Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2010.

AN EQUESTRIAN PORTRAIT AT THE PRESIDENTIAL PALACE, VALLETTA

Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez*

 Hanging in the so-called Pages Room or Green State Room at the Presidential Palace in Valletta is an intriguing equestrian portrait of a young boy riding a prancing pony. The painting, executed in oil on canvas, measures 233.5 by 155.5 centimetres. Typical of the genre, the horse itself is an integral part of the portrait and denotes strength, virility and nobility. Such portraits have a commemorative function and usually celebrate kings, noblemen and great warriors.[1] Here the boy, armed with a sword and wielding a commander’s baton, strikes the stance of a successful field-marshal leading his troops into battle. The plumed broad-brimmed hat and rich riding outfit accentuate rank and dignity. The serious and dignified expression belies the character of the sitter. One would expect such a boy to ride a hobby-horse rather than a lively real-life horse, albeit a pony. Throughout, the picture exudes an air of superiority which the beholder accepts as real, because this is not the portrait of an ordinary child.

Similar Paintings

 Blanche Lintorn Simmons informs us that, in her days, the painting stood in the Armoury Corridor at the Palace and describes it as ‘Portrait of a Young Man – richly dressed in the Vandyck style, on a brown horse; known as A Spanish [p.468] Infante.’[2] It is clear that this portrait is a direct derivative from the charming equestrian portrait of the Infante[3] Don Balthasar Carlos painted by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) around 1635-36 for the Palacio del Buen Retiro that, since 1814, has been exhibited at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.[4] Two other paintings replicate Don Balthasar Carlos in the same stance, this time astride a black horse at the Palace riding School. Velázquez’s authorship of these informal equestrian portraits – one in the collection of the Duke of Westminster and the other in the Wallace Collection – is disputed. However, they may be positively ascribed to the workshop or circle of Velázquez.[5] Undoubtedly, the Westminster version is the more painterly and closer in execution to the hand of the master. The Wallace Collection version is more of a study and lacks the master’s zest and touch. It is currently held to be a studio version,[6] perhaps the work of Velázquez’s disciple and son-in-law Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1610/15-1667).[7]

King Carlos II of Spain

 The Infante Don Balthasar Carlos, Principe de Asturias, was the son and heir of King Felipe IV of Spain (1621-65). He was an attractive prince of great promise on whose shoulders rested the hopes of the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty. Unfortunately, these expectations were dashed to the ground when the young infante died aged seventeen in 1646. Arrangements had been made for him to marry his cousin, the Archduchess Maria Ana, daughter of Emperor Ferdinand III of Austria. This unexpected turn of events obliged the old Spanish king, by then a widower, to marry – for dynastic and political reasons – the young bride originally chosen for his deceased son. He was the bride’s maternal uncle and her senior by twenty-nine years. From this union was born, in 1661, the future King Carlos II, the last of the Spanish Hapsburg line.

Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685) Portrait of King Carlos II of Spain
Oil on canvas: 65 x 78 cm. San Francisco, California.

 [p.469] King Felipe IV died in 1665 and he was succeeded to the throne by his four-year old son who assumed the crown of Spain as King Carlos II with Queen Maria Ana assuming the regency for the duration of her son’s minority.[8] The painting under review, reproduced infra on page 471, is a portrait of Carlos II painted some time after his accession to the Spanish throne, and not of a Spanish infante. This is easily inferred through a comparison with known portraits of the king. At this point in time, the boy king would have been about ten years old and still maintained some of the rounded features of childhood that gradually disappeared into deformity as he grew older and his mental and physical impairments became accentuated. The bland facial expression and flaccid long hair running loosely over his shoulders positively identify, through comparative somatic likeness, with other well-known portraits of Carlos II.

If there ever was an unfortunate and unsuitable monarch, that person must surely have been King Carlos II of Spain. He was the result of genetic degeneration caused though inbreeding brought about by the habitual Hapsburg custom of arranged marriages between close family relatives. The hapless king, ravaged by diseases and incapable of procreation, died childless at the age of thirty-nine years on 1 November 1700. His death marked the end of the House of Hapsburg in Spain and plunged Europe into the War of the Spanish succession that lasted from 1701 to 1713 when it was concluded by the Treaty of Utrecht. The common people thought that the unfortunate Carlos II was the victim of sorcery and called him el Hechizado, meaning ‘the Hexed.’

Possible Provenance

In his 1826 inventory of the Palace paintings,[9] the painter Giorgio Pullicino (1779-1851) lists three portraits of Spanish kings,[10] one of which is described as representing a Spanish king on horseback. Pullicino’s somewhat cryptic description indicates the royal status of the horseman but fails to identify the sitter by name or present an adequate description of the painting.[11] Pullicino may have been referring to either the painting under review or to the equestrian portrait of King Carlos III by Antoine Favray (1706-98) which was once exhibited at the Palace but is presently on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts or, perhaps, to some other painting that has yet to be singled out.[12] Pullicino does not mention a Spanish infante.

[p.470] The canvas under review is certainly a product of the School of Madrid and may have been a diplomatic gift from the Spanish royal court to the grand master or a commission for the auberge of one of the two Spanish langues – either Castile or Aragon – in Valletta. Following the expulsion from Malta of the Knights of St John in 1798, paintings and furnishings pertaining to the palaces of the Order were subjected to relocations and removals. In 1800, the British authorities transferred Grand Master Pinto’s full-length portrait by Pierre Bernard (fl.1727-1750) from the Auberge de Castile to the Palace.[13] At this stage, one can only speculate as to the provenance and the possible original location of the portrait.

Spanish Royal Court Painters

Following the demise of Velázquez, the great master was succeeded in 1661 as court painter by his son-in law Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1610/15-1667). Del Mazo worked in the style of Velázquez and was an excellent imitator of the master.[14] Only a handful of paintings were actually signed by him and most of the works ascribed to him were, at one time or other, attributed to Velázquez himself.[15] Besides del Mazo, there were other painters working at court, including Sebastián Herrera Barnuevo (1611/19-1671) and Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-85).

Sebastián Herrera Barnuevo succeeded del Mazo as court painter in 1667.[16] He was a painter, sculptor and architect who trained under his father, the painter Antonio Herrera, and Alonso Cano. He was born and died in Madrid, was employed by King Felipe IV, and went on to serve Queen Maria Ana and King Carlos II. Herrera Barnuevo was an excellent colourist and a good imitator of Guido Reni.

The more talented Carreño de Miranda was a friend of Velázquez and, to all intents and purposes, was his real successor. He was of noble descent and a native of Aviles, Asturias, in the north of Spain, where he had received his initial artistic training under the painter Pedro de las Cuevas and, later on, under Bartolome Roman.[17] It was, however, in Madrid that he matured his art through his studies in the royal collection. Influenced by Titian and Rubens, he especially absorbed the lessons of Velázquez and Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) which marked his art, particularly his rendering of portraits.

In 1669, Carreño de Miranda was appointed court painter and, from that moment, he abandoned the painting of religious subjects to dedicate himself to portraiture. After Velázquez, he was the most important seventeenth century court painter in Spain. On the demise of Herrera Barnuevo in 1671, he was promoted to

[p.471]

Attributed to Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685) Equestrian portrait of King Carlos II
Oil on canvas: 233.5 x 155.5 cm.
The Presidential Palace, Valletta

 [p.472] painter to the queen. In this new position, he acquired a status similar to that held by Velázquez and painted a large number of portraits of King Carlos II and his mother Queen Maria Ana: the former pale, deformed and sickly, and the latter in the dull guise of a widowed queen. However, he carried out his duties with tact and sensibility, imbuing his sitters with the exalted aristocratic dignity that their lofty status warranted. Outside the lugubrious court atmosphere, the portraits he produced for the aristocracy regained life, colour and light, accentuating Spanish gravity through the use of pigments and graceful gestures reminiscent of Van Dyck.[18]

Other Equestrian Paintings

In the course of one of my periodic visits to Andalusia, my good friend Angel Navia Pajuelo accompanied me and my wife on an excursion to the historic city of Cádiz. I came across a painting which immediately brought to mind the equestrian portrait under review. The painting in Cádiz was acquired by the museum in 1830 from the collection of Doña Alejandrina Gessler de la Croix. In the nineteenth century, it was attributed to Velázquez but, currently, the canvas is attributed to Carreño de Miranda. It has, however, been argued that the head and other parts of the painting fall short of the hand of a master and may indicate the brush of Sebastián Herrera Barnuevo who, as already noted above, had been the court painter before de Miranda.

Attributed to Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685) Equestrian portrait of King Carlos II
Oil on canvas: 207 x 147 cm. Museo de Cádiz, Cádiz

In 2005, Alvaro Pascual Chenel studied, published and described an identical version of the same equestrian portrait of Carlos II from a private collection in

 [p.473]

Studio of Diego de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) The Infante Don Balthasar Carlos in the Riding School
Oil on canvas: 130 x 102 cm.
The Wallace Collection, London

 

Attributed to Diego de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) The Infante Don Balthasar Carlos in the Riding School
Oil on canvas: 144 x 96.5 cm. Duke of Westminster Collection, London

 

Diego de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) Equestrian portrait of the Infante Don Balthasar Carlos, Prince of Asturias
Oil on canvas: 209 x 173 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Sebastián Herrera Barnuevo (1611/1619-1671) Equestrian portrait of King Carlos II
Oil on canvas: 207 x 146 cm. Private Collection, Madrid

 [p.474] Madrid.[19] This painting bears an inscription that reads ‘Carlos Segundo Rey de España’, thus dispelling any doubt whatsoever with regard to the identity of the sitter. The portrait is ascribed to Herrera Barnuevo and is dated to c. 1670. Chenel considers the Madrid version to be superior in execution and the prototype for the coeval version in Cádiz and also to the equally identical versions extant at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and in the Monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla at Logroño.

Tentative Attribution

 Notwithstanding similarities in presentation, composition and iconography, the Valletta portrait is not a slavish replica of the versions in Madrid, Cádiz, Logroño and St Petersburg. In truth, the horse, with notable differences in the pigment of the feet, is strikingly the same. However, the background and landscape and the figure of the king are markedly different. Carlos II appears older than in the previously-mentioned versions and wears a different costume, denoting a subtle change in fashion noticeable in the design of the jerkin, breeches and boots that are worn below the knees rather than the high boots in the other paintings. The overall execution is certainly superior and the result is a much more dynamic and effective composition.

The elegant and dignified rendering of the sitter betrays a refined artistic personality capable of translating the art of Velázquez and Van Dyck into his own idiom. The portrait was probably executed in c. 1672 at a time when Carreño de Miranda was fully exercising his role as painter to the king. Further, the overall stylistic traits of the portrait induce me to suggest the hand of Juan Carreño de Miranda as the possible author of this alluring equestrian portrait.


* Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, born in Seville, Spain but a Maltese citizen since 1966, holds a BA (Hons) from the University of London together with an MA in History of Art and a Diploma in Librarianship and Information Studies from the University of Malta. He joined the Museums Department of Malta in 1976 and became a Curator of Fine Arts. In 1988, he was entrusted with the setting-up of the Malta Maritime Museum at Vittoriosa (which opened to the public in 1992) whose curator he was till 2002 when he became a member of Heritage Malta Management Team till his retirement in the summer of 2010. Antonio is an examiner and visiting lecturer in History of Art at the University of Malta, has served on various government committees and boards including the former Antiquities Committee, has served on the committees of a number of local heritage associations including the Malta Historical Society, and attended various international conferences and meetings on cultural heritage and museums including the executive council of the Association of Mediterranean Maritime Museums. He has a number of academic publications to his credit including various papers and two books: Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Malta (1990) and The Paintings at the Cathedral Museum, Mdina (2005).

[1] L. Impelluso, Nature and its Symbols, Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2004, 257.

[2]  2 B. Lintorn Simmons, Description of the Governor’s Palaces in Malta of Valletta, St Antonio and Verdala and Catalogue of the Pictures, Government printing Press, Malta 1895, 124, no. 30. Her father, General Sir John Lintorn Arabin Simmons was the Governor of Malta between 1884 and 1888.

[3] An Infante is a Spanish Royal Prince.

[4] A. Dominguez Ortiz/A. E. Pérez Sánchez/J. Gállego, Velázquez, Museo del Prado, Madrid 1990, 240-5.

[5] Ibid., 247-53.

[6] S. Duffy /J. Hedley, The Wallace Collection’s Pictures: A Complete Catalogue, Unicorn Press and Lindsay Fine Art, London 2004, 437-8.

[7] Dominguez Ortiz/Pérez Sánchez/Gállego, 253. The three portraits are reproduced infra on page 473. Dominguez Ortiz/Pérez Sánchez/Gállego, 253. The three portraits are reproduced infra on page 473.

[8] J.J. Menezo, Reinos y Jefes De Estado Desde el 1712, Historia Hispana, Madrid 1994, 190-1.

[9] L. Schiavone, ‘I tesori d’arte nel Palazzo Magistrale di Valletta nel 1826’, Il Delfino, Anno XV, n. 85, settembre/ottobre 1985, 7-15.

[10] Ibid.: p. 9 no. 41; p. 13 no. 169; p. 14 no 185.

[11] ‘169. Altro quadro ad olio, alto palmi 7, largo palmi 5½, un Re di Spagna a cavallo.

[12] A. Espinosa Rodriguez, Paintings at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Malta, Said International, Malta 1990, 122, no. 124.

[13] National Library of Malta Manuscript 1123, f. 69.

[14] A. Palomino, Las Vidas de los Pintores y Estatuarios Eminentes Españoles, Londres 1742, 103-4.

[15] I. Chilvers, Diccionario de Arte, Alianza Editoria, Madrid 1996, 616.

[16] A.P. Chenel, ’Un Nuevo ritrato de Carlos II, por Herrera Barnuevo’, Archivio Español de Arte, 2005, 179.

[17] Palomino, 137-9.

[18] D. Angulo Iñiguez, Historia del Arte, tomo II, Madrid 1984, 440-2.

[19] A.P. Chenel, 179. It is reproduced on page xxx.