Long before any writing appeared about dwarfs, they could be found in artwork created in every culture and in every time period. Images of dwarfs were plentiful in the ancient world, in the stone carvings and sculptures of Egypt, the vases of Greece, and the stone reliefs of India. They were a prominent subject in the art of the Mayas and were models for rare bronzes in Benin. Dwarfs are portrayed in ancient Chinese ceramics and in Japanese prints, as well as in the folk art of garden sculptures, which began to appear in sixteenth-century Europe and have persisted into our own times. Probably the best-known representations of dwarfs in the Western world are the religious paintings and the group and individual portraits of court dwarfs that proliferated throughout Europe from the fifteenth to the early eighteenth century. The lessening of this subject matter in art coincided with the declining incidence and ultimate disappearance of dwarfs from the courts. Fantasy little people continued to be caricatured and used to accompany folktales and children’s stories, but paintings and sculptures of dwarfs became relatively scarce in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with only a few first-rate portrait treatments.
European Art from the Fifteenth to Eighteenth Century
Filmmaker Steven Delano dresses up in antique garbs for a photo shoot during the filming of No Bigger Than a Minute.
In European art of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, dwarfs, ubiquitous in the artwork of that period, were portrayed as realistic rather than symbolic or mythic figures. Because they were such an integral part of imperial activities — serving, entertaining, and present at royal celebrations — they are almost never depicted as autonomous beings; rather, they are shown as decorative elements situated at the fringes of the lives of others more important than themselves. Their appearance in art parallels their participation in the courts; they were prominent in both. When the artists of the early Renaissance created the elaborate historical scenes that their patrons had commissioned, there was generally a court dwarf or two to use as a convenient model.
In numerous group settings, dwarfs are omnipresent, playing the role of witness. Whether a particular painting celebrates the triumph of Julius Caesar or depicts a religious scene — the tale of Moses in the bulrushes or the crucifixion of Jesus — dwarfs are often present. The implication is that all manner of men (more often men than women) were present at this extraordinary moment; dwarfs are introduced to intensify the drama and honor the central characters.
Among the many remarkable crowd scenes are several representations of The Adoration of the Magi. A particularly dynamic, colorful example is a painting by the fifteenth-century Florentine Botticelli (c. 1445-1510); in this work an elaborately dressed, dignified dwarf carrying two swords appears in the foreground. In The Discovery of the Infant Moses by the sixteenth-century painter Veronese, one of the Italian noblewomen in attendance when the baby Moses is uncovered encourages a dark-skinned young court dwarf to take notice of him.
Sebastian de Morra, a dwarf attendant in the court of Philip IV of Spain, as painted by Diego Velázquez.
In addition to paintings of a religious subject, there was a profusion of works that celebrated events in the lives of the royalty. Among these is Vasari’s (1511-1574) Marriage of Catherine de Medici to Henry of Orleans, depicting the couple attended by a male and a female dwarf and surrounded by nobility and allegorical figures. In a celebrated painting by Rubens (1577-1640), Alatheia Talbot, Countess Arundel, with its romantic background and luxuriously clothed court figures, the court dwarf Robin appears in luxurious red and gold velvet clothing with a falcon on his wrist.
In the many paintings of dwarfs and their noble masters and mistresses, it is extremely common to find the dwarf represented as holding a dog of monkey or other animal on a lead. Indeed, the care of animals was frequently their role in cultures as early as ancient Egypt and throughout the centuries of their prominence in the courts. As playmates and trainers of animals, it was implied that they were only one step above the animals in status. Those dwarfs who had not achieved prominence in other vital roles — as artists or scribes or the like — were among the few courtiers who could be spared for this physical task. Both the small humans and the animals were expected to cooperate in providing pleasure and amusement. The dwarf’s master or mistress poses with one hand on the servant’s head — a posture of protection and dominance. Among the paintings that reveal variations on the hierarchical relationships between royalty, court dwarf, and animal is Stanislaus, the Dwarf of Cardinal Granvella by the Netherlandish artist Anthonis Mor (1517-1576). It shows an elaborately dressed, intense-looking proportionate dwarf, with a large, muscular, brown dog that is nearly as tall as he is. It is reported that the cardinal was equally interested in securing a precise rendering of his dog as he was in obtaining an accurate depiction of this court dwarf and ward.
Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, features an achondroplastic dwarf, Maria Barbola, among its subjects.
Just as intrepid visitors to exhibitions of religious art may find their eyes glazing over after a great many commonplace representations of Madonna and Child, one can tire of seemingly gratuitous and mediocre depictions of dwarf models. There are, however, extraordinary painters who have combined artistic skill and a depth of understanding of dwarf subjects to create works of superb quality.
The artist who has been most widely acclaimed for his sensitive renderings of dwarf subjects is Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). He painted at least ten portraits of dwarfs, most displayed in the Prado museum in Madrid. Perhaps in no other court was the monarch as attached to his dwarf attendants as in the court of Philip IV of Spain, Velázquez’s patron. In Philips’s entourage, at least 110 retainers were dwarfs. This king, “wary of normal human contacts because so much depended on his personal favor, could pamper a dwarf without arousing the envy of the courtiers who were in constant attendance upon him during his peregrinations; a dwarf’s life was irrelevant.”
Without Velázquez’s portraits, we could never visualize so clearly the character of these relationships and the varied natures of these individuals who had become so important to Philip. Some, like Francisco Lezcano, were developmentally disabled. Velázquez painted him draped against a background of clouds, earth, and water; despite his obvious mental incapacity, Francisco emerges as a sympathetic figure. In another work, Velázquez painted Sebastian de Morra, a dwarf whom Philip had requisitioned from the entourage of his younger brother to serve Prince Baltasar Carlos, the future heir to the throne. De Morra, painted in bright, elegant clothing against a dark background, cuts a very dramatic figure — but it is his expression that most commands our attention and has often inspired critical analysis. According to one writer, “His expression is compounded of intelligent curiosity and thinly veiled intensity. The not of assertiveness is subtly conveyed by his red, gold-trimmed smock and by the strong highlight on his forehead. His hands, rolled into tight, ball-like fists, are placed around his belt, making him seem defiant.” Another elaborates: “With his short legs stuck straight out and his thick hands clenched aggressively at his waist, de Morra looks like a plaything stuck up on a shelf. But one glimpse of his intense face and black, angry eyes is enough to convince the viewer that de Morra detested his role, that he wanted to be regarded as the human being he was, not as the toy the court wanted.”
Was de Morra really entertaining the mutinous feelings that these critics perceive? In the absence of a personal statement by de Morra or an explanation of the artist’s conception by Velázquez, viewers have license to project their own personal interpretations. Another model, Diego de Acedo, or El Primo, who was rumored to have been a ladies’ man, comes across quite differently. Exuding intelligence and self-assurance, and perhaps a touch of melancholy, de Acedo, a court official entrusted with the royal seal, is painted against a landscape with mountains and surrounded by large books and a pen and inkpot.
It is of great importance to us here that in his paintings of dwarfs, Velázquez produced searching psychological portraits, taking the same approach that he took toward his other subjects: “The artists who preceded Velázquez at the Spanish court painted dwarfs with a cold detachment that reflected the 16th and 17th century attitude toward the handicapped. Velázquez’s approach differed radically, his style was loose and evocative, and he painted the handicapped as he did the royal family, with humanity, conveying his own recognition that these unfortunate creatures were as human as their masters. He respected their dignity as human beings and delineated their individual personalities.”
Velázquez’s masterpiece is Las Meninas. The painting captures the royal family in the midst of an ordinary day. Two maids of honor are tending to the infanta Margarita while she poses for her portrait. Velázquez himself is included in the image, shown painting the group. Among the characters is a young male dwarf, who rests his foot on a large dog. The king and queen survey the scene through a dim reflection in a mirror in the background, and the achondroplastic dwarf, Maria Barbola, like Velázquez himself, gazes intently at the unseen onlookers.
The delicate, pampered Margarita contrasts sharply with the sturdy, independent-looking Maria Barbola. How one views this contrast depends, of course on the beholder. While Velázquez was certainly at great pains to create a very attractive presentation of the infanta Margarita, he also has treated Maria respectfully: she appears observant and thoughtful. Nevertheless, one prominent nineteenth-century chronicler of famous dwarfs found Maria Barbola “horribly ugly” and “a little monster.” To those of us who are accustomed to the features of achondroplastic dwarfs, Maria Barbola’s face looks agreeable enough. Interestingly, unlike the faces of most of the other characters in the painting, hers and Velázquez’s are shown both clearly defined and directed fully forward; their glances meet ours: artist and dwarf are alert outsiders — observers and witnesses.
Excerpted with permission from:
Adelson, Betty M. The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. 154-161.