Queen Isabel de Borbón – Back in the Picture

Pieza del mes: Diciembre 2023
Autores: Peter Cherry & María Cruz de Carlos Varona

Cómo citar este artículo/How to cite this article: Peter Cherry & María Cruz de Carlos Varona, “Queen Isabel de Borbón – Back in the Picture”, Agenart: La agencia artística de las mujeres de la Casa de Austria, 1532-1700, 18 de diciembre de 2023. Consultado: 27 de febrero de 2024. URL: https://agenart.org/queen-isabel-de-borbon-back-in-the-picture

Figure 1. Diego Velázquez, Isabel de Borbón, c.1628. Oil on canvas, 203 x 141 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

This image of Queen Isabel de Borbón [Figure 1] is the last great autograph royal portrait by Diego Velázquez to remain in a private collection and it comes up for sale in February 2024 in Sotheby’s New York to much international fanfare. It is widely accepted as the pendant to the portrait of Philip IV in the Museo Nacional del Prado [Figure 2]. Their original locations are unknown, but both are first documented together in the inventory of the Buen Retiro palace in 1701. The visible inventory number in white on the picture – “671” – refers to an inventory of the palace of 1716. The queen’s picture probably left Spain during the Napoleonic invasion and it was in Louis Philippe’s Spanish Museum at the Louvre in 1838-1848. It has been seen publicly on relatively few occasions and was not present in any of the major international exhibitions devoted to Velázquez of recent years.

Among Velázquez’s first tasks as royal painter after his appointment on 6 October 1623 was the creation of a pair of full-length portraits of Felipe IV and Isabel de Borbón. The first portrait of the queen was painted in 1624 or in early 1625, because on 28th of August 1625 Giulio Cesare Semini was paid 10.192 maravedíes for gilding its frame: “Retrato de su mag[esta]d que Dios guarde que ha hecho diego belazquez”. These prime versions now lie buried beneath the portrait of the king in the Prado and the one of the queen which is the subject of this entry. They can be seen today with the aid of X-radiograph photographic images, published by Theodore Crombie in the 1950s and most recently by Carmen Garrido Pérez. Before their obliteration, however, they served as prototypes in the production of copies. Velázquez himself made the copy of the portrait of the king which is now in The Metropolitan Museum, New York [Figure 3]. And of the copies and versions of Velázquez’s original portrait of the queen, a high-quality picture in the National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, shows her wearing a black and grey dress with silver embroidered pattern, and a long string of pearls [Figure 4].

Figure 4. Workshop of Diego Velázquez, Isabel de Borbón, 1623. Oil on canvas, 218 x 127,5 cm. National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, KMSsp687.

The date of Velázquez’s radical interventions in these portraits is unknown – oscillating in the literature between 1625-1628, and even up to 1634 – and the reasons for the changes or the occasion which necessitated them are equally unclear. The analagous material circumstances of both the portraits makes it reasonable to think that the prime versions and the second versions were always conceived as pendants, with the portrait of Isabel de Borbón remodelled at the same time as that of the king. The iconography of both of Felipe’s portraits remains unchanged, but there are evident formal gains in the second portrait relative to the first, with a greater elegance to the pose and a more dynamic sense of depth.

In the case of the queen, the pose is virtually unchanged between her first portrait, as seen in X-radiograph images, and the version in Copenhagen [Figure 4], and the one under discussion here [Figure 1]. In both, she is represented leaning on a chair back, which was a convention inherited from earlier female royal portraiture and which remained standard in the period. The first portrait showed her appearing before a red curtain which is swept aside. In the remodelled portrait [Figure 1], the curtain is an expansive backdrop to the queen, in parts of which the fold configuration of the original curtain shows through, even if the intended magnificence of the sea of intense crimson has changed to a ruddy orange today due to the fading of the red lake over time. The costume is different and the black dress with gold thread border ornament has a sober magnificence, although the queen wears the same kind of gauze ruff as in the first portrait and an updated hairstyle, dressed with a feather, and carries a closed fan. The white silk shirt with embroidered stars is the same one that can be seen in the equestrian portrait at the Hall of Realms, now in the Prado [Figure 5]. This probably relates to the piece of fabric that was acquired in Seville from the merchant Diego de Sarabia in September 1623, which was described in the queen’s accounts as a golden-green fabric with stars. It was an expensive piece and was bought by the queen to be presented to her sister-in-law, Mary, future Queen of Hungary. But it must have been also appreciated by Queen Isabel herself given that she modified her second portrait by Velázquez, so that it could be included, and also chose it for her equestrian portrait. The changes to the costume and queen’s hairstyle in the second version doubtless followed trends in contemporary fashion to which viewers, then as now, were highly attuned with royal persons. Already evident here is the firework display of Velázquez’s paint handling to convey the glitter and flash of embroidered surfaces and jewels in the costume decoration.

The royal body seen in this portrait can be understood in contrast to the real body of the queen: formal, state portraits – as in most royal portraiture – masked the realities of the lives of the sitters, involving in the case of Isabel de Borbón a number of failed pregnancies, an unfaithful husband, and an all-controlling Count-Duke of Olivares. None of this is evident here, of course, where she is immortalized by the  royal painter at the beginning of an auspicious new reign.

Further reading:

  • José Luis Colomer and Amalia Descalzo (eds), Vestir a la española en las cortes europeas (siglos XVI y XVII), 2 vols (Madrid: CEEH, 2014).
  • Theodore Crombie, “Isabella of Bourbon by Velázquez: A recorded portrait in the Spanish Royal Collections, with some notes on related portaits of Philip IV”, The Connoisseur 141 (1958), 238–44.
  • María Cruz de Carlos Varona, “Reginalidad y retrato en las cortes de Felipe III y Felipe IV”, in Ánima. Pintar el rostro y el alma, ed. Pablo González Tornel (Valencia: Museo de Bellas Artes, Ediciones Trea, 2022), 214–266. 
  • José López-Rey, Velázquez. A catalogue raisonné of his oeuvre (London: Faber and Faber, 1963).
  • José López-Rey, Velázquez. Painter of Painters, 2 vols (Cologne: Taschen / Wildenstein Institute, 1996).
  • Michael Gallagher, “Velázquez’s ‘Philip IV’ in the Metropolitan Museum”, Metropolitan Museum Journal 45 (2010), 3–14.
  • Carmen Garrido, Velázquez. Técnica y evolución (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 1992).
  • Carmen Garrido, “Diego Velázquez: Un retrato del natural de la Reina Isabel de Borbón”, Ge-conservación 6 (2014), 83–100.
  • “Queen Isabella de Bourbon, a ‘lost’ portrait by Velázquez located”, The Connoisseur 128 (August 1951), 3-5.

Captions to works referred to in the text:

  • Figure 1. Diego Velázquez, Isabel de Borbón, c.1628. Oil on canvas, 203 x 141 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
  • Figure 2. Diego Velázquez, Felipe IV, 1623 and 1628. Oil on canvas, 198 x 101,5 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, P001182.
  • Figure 3. Diego Velázquez, Felipe IV, probably 1624. Oil on canvas, 200 x 102,9 cm. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 14.40.639.
  • Figure 4. Workshop of Diego Velázquez, Isabel de Borbón, 1623. Oil on canvas, 218 x 127,5 cm. National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, KMSsp687.
  • Figure 5. Diego Velázquez, Isabel de Borbón, c. 1635. Oil on canvas, 301 x 314 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, P001179.