, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 111-121

Velázquez and the representation of dignity

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to explore the visual representation of dignity, through the particular example of the seventeenth century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Velázquez works at a point in Western history when modern conceptions of dignity are beginning to be formed. It is argued that Velázquez' portraits of royalty and aristocracy articulate a tension between a feudal conception of majesty and a modern conception of the dignity of merit. On this level, modern conceptions of dignity of merit are understood in terms of a struggle to excel in particular activities, and thus to overcome the risk of failure. More radically, Velázquez' portraits of dwarfs and the mentally disabled are argued to be expressive of dignity, not by finding a positive representation of the sitter's dignity, or to find scales of activities by which they can be positively assessed, but rather by grounding their dignity, negatively, in a protest against indignity and humiliation. Drawing on Honneth's analysis of dignity in terms of a theory of recognition, it is argued that the indignity of the court dwarf lies in the fracturing of their communication with the rest of society. The task of repairing that fractured communication is achieved, not by representing a dignified ideal, but rather by drawing attention to the prejudices that serve to exclude the humiliated from full participation in society. In conclusion, it is suggested that the conceptualisation and representation of the elderly today finds effective exemplars in Velázquez' portraits of court dwarfs, rather than in his portraits of the elderly.

This revised version was published online in July 2006 with corrections to the Cover Date.