The Dark Figure in the Doorway

by Morton Marcus

Wearing a silken silver gown,
the little princess
is staring at us
from the foreground
of the painting.
As if on stage,
she is brightly lit,
surrounded by dwarfs,
and a recumbent hound,
and resembles a doll
placed in the middle
of her entourage.
Behind her to her right,
near a large canvas
whose back is toward us,
the painter, Velazquez,
stands half in shadow,
palette in one hand,
brush in the other,
while behind her
to her left, a nun
leans toward a courtier,
about to speak. On
the rear wall: paintings,
large canvases, hang,
almost obscured
by darkness, and a mirror
reflects the presence
of the king and queen
who must be observing
the scene from the same place
we do, as if they (or we)
are an audience
at a formal family event.
But, no, the painter
is standing in
the wrong place
to paint the scene.
Do you see it now?
It's the king and queen
who are being painted,
and the princess
and her entourage
are the audience
watching mama
and papa pose
for Señor Velazquez,
a clever ploy
which confuses
subject and viewer,
since we are standing
in the very spot
the royal couple
occupy, and see
what they do,
not what the painter
possibly can—
a post-modern
bit of fun devised
centuries before
the modern age
will have begun.

That ruse, however,
is not the reason I return
to this 10 foot painting
time and again. No,
it's the doorway cut
into the rear wall,
beside the mirror.
Flooded with light,
it illuminates
a dark figure
standing on the stairs.
He is about to leave
or enter—it's not clear
which. He is half-turned,
looking back into the room
toward us, or rather
toward the king and queen,
and it seems important,
more important
than anything
in the picture, whether
he is departing
or arriving,
as if the painting's
hinges on this point.
I can't say why.
Maybe because everyone
depicted is so still,
every object in its place,
and the only tension
is whether he leaves
or enters from the world
beyond the painting.
He is the dark figure
in the doorway,
the one who imbues
a work of art
with meaning
beyond itself
Even the painter
and his clever ruse
are less important
than this messenger,
this intermediary
who carries the scene
as witness between
two worlds, the one
created by the painter's
skill and imagination
and the other
what the viewer
takes of it
into his daily life.

The little princess
will marry
the Emperor of Austria
ten years later,
when she is fifteen,
and will die at twenty-two.
The king and queen
will leave a halfwit heir,
who will die soon after,
and with them all
the Spanish Golden Age
will sink into oblivion.
But like the figure
in the doorway,
we hesitate today,
caught between yesterday
and tomorrow, aware
as never before
that we stand with one foot
in the painting
and one foot out,
sure only of this moment
when we look into the room
where the king and queen
pose for the painter
who stands with his back
toward us,
as do the doll-like princess
and her entourage,
and at our backs
we hear the laughter
and curses on the street,
while scattered around us
like stars at night
or the sunlit dust motes
of our afternoons
are all those possibilities
of who we were
and could have been
and one day
might become.

please note: art by Diego Velazquez(click on the portrait if you wish to enlarge)


  1. I'm so excited by the fact that I knew EXACTLY which painting was being spoken of within the first four lines. That just makes me happy.

  2. One of the finest pieces of art commentary I've ever read. You really have an eye and an ear for finding masterpieces hidden in the haystacks of modern life...


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