Text by Deanna MacDonald
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In 1522 Emperor Charles V divided the Habsburg lands that he had inherited from his grandfather, Maximilian I, with his brother, Ferdinand I. The House of Austria, which controlled about a third of Europe, was thus split into a Spanish and an Austrian line. To keep all of that territory in Habsburg hands, the two branches intermarried for several generations and this portrait of the two-year-old Infanta Margarita Teresa (1651–1673) played a part in this dynastic alliance.
The Infanta Margarita Teresa was the first child of King Philip IV of Spain (1605–1665) and his second wife (and niece) the Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria (1639–1696). From infancy Margarita Teresa was engaged to her cousin and uncle, the future Emperor Leopold I. The Madrid court sent portraits of the Infanta at regular intervals to Leopold in Vienna, and as a result, the Kunsthistorisches Museum has three pictures of the princess by the great Seville-born artist, Velázquez, who was both a courtier and court painter to the Spanish Habsburgs from 1629 until his death.
In keeping with the traditions of period court portraiture, the little girl is posed to suggest royal bearing: rigidly upright, surrounded by luxury, with one hand resting on a table, the other holding a closed fan. She is dressed in the fashion of the day in a layered pink dress with silver brocade and black lace (children were generally dressed in miniature versions of adult fashion). The formality of the pose and setting however is contrasted by Velázquez’s loose, yet masterful, brushwork. While the Infanta’s face is startlingly focused, much of the painting – her dress, the carpet, the flowers - are composed of near Impressionistic daubs of colour. The blue drapery in the background is produced with broad brushstrokes and a play of light and shadow. But when viewed from a distance, the Infanta comes to life, a coherent and living presence.
It was not easy to be a successful court painter. The artist’s first task was to be a clever propagandist, for any royal portrait must promote the dynasty. This must be accomplished while flattering the subject, regardless of their actual appearance. In a portrait for a potential spouse, the subject’s pleasing appearance was even more important. There was little room left for observing character or psychology. Yet, somehow, Velázquez could do it all. Even with a toddler exhibiting the droopy Habsburg eyes, stiffly dressed and formally posed, he captures a sense of childhood in the preciousness of her tiny hands and rosy cheeks and the poignancy of a small child encased by the duties of dynasty.
Margarita Teresa was painted many times by Velázquez before his death in 1660, including the famous Las Meninas (Prado, Madrid). She married Leopold I in 1666 and died in 1673, giving birth to her seventh child.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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