Portraying the Queen of Spain: A retratico of Mariana de Austria by Diego Velázquez

Pieza del mes: Octubre 2023
Peter Cherry

Cómo citar este artículo/How to cite this article: Peter Cherry, “Portraying the Queen of Spain: A retratico of Mariana de Austria by Diego Velázquez”, Agenart: La agencia artística de las mujeres de la Casa de Austria, 1532-1700, 1 de octubre de 2023. Consultado: 23 de mayo de 2024. URL: https://agenart.org/portraying-the-queen-of-spain-a-retratico-of-mariana-de-austria-by-diego-velazquez/

Figure 1. Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana de Austria, c. 1651-52. Oil on copper, 72.8 x 53.2 mm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P8043).

Mariana de Austria (1634-96), daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Fernando III, and María Anna de Austria, was married to her uncle, Felipe IV, in 1647 and the young woman made her ceremonial entry into the court of Madrid in 1649 as queen of Spain. All eyes were on her and there was a need for portraits to be made of her as queen at the beginning of the reign to be sent back to her Viennese family and to other foreign courts. This task fell to the royal painter, Diego Velázquez, and his workshop. The full-length image of the queen in a portrait by Velázquez in the Museo del Prado [Figure  2], which was painted after the artist’s return from Italy in June 1651 and probably soon after the queen’s postpartum recovery from the birth of the infanta Margarita Teresa in July of the same year, remains one of her best-known likenesses. However, an oil on copper portrait miniature of the queen of around the same date, despite being in a public collection, has received relatively little scholarly attention [Figure 1]. This picture was given to the Museo del Prado by the twentieth-century collector Arturo Perera y Prats, who gave it an undocumented provenance to the Cistercian convent of El Sacramento, or Las Bernardas, founded in Madrid by the Duque de Uceda, son of the Duque de Lerma. While the donor considered it an autograph painting, the museum demoted it to the workshop of Velázquez and at present it appears on the online catalogue of the collection as by an unknown hand. The painting was not discussed in the Prado’s important exhibition, Velázquez y la familia de Felipe IV (1650-1680) in 2013.

This small portrait represents the young, blue-eyed woman dressed in the Spanish style, wearing her blonde hair curled, with jet jewellery and a collar of muslin. The likeness is unique in the known repertoire of her images. It does not appear, therefore, to be a reduced version of a larger prototype and it may well have been painted from the life. The painter would have had the copper plate placed on a small easel and the queen would have sat directly in front of him. Perhaps he took advantage of some form of amplification to work on such a small field. It is likely that the size of the copper plate and its rectangular form denotes its function as a small portrait – retratico – rather than a miniature to be mounted in jewellery. This is perhaps corroborated by the inexpert way in which the copper has been cut into an irregular shape, probably by a painter, who may not have been accustomed to work on such a support, rather than a master who was used to working metals, such as a silversmith. This, of course, would have been masked by the original mount.

Diego Velázquez is documented as having painted retraticos, small format portraits and miniatures, as they are more often known today, just as the other royal painters before him had done – Alonso Sánchez Coello and his famous disciple Felipe de Liaño, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, and Bartolomé González – and as Juan Carreño de Miranda was to do after his death. Scholarly interest in the field has been sporadic and in the case of Velázquez himself, José Luis Colomer has provided the most useful summary of the state of scholarship. However, scholars have generally been reluctant to attribute any such portraits to the artist. Only two, both representing male sitters, have been accepted in the field. One is the miniature of the Conde Duque de Olivares in the collections of Patrimonio Nacional, which is not in optimum condition [Figure 3]. The other is the portrait drawing by Velázquez of Cardinal Borja in the collections of the Real Academia de San Fernando [Figure 4]. The oval drawn in a line over and around the head is a significant framing device, suggesting its translation to a miniature and perhaps even a print (both unknown today).

Some telling characteristics of the small portrait of the queen point to Velázquez’s authorship, at least to the eyes of the present writer. The wide, flat face of the young woman is modelled in clear flesh tints, with warm highlights painted over a colder uniform thin bluish-grey under-painted layer for the shaded parts. The highlights are applied with precise optical value. The physiognomic forms are somewhat blurred and there is an absence of linear definition in the eyes, nose and mouth. The head is projected in perspective, with the right-hand side of the hair, furthest from our eye, somewhat out of focus. The painting of the hair itself shows a telling transparency, in spite of the relative opacity of the medium on the non-absorbent metal support, and allows the pale reddish ground of the metal to show through at key points. The interaction between the thin under-painted layer and the direct and dynamic brushwork applied over this in the transparent muslin collar is very close to this relatively unfinished passage in the portrait of the queen in the Meadows Museum in Dallas [Figure 5], which has been the subject of an entry in this blog). Negative comparisons are also instructive for assessing the style and handling in this miniature. The very qualities of the painting noted above are precisely those that are missing or oversimplified from comparable large-format bust portraits of this sitter by Velázquez’s workshop, such as that in the Thyssen Museum [Figure 6] or the Real Academia de San Fernando [Figure 7]. It is to be imagined that Velázquez would paint miniatures in oil paint and in his own style, which was, after all, the sign of his genius. He does not appear to have used the technique of illumination for miniatures described by his father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, in his Arte de la pintura (1649).

This small painting is the only portrait of the queen known by the artist in this format. Why was it painted? What was this used for? The exchange of small-scale portraits is a courtly practice that is well documented in the period and this image would be just the sort of present that could have been sent to her family in Vienna. A pair of miniatures in gold oval frames of prince Baltasar Carlos aged around 15 years old and the seven-year old Infanta María Teresa in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, would appear to have been sent to the Austrian branch of the family. This may well have been for sentimental reasons, or in the context of dynastic alliances, especially since the prince was intended to marry the sitter of the picture under discussion here. While this wonderful portrait of the young queen depicts her in accordance with the language of the formal portrait – and there was really no other way to represent her – its small format connotes a certain degree of intimacy between the sitter and the eventual recipient of the work, whoever they may have been. Its very size meant that it had to be displayed in a more private space. Perhaps it was a present for her father, Fernando III. Perhaps it was an image meant for her husband, Felipe IV. Its destination is a mystery.

Further Reading:

  • Laura Bass, The Drama of the Portrait: Theater and Visual Culture in Early Modern Spain (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).
  • Peter Cherry, “Velázquez en pequeño”, in El Joven Velázquez. A propósito de la Educación de la Virgen de Yale (Sevilla: ICAS, 2015), 331-343.
  • Ascensión Ciruelos Gonzalo, “Retrato del Cardenal Borja”, in Obras maestras de la Real Academia de San Fernando. Su primer siglo de historia (Madrid: Real Academia de San Fernando, 1994), 153-154.
  • José Luis Colomer, “Uso y función de la miniatura en la corte de Felipe IV: Velázquez miniaturista”, Boletín del Museo del Prado 20 (2002), 65-84.
  • Carmen Espinosa, Las miniaturas en el Museo del Prado. Catálogo razonado (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011).
  • Michael K. Komanecky (ed.), Copper as Canvas. Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper, 1575-1775 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • Manuela Mena (ed.), La Belleza encerrada de Fra Angelico a Fortuny (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2013).
  • Arturo Perera, “Velázquez, pintor de miniaturas”, Varia Velazqueña, I (Madrid: 1960), 378-381.
  • Javier Portús, Velázquez y la familia de Felipe IV (1650-1680) (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2013).

Captions to works referred to in the text:

  • Figure 1. Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana de Austria, c. 1651-52. Oil on copper, 72.8 x 53.2 mm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P8043).
  • Figure 2. Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana de Austria, c. 1651-52. Oil on canvas, 234.2 x 132 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P1191).
  • Figure 3. Diego Velázquez, Portrait of the Conde Duque de Olivares, c. 1638. Oil on paper, attached to panel, 80 x 63.5 mm.  Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real, Madrid.
  • Figure 4. Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco, c.1643. Black chalk on paper, 188 x 116 mm. Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid (Inv. D-211).
  • Figure 5. Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana of Spain, c. 1652. Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 43.5 cm., Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.78.01.
  • Figure 6. Workshop of Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana de Austria, c. 1655-56. Oil on canvas, 66 x 56 cm. Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) (Inv. 416).
  • Figure 7. Workshop of Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana de Austria, c. 1655-56. Oil on canvas, 66 x 40 cm. Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid (Inv. 633).