Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Infanta and I

This is a detail of Velazquez's "The Maids Of Honor," a portrait of the family of Philip IV of Spain--you can see him and the Queen reflected in the mirror in the back of the painting--and their daughter, the Infanta Margarita Teresa, surrounded by her attendants.

I am posting this picture because--despite my lack of royal blood and blond hair--the little Infanta's pose and the look on her face remind me powerfully of the way I felt as a child.

There she stands, the sun around whom a planetary system of adults (including the greatest painter ever) revolves. I love the way the Infanta turns her head away from the kneeling woman who is holding her hand, trying to get her attention, saying "Look, here are Mommy and Daddy!" as the King and Queen make their appearance. Even though the Infanta's eyes are obediently turned towards the attendant, or perhaps towards her parents, her face is turned towards...the dog! The dog and the little page who is playfully putting a foot on his back. (Sorry, this detail only shows the page's foot.)

One of the Infanta's hands is imprisoned by the maid of honor, and the other one rests limply on the shelf-like armature that holds up her skirt. She would like to play with or at least pet the dog, but she is prevented by the three maids who follow her wherever she goes, and by a skirt as broad as she is tall. Is there really a skinny little five-year-old body inside that cage? Does she ever get to run full tilt down the palace corridors, her blond mane streaming behind?

It would be easy to make the little Infanta into an icon of the abused child. But she doesn't look unhappy to me. To me she looks...nonplussed. I know the look because I felt the feeling. Nonplussed and perplexed is how I felt most the time, until I turned fourteen. Continuously surrounded by a circle of attentive adults (I was the only grandchild in both my mother's and my father's families); encased in clothes that, while not exactly corsets and crinolines, felt itchy and confining; gazing wonderingly at other children, I felt like a visitor from another planet, trying to figure out the codes of the world into which I had been thrust so unprepared.

"Who are all these people?" the Infanta and I--separated by three centuries and an ocean, not to mention social class--say in chorus. "And why are they always around me? Why are they telling me all the time how to stand, where to look, what to feel? Do I have to wear these clothes, and can I play with the dog? Is that boy going to get in trouble?"

Not too long after Velazquez painted her, little Margarita Teresa married her uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor, and went to live in Vienna, where she died at 21 after bearing six children and suffering many miscarriages.

Me, I got married at 22, and after many years and some adventures went to live in Vermont, where on this 27th day of April of the year of Our Lord 2010 I can look out the window and watch the snow fall.

4 comments :

  1. I've seen this painting and loved it. I love more the way you've related it to your life and feelings as a child. This is one of those posts I wish I'd written!

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  2. Thanks, Mali. I saw it too, a long time ago, in a room by itself, in the Prado. Isn't that the best dog ever?

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  3. I am nonplussed by the correct usage of this word.

    I've always thought that the reason we all need therapy is that we begin our time in the world as the center of the universe, and then it is taken away. We spend the rest of our lives saying, What happened?

    Of course, for many of us, this turning away of attention happens much much earlier than it did for you.

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