The Queen and the Painter

Pieza del mes: Septiembre 2022
Peter Cherry

Cómo citar este artículo/How to cite this article: Peter Cherry, “The Queen and the Painter”, Agenart: La agencia artística de las mujeres de la Casa de Austria, 1532-1700, 5 de septiembre de 2022. Consultado: 18 de abril de 2024. URL:

Figura 1. 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. Photography by Michael Bodycomb

The impassive gaze of the blue eyes of a young woman meets our own [Figure 1]. Her cheeks are rouged, her eyebrows plucked, and she wears a great blonde wig crowned with an ostrich feather and made up of fat horizontal waves whose crests break against her pale face. This is queen Mariana de Austria (1634-1696), wife of king Felipe IV of Spain, painted in Madrid in 1652 by the court painter Diego Velázquez. She was the daughter of Ferdinand III and María de Austria, who had also been painted by Velázquez [Figure 2], and she had been chosen to marry prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646), the son of Felipe IV and Isabel de Borbón. The prince’s premature death, however, changed everything. The king was without an heir – his only living child was María Teresa de Austria (1638-83), future queen of France – and dynastic necessity prevailed; the fourteen-year old archduchess was married to her forty-three year old uncle by proxy in Vienna in November 1648, the wedding took place in Navalcarnero in October 1649 and the queen made her triumphant entry into Madrid on 15 November 1649. Mariana did indeed provide five children, although only two of these survived into adulthood. The infanta Margarita was born in July 1651 and went on to marry back into the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs with her wedding to the emperor Leopoldo I. The series of her portraits by Velázquez sent to Vienna are among the glories of Spanish art. Prince Carlos was born in 1661 and went on to rule Spain as Carlos II (1675-1700) after the regency of his mother (1665-1675). Of Mariana’s other children, María Ambrosia de la Concepción died after a few days in December 1655; Felipe Próspero was born in November 1657 and died in 1661; and Fernando Tomás, born in December 1658, did not reach a year of life.

This is a portrait from life, in which the artist has concentrated on the face of the sitter and with the rest of the costume evidently unfinished. The immediacy of paint handling metaphorically transmits something of the experience of this lived encounter and for us, the viewers, the fascination of seeing the very tracks of his creativity. In the unfinished area of the costume, we can see the light cream priming layer typical of his later paintings, some schematic brush drawing in thinned black to demarcate the collar of the queen, and a preliminary modelling of the forms of the vertical lacework with light grey smudges and broad brushstrokes in grey and white, which reappear in the headdress. The same light grey hue articulates the shadows on the face cast in daylight, and reads as blue in the iris of the eyes. Despite the feeling of a certain “intimacy” here, given the “close-up” nature of the representation, the image conforms to the schema of the formal portrait, with the queen finely dressed and as much a creation of her hairdresser as the painter, and notionally looks towards the king on her right in a pendant image. In recording her features the artist could not have failed to see how closely she resembles her uncle and this was something which was doubtless regarded as a positive attribute. What did she think of her portrait? What did the artist think of her? We do not know.

Why was this portrait painted? What was its function? The evident lack of finish in the costume shows that it was not intended for public consumption. Although the picture is on view in a museum today, it is unlikely that many people would have seen it at the time. The likeness served as a model in order to generate other formal images of the queen and it was probably kept in the artist’s workshop for this purpose. It was necessary to disseminate images of the new queen both at home and abroad, and these were generally made by Velázquez’s assistants following prototypes by his own hand. That this was a practice of the artist in these years can be seen in the case of two other examples. One of these is the portrait of Mariana’s step-daughter the infanta Maria Teresa, now in the Metropolitan Museum [Figure 3], and the other is the painting of her husband in the Museo Nacional del Prado [Figure 4], who is portrayed without the insignia of the Golden Fleece. Among the versions of the portrait of Mariana known today, whose quality varies according to the techniques of reproduction and ability of the artists involved, the best version is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection [Figure 5]. This portrait of Mariana is evidently also the one shown in reverse in the mirror of Las Meninas (1656), a detail which has affected the dating of this work in the eyes of some scholars.

The picture was made early in the reign of the queen and was perhaps only the second time that she had sat to the royal painter. His first painting of her would appear to be the full-length portrait in the Museo Nacional del Prado [Figure 6], made soon after the artist’s return from Italy in mid-1651. It shows the queen in the full bloom of health and her potential for childbirth. This was itself an important prototype and two copies of it by Velázquez’s chief assistant, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (c.1611-1667) are known today. One of these in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna [Figure 7] was delivered to the archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels in 1653, along with portraits of the king and the Infanta María Teresa. Political expedients should not blind us to the sentimental dimension of the queen’s portrait – her father missed his daughter and after her departure for Madrid he regularly petitioned Felipe IV for a portrait of her, until one was dispatched to Vienna in December 1652, perhaps a version of the Meadows Museum picture.

This would also be Mariana’s last portrait sitting to Velázquez. She enjoyed a long life and presided over the multiple vicissitudes of her adopted country, and the many images of her by successive court painters represent her in the interrelated capacities of widow and regent, and queen mother. But this was all in a distant and unknowable future on the happy occasion when this young woman looked towards the eyes of the painter who portrayed her.

Further reading:

  • Cruz Valdovinos, José Manuel: Velázquez. Vida y obra de un pintor cortesano, Zaragoza, Caja Inmaculada, 2011
  • de Carlos Varona, María Cruz, Nacer en palacio. El ritual del nacimiento en la corte de los Austrias, Madrid, Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2018
  • Garrido, Carmen, Velázquez. Técnica y evolución, Madrid, Museo del Prado, 1992
  • Portús, Javier (ed.), Velázquez y la familia de Felipe IV, 1650-1680, Catálogo de exposición, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2013

Captions to works referred to in the text:

  • Fig. 1: 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. Photography by Michael Bodycomb
  • Fig. 2: Diego Velázquez, Portrait of María de Austria, c.1630. Oil on canvas, 59.5 x 44.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
  • Fig. 3: Diego Velázquez, Portrait of the Infanta María Teresa de Austria, c.1652. Oil on canvas, 32.7 x 38.4 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  • Fig. 4: Diego Velázquez, Portrait of King Felipe IV of Spain, c.1652. Oil on canvas, 69.3 x 56.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
  • Fig. 5: Workshop of Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana of Spain, c.1653-54. Oil on canvas, 66 x 56 cm. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection (on deposit in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona).
  • Fig. 6: Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Queen Mariana of Spain, c.1651. Oil on canvas, 234.2 x 132 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
  • Fig. 7: Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, Portrait of Queen Mariana of Spain, c.1651-52. Oil on canvas, 204 x 126.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.