Proud Parents: A Family Snapshot from 17th Century Spain

Earlier this week Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, died suddenly at the age of 64. One of the wealthiest people in the world, the Duke owned much of Mayfair and Belgravia, two of the best neighborhoods in London. Under the British system of taxation his son and heir, who will presumably become the 7th Duke, will be faced with an enormous bill for his inheritance, often referred to colloquially as “Death Duties”.

While I don’t pretend to understand why and how the British tax things as they do – such as having a license for a television set, which will cost you almost $200 a year for one color TV – I do know that in Britain when the wealthy and/or titled die, their heirs often have to sell off some of the art and antiques from the family home in order to pay their taxes, or give such things to the government in lieu of paying said taxes. In fact, many of the objects currently in UK museums found their way there because of this tax system.

In the case of the Grosvenors, the family has been collecting art for quite a long time, and as The Art Newspaper points out, there are some major Old Master paintings in their collection, including works by Gainsborough, Claude, and Stubbs. There is no suggestion that any of these works will be headed to the auction house or National Gallery in London any time soon. However one painting in the collection that I would like to draw your attention to is by my favorite Spanish Old Master painter, Velázquez. It is not a very well-known painting, but its subject will be familiar to anyone who has studied art history.

Prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646) was the only son of the Habsburg King Felipe IV of Spain and his 1st wife, Queen Elisabeth de Bourbon, the daughter of King Henry IV of France and his wife, Queen Marie de’ Medici. As such, he represented the union of some of the most important families in European history. He also represented the imperial hopes of many in his country since, although its star had begun to fade, at the time Spain was still the most powerful empire in the world.

Sadly, those hopes were dashed when the Prince caught smallpox while attending a memorial service for his late mother, and died without issue at the age of 17. Felipe IV would marry again and have more children, and one of his sons would survive to be crowned King Carlos II. However the impotence of Baltasar Carlos’ half-brother would mark the end of the Habsburg rule of Spain, which in turn accelerated the decline of the Spanish Empire.

Despite his relatively short life, Baltasar Carlos had a profound impact on the history of art, not because of his own patronage, but because of that of his father. The portraits of the Prince which the King ordered from Velázquez, in particular, have been popular for centuries now. Their compositions have influenced portrait painters and photographers right up to today. 

The skill of the artist in lending a regal, dignified quality to images of a young boy was no small feat, but he tied his artistry in perfectly with the family’s ambitions. Two famous examples of this are in The Prado, showing the Prince in hunting attire accompanied by his favorite dogs, and another of him riding a galloping pony, represent Habsburg dynastic propaganda at its finest. However there is another, more informal portrait of the prince that many are completely unaware of, since it has been in the collection of the Dukes of Westminster for the past two centuries.

The Velázquez belonging to the Grosvenors is known by various titles, but it is often referred to as “Prince Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School”. It was painted in around 1635, and shows the young Prince on horseback at the Retiro Palace in Madrid. In the background, we see his parents standing on a balcony, watching their son’s riding lesson, while in the middle ground we see his father’s Prime Minister, the Conde-Duque de Olivares, standing with other courtiers. Although the Retiro Palace itself no longer exists, those of my readers who have been to Madrid will immediately recognize not only the very Castilian architectural style of the building shown in the painting, but also the towering clouds and big skies that characterize this part of Spain.

This is not a great work by Velázquez, and there is some scholarly dispute over exactly how much of it (if any) he himself actually painted, and how much was painted by his assistants. And yet in its way, I find this is a very charming picture. It adds to the mental image that one can shape of life at that time, and further humanizes a family which we already know from the many formal images that they had painted of themselves.

The Westminster painting is a snapshot of family life at court, almost like seeing parents seated in the bleachers, watching their son come up to bat at baseball practice. It evokes those feelings of pride which all parents have, when watching their children grow and play. At the same time, the piece perfectly captures the skies that are so particular to Madrid, with the idiosyncratic, Austro-Moorish towers and rooflines that still dot the old part of the city. The combination makes it more interesting, and more unusual, than many other, more formal pieces from this period, which are so often set indoors against plain backdrops.

Whatever their tax bill, one hopes that the Grosvenors will be able to hold on to this rather unique, pleasing work of art.

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