The Ambiguity of Inaction in Velázquez’s 1618 Painting


The 1618 painting by Diego Velázquez questions the identity of the prominent central figure, whose depiction takes up nearly half of the painted space.  The details in the painting do not definitively resolve the figure’s gender, setting, or occupation, though some observers assume the figure is a young, female slave or servant, working with restaurant or kitchenware in 17th century Spain.  Such assumptions ignore the painting’s unmistakable indeterminacy, which communicates Velázquez’s message.  The 1618 painting argues that passive human beings are not individuals, since individual identity comes from action.

The figure’s gender identity could be informed by the figure’s physique, from the bone structure of their hips or shoulders to the prominence of breasts or male genitals.  But the ambiguity of the 1618 painting removes all foundation for a sound, conclusive inference.  The figure’s large outer shirt only vaguely outlines the shape of their torso, and no breasts or shoulder muscles are apparent.  The shirt’s gently curving midline seam and wrinkled shadows are like those of a loosely fitting shirt, which does not conform to the shape of the wearer’s body, revealing few physical traits.  Gender depiction must be either irrelevant to or meaningfully absent from this painting. Velázquez confirms the latter by juxtaposing the figure’s shirt with the overturned vase.  In doing so, Velázquez overturns visually informed assumptions of gender identity.

The shirt and vase are related by similar coffee brown hues darkened to shades of earth black.  The vase’s body is uniformly shaded, causing the vase to appear flat and two-dimensional.  It is shown without definite physical topography, like the figure’s body, which eludes gender classification.  The significance of this ambiguity is magnified by the vase’s orientation on the table.  The vase is not in an upright posture but is overturned, with its handle facing away, indicating its passivity and disengagement with the act of pouring liquid.  Velázquez has associated such inaction with the stasis of the central figure and with his blatantly ambiguous portrayal of the figure’s physical sex.  The ambiguity exists because the figure’s body alone could not express their gender identity.  An accurate expression of gender identity would require the individual to act accordingly.  Because the figure cannot act in this way, Velázquez maintains that their identity cannot be known.

Compared with gender, an observer might find the figure’s role in the scene to be more indicative of identity.  But in both occupation and setting, Velázquez presents his observer with ambiguity.  Noticing the style of the earthenware vessels and the central figure’s clothing, a historian may conclude that Velázquez depicted a 17th century Spanish setting.  Anyone familiar with Christian, Renaissance art could argue for a 1st century Palestinian setting, noticing the bearded figure in the upper-left corner, who, with his halo and hand gesture, resembles artistic depictions of Jesus Christ.  The conflicting settings would merge if, by the angle of their head, the central figure were listening to those in the left corner.  But Velázquez places two bronze vessels in the central figure’s gaze to counter this conclusion.  The central figure may be only attending to the objects on the table, and the two realms may be mutually exclusive.  They cannot be reconciled because Velázquez has not confirmed or denied an active relationship between the figures.

Similarly, although critics have titled this Velázquez piece, “The Kitchen Maid,” the observer cannot verify that the central figure is, in fact, a maid, or that they are found in a kitchen.  The scene lacks obvious indicators such as cabinets and storage, a water supply, or ingredients for food (save the lone piece of garlic in the bottom right portion of the painting).  Instead, the scene includes an assortment of yellow-white or metallic gold vessels, the brown vase, and a pure white napkin, arranged on a wooden table.  Velázquez connects the recurring colors in these objects with details in the central figure’s appearance.  In this way, Velázquez highlights the evident lack of interaction between them.

A bright white color boldly stands out in the napkin, associating it with the white in the central figure’s head and wrist cloths.  This evident artistic union is in tension with the objects’ inactivity.  The napkin’s rounded center and crumpled edges fit the form of a human hand.  In this way, the napkin’s form suggests recent and active contact, yet the napkin itself is not gripped in Velázquez’s painting.  It lies inert on the table: actionless, yet conflicting with its passivity.  Similarly, the figure’s motionless right hand seems poised and ready for action, given its instability, as it is hanging off the edge of the table.  That same tense instability or unrest is portrayed in the dramatically tilted bronze-gold bowl, as well as in the central figure’s head, which is cocked towards the bowl.  Thus the passivity of inaction is protested in four components of the scene: two within the central figure and two within the surrounding objects.

The prominent golds, yellows and whites involved in this protest are all found in the upright vase at the central figure’s left hand.  This is the locus of highest tension, the region where the painting’s main subject most strongly suggests action.  Of course, the suggested action is ambiguous – one cannot determine whether the vase is about to be set down, picked up or turned.  Yet the figure’s raised left hand prompts the action to be made.  The figure’s three lowest fingers align with the ergonomically placed grooves on the surface, and the thumb is placed centrally in the handle.  The vase conveys its dependence on the human hand. However, at the point of contact, Velázquez depicts the hand and the vase in a looming shadow, suggesting yet another unsettled relationship.

Velázquez places the large amorphous shadow at an angle behind the central figure’s left hand.  With its indeterminate shape, the shadow does not make its origin known, but lends itself instead to the tension of unresolved action with the yellow-white vase.  Together with the form of the central figure’s left arm, the shadow angles inward towards the mouth of the vase, “filling it” with the empty, negative space of the lighter background wall. Whether the vase is literally filled with some liquid, an observer cannot determine, but Velázquez shows that the vase will remain empty if its identity collects from the ambiguous shadow of inaction.

The vase’s function requires the hand to act, to move or pour it. This function remains unexpressed unless the hand is lifted. Likewise, the central figure fails to express their functional identity as long as they remain inert.  Yet, if the figure is shown pouring the vase, they may pour out and permanently resolve their identity as one who serves, as the “Maid” of the supposed kitchen.  Velázquez’s aversion to such resolution shows his commitment to the vitality of human identity.  No static painting or image could accurately portray this individual’s identity because, as Velázquez shows, identity is not fixed and motionless; it must be lived.

Velázquez’s central figure is a form without human identity. The figure is, quite literally no one.  Regardless, that same figure stands for any passively observed body: anyone known purely by sight and not by deed.  Velázquez understands the swarm of shadow identities based on geographic location, occupation, or biological sex.  Yet, he admits that none of these inferences can holistically represent the individual.  Velázquez challenges his observer to respond to the tension of ambiguity, to act, and to know others by their actions.