Exhibition: “The Portrait in the Royal Collections: from Juan de Flandes to Antonio López”.
Royal Palace, Madrid. December 4th, 2014-April 19th, 2015.
In the Early Modern period, as many studies had recently shown us, the royal portraits were sometimes used as a substitute of the royal person itself, as a true embodiment of the royal power. This is a special meaning of the royal visual imagery that had been a little lost in an age dominated by image technology, but we can sense once again in the rooms of temporary exhibition of the Royal Palace of Madrid, where you can see more than a hundred of portraits of different royal people that dominated Europe for more than half a millennium.
In this great exhibition, people can see some of the most important pieces of the Spanish Royal Collections, dating from the XVth century to the present, because the last painting shown here, an image of the late king of Spain Juan Carlos I’s family, has been presented to the public for the first time ever in this exhibition. With portraits that range from the painting that Roger van der Weyden made of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy to the contemporary representation of the king Juan Carlos I made by Dalí, through the works of authors as important as Jakob Seisenegger, Antonio Moro, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. Peter Paul Rubens, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jean Ranc o Joaquín Sorolla, among many others, this exhibition show together paintings and sculptures that allow us to see the evolution of the royal representation and the conception of the relationship between image and royal power from the first decades of the Early Modern Age to the present.
However, we must take into account that this exhibition isn’t exclusively focused on royal portraits. In fact, it tries to bring to light the most important examples of portraiture kept in the Spanish Royal Collections, so this exhibition shows some portraits that don’t represent royal people per se. But if we take into account that, of the 113 pieces shown in this exhibition, only seven of them represent people that aren’t usually considered as royals (even if they are members of the court closely linked to the royal family’s circle), we can consider this as an exhibition centered around the image of the royal family and the royal power through the centuries.
Even if it’s impossible for the people who know well the History of Art linked to the Spanish Monarchy to not miss the famous royal portraits that are shown at the Prado Museum and that aren’t in this exhibition, like the magnificent portraits made by Tiziano, the renowned royal representations made by Velázquez or the great Bourbon family paintings made by Van Loo or Goya, this exhibition has the added charm of showing portraits of a extraordinary quality and significance that are usually kept in less known monuments and, as a result, are sometimes almost unfamiliar for the great public. In fact, some of these paintings aren’t shown to the public in the places they are usually kept or are in places where they are difficult to see by the visitors; that’s why the possibility of enjoying some of the pieces shown in this exhibition can be considered as a real privilege. This is the case, for example, of the marvelous portraits of the little prince and princess Vasa of Poland (we will return to these portraits again later), kept in the magnificent convent of the Descalzas Reales of Madrid and are usually shown in a dark corridor where they are difficult to see and appreciate, so this exhibitions is probably the first time we can see these enchanting portraits in all their glory in years. Likewise, the interesting but mostly unknown engraving titled “The king’s lifting over the pavés in front of the Courts of Navarre”, made by Dionisio de Ollo, is usually out of the public view in its home in the Royal Library of the Royal Palace itself. This way, works that are kept in spaces as unfairly unknown by the general public as the mentioned convent of the Descalzas Reales, the Encarnación, the Santa María of Las Huelgas of Burgos or the Royal Palace of El Pardo, for example, have the opportunity to be seen and enjoyed by a greater number of people of all nations. This exhibition presents to the great public paintings and sculptures of great quality and significance that will thrill even the most expert of royal historians.
That said, I think there are two main strengths in this exhibition that deserve to be taken into account. The first one is related to the numerous and delightful portraits of royal children that are shown in this exhibition. Unique in their genre, the young princes and princesses that are shown in this exhibition are represented with all the dignity and formality of their rank, but they still can transmit the kind of innocence and gentleness typical of their young age. Amongst all the children portraits shown here, there are several that stand out. The first ones are a pair of portraits with the image of the princes of Poland Anna Maria Vasa and Vladislaw IV, paintings that I have mentioned before in this review. This two young children, painted when they were three and one year old respectively, are dressed just as if they were adults, with rigid court clothes and heavy jewels, where only the velvet cushion in which the young prince stands (proof that he was so little that he can’t even stand securely on his own) and the tenderness of their young faces are the only things that betray the innocence of their ages. Next to them is another very singular portrait, in this case of young princess Anne of Austria, later queen of France, who was just several months old when it was painted. She appears sitting in a red cushion, as she couldn’t even stand yet, but this detail doesn’t take away even a bit of solemnity to the formal stance and regal expression of the young princess. In this case, what attracts the viewer’s attention the most is the great variety of protective charms and relics that cover her little body, a visual proof of part of the belief system of the Baroque, in which they were trying to protect royal babies from illnesses and premature death that they couldn’t explain and against they couldn’t fight with a mix of superstition and traditional religiosity that can be perfectly appreciated in this truly interesting portrait. Lastly, taking a leap of a hundred years, we change centuries and dynasties to see how some of the symbols traditionally used by the Habsburgs share space with elements linked to the new dynasty. In this last case are especially important those children portraits that represent several of Charles III’s sons as classic gods. Two of those children portraits are shown here, the portrait of prince Ferdinand of Bourbon as god Mars and the one of Charles Antonio of Bourbon as Hercules. These young children, painted as divine gods, reflect the continuity of important previous models though its simbology and presentation, still a little hieratic and way too formal for children portraits if we compare them with other portraits of little princes and princesses of that century, but we can perceive several characteristics of the change in perception that will transform these kind of representations, of a more familiar nature, without leaving behind the royal significance that must accompany the portraits of the members of a royal family. These are only some of the many marvelous children portraits shown in this exhibition, from the little effigies of the Reyes Católicos’ children that appear under the protective cloak of the Virgin of Mercy (1486) to the portrait of the grandfather of the reigning king of Spain don Juan of Bourbon as a teenager (1927).
The second of the main strengths that, in my opinion, have this exhibition is the possibility of perceive how the different royal portraits adapt to the political and representative necessities of every moment to transmit effectively the meaning that every monarch need to present in a determined instance, something that can be appreciated better when we can observe different works at the same time. This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to unravel the political and ideological significance that these portraits transmitted to their contemporaries and to see the intent behind their creation. It was very different the purpose behind the conception of portraits like the ones made of the little Bourbon princes to let their grandfather know them and those paintings like “The Virgin of Mercy”, kept in the monastery of Santa María of Las Huelgas of Burgos, for example. In this painting, the presence of the Reyes Católicos and their children legitimize the position of the abbess Leonor of Mendoza, sister of the powerful, cardinal Mendoza (who, by the way, is also present in this painting), that was designated for that position against the wishes of the rest of the nuns after the deposition of the previous abbess. We can also appreciate a strong underlying meaning in the portrait that Jakob Seisenegger made of the emperor Charles V, who was represented with court clothes because he wanted to present a conciliatory image of himself in front of his protestant subjects, as he still hoped to reach a lasting agreement with them. Lastly, I can also mention the painting called “Allegory of Philip V and his family fighting against heresy”, linked to the War of Spanish Succession, during which the Bourbon party attacked the supporters of the archduke Charles of Austria accusing him of permitting the entrance of heretics (English, Dutch and some Germans from protestant territories) in the Spanish Monarchy. He is presented here as the protector of Catholic Faith, but it also has another meaning. The order of St. Jerome that lived in the Monastery of Saint Lorenzo El Escorial needed to make peace with the new king and to assure him of its unwavering loyalty, as the monks had had some disputes with Philip V during the war. One of the most interesting of these disputes, for example, was told by Fray Nicolás Jesús Belando. He wrote that once, when queen María Luisa Gabriela of Savoy had to get out of Madrid fairly quickly because the troops of the archduke Charles were nearing the capital, she arrived to the El Escorial and there, according to Fray Nicolás, “she found closed the gates of her own home” when the monks denied her entrance to the monastery and had to sleep in the street with her young son. These are only some examples that allow us to analyze and understand the different dimensions of the royal portraits and how they can transmit different messages depending on the political circumstances of the moment they were created.
Lastly, I must add that this exhibition has the ability of surprising us in every step. Without doubt, several of the portraits shown here still have secrets awaiting to be discovered, like the case of the strange portrait of king Charles IV backwards, made by Juan Bauzil, almost unique in its nature, whose meaning haven’t been unraveled yet. In any case, those historians interested in the History of Monarchy have a date in Madrid this spring. If you can, don’t miss this exhibition. You won’t regret it.
You can obtain more information about the exhibition here: