not a bookish concept, but a tangible thing. Through education, and through cultural exchange and travel, these students realized that we all live in the same world,” he says. “I could see their minds enlarge.”