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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Velazquez’s young prince and a dwarf

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This double portrait by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) at the Museum of Fine Arts shows two people of similar stature who are years apart in age. It’s a very cute combo. But the effect — whether inadvertently or deliberately — is to our eyes a little baffling. Are we allowed to laugh? If so, what, exactly, is the joke?

One of the little people is Baltasar Carlos, the 2-year-old son of King Philip IV of Spain and his wife, Isabella of Bourbon. The other is a dwarf.

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In the ravishing pictorial account Velazquez left us of Philip IV’s sad-fairytale rule, dwarves are central players. They humanize an atmosphere otherwise saturated in strained formality, and overshadowed by death.

Don Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf

Museum of Fine Arts, 617 267 9300. http://www.mfa.org

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Dwarfs were a routine sight in European royal courts for centuries; they turn up frequently in art. Philip IV was particularly fond of them. He retained more than a hundred court dwarfs, preferring their informal company to the more strained exchanges he was obliged to have with full-size people.

Over the course of his career, his court painter, Velazquez, painted around 10 dwarfs, beginning with this picture, which endearingly presents the dwarf as Baltasar Carlos’s loyal pal and attendant. (The only other time Velazquez painted a dwarf in the presence of royalty was in his masterpiece “Las Meninas”).

Here, the prince holds a baton and sword hilt. He’s dressed in a lavishly embroidered costume, replete with gorget (a sort of armored collar) and dashing crimson sash. He stands on a step to emphasize his royal stature. All of his face is illuminated.

The dwarf’s face, by contrast, turns into shadow, in a movement suggesting something more partial and transient than the prince’s royal rigidity. He (and by his short hair and masculine face, I’m assuming he’s a ‘he,’ although the dress and necklace suggest otherwise) holds a toy rattle and an apple. The props are joking allusions to the royal scepter and orb, both symbols of the power the prince will eventually assume.

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Except that he never did. He died at the age of 16, on a military campaign with his father. And that was just the beginning of the king’s woes.

When he painted the MFA’s picture, the young Velazquez had just returned from Italy. You can feel the influence of Titian in the rich red fabrics, the abundance of gold trimming, the overall effect of flickering splendor.

But of course, as always with Velazquez, the real pleasure is in the painter’s “touch”: the dazzling effect of three dimensional forms in space summoned not laboriously, with firm lines and fastidious plotting, but with a kind of devastating, ecumenical nonchalance.

Look — or just glance, as Velazquez surely wanted us to do — at the white feathers on the hat cut off by the frame at right, at the gold tassel on the red cushion, or the creases in the dwarf’s white apron. All this was done with brushes and paint. No one has ever done it better.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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