The making of a magnanimous monarch
Research into a Velázquez portrait uncovers the real reason for the commission
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 217, October 2010
Published online: 27 October 2010
NEW YORK. Research conducted during the conservation and study of a royal portrait by Velázquez has uncovered details related to the work’s intent and unusual public debut. In 2009, the Frick Collection in New York identified a 1644 military portrait of King Philip IV of Spain as a work that could improve with conservation. It was sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s head of paintings conservation Michael Gallagher to remove varnish and wax layers that had obscured the picture’s details.
While the painting underwent treatment, the museum’s former Andrew Mellon curatorial fellow Pablo Pérez d’Ors began researching its history. In 1644, Philip travelled to Fraga to quell a Catalan rebellion. Anticipating the imminent capture of the nearby stronghold of Lérida, Philip commissioned Velázquez to create a victorious military portrait. The painting served as a stand-in for the king who had to remain in Catalonia during the victory celebrations in Madrid.
Although details of the work’s commission were well documented, the noticeable lack of swagger normally associated with victory portraits puzzled scholars. This was until D’Ors found the previously unknown sermon that accompanied the portrait’s public debut at the Church of San Martín. The sermon portrays Philip as a forgiving father whose victory was a result of divine right, likening the Catalan rebel to fallen angels. “We wondered why this military victor was so understated and rather laconic and less expressive of might and royal power. Pablo’s discovery has enabled us to read this picture so much more easily,” said the Frick’s chief curator Colin Bailey.
This research coupled with the picture’s cleaning offers insight into the portrait. “What is very visible now that was not visible before is how superbly constructed the picture is—the speed and virtuosity with which he paints, the shifts he makes to create a more dynamic picture,” said Bailey. The portrait is the subject of an exhibition at the Frick (until 23 January 2011).
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