One was promised as a child to significantly older uncle; she was dead by the age of 21. Another endured an arranged marriage to a womanising monster, whose mistresses lived in the family home. She died in pain in her forties. And the poor little boy, on whose shoulders the hopes of his family rested, met the grim reaper before his first teacher. Systematic inbreeding over several generations blighted the entire family.
The running order for a day-time tabloid tv show? You might think so. But this is not proletarian grotesques goaded into violence for viewers’ titillation – it is possibly the most poignant collection in any major art museum. The incipient conflict that these faces presage would engulf Europe in bloody war for nine years.
Welcome to the Velásquez collection in Vienna’s Kuntsthistorisches Museum.
Diego Velázquez (1599 – 1660) was image-maker in chief in the court of King Phillip IV of Spain. Widely considered among Europe’s most brilliant artists, his is referenced by major painters to this day. His patron Phillip’s empire, meanwhile, spanned the world and included much of Italy, the Netherlands and the ‘new world’. His reign, however, marked the end of Spain’s ‘golden age’ as the world’ pre-eminent power – not least because of problems with his heir.
Velazquez’ family portraits of the Hapsburg monarch’s children served far more purpose than brightening the palace walls. They were integral to Philip’s plan for both succession and, through beneficial marriage, to shoring up his waning imperium.
Maria Theresa (1660 – 1683) Phillip’s first daughter was destined to be a political pawn from birth. This portrait, commissioned when she was 15, was touted around Europe’s royal families in the hope that her likeness would catch an eye.
In this case, her father’s geopolitical luck was in inverse proportion to Maria Theresa’s marital good fortune. Louis XIV of France liked her smile and offered his hand. Louis – the Sun King – has a fair claim to be the world’s greatest monarch – a founder of the centralised proto-modern state, palace builder, and warrior. His performance as a royal husband, however, is eclipsed only by England’s Henry VIII. The pious Maria Theresa bored Louis within a year of matrimony, so he installed a succession of lovers at Versailles, some of whom even acted as his public consorts.
Her sister Margaret Theresa’s fate (1651 – 1673) was more tragic still. As a child she was betrothed to her uncle, Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, 26 years her senior. The series of paintings of her that were completed when she was three, five and eight were sent to uncle Leo in Vienna, so that he might eye up his bride as she matured. Around the time that the middle portrait was completed, Velásquez also painted Las Meninas. This large group portrait is among the most discussed paintings in western art. It’s immortality of a sort – but scant compensation for what marriage brought her. By the age of 21 she had four children and many miscarriages. Weakened beyond endurance, she did not make it beyond adulthood’s threshold.
Her brother, Balthasar Charles (1629 – 1646) – depicted here when he was thirteen – perished from smallpox before he was an adult.
Philip Prosporo (1657 – 1661) was Philip’s first son from his second marriage to survive infancy. Great joy greeted his birth as it was hoped that a male successor would end the vicious dynastic quarrels that threatened Hapsburg pre-eminence. It was daring of Velásquez to fearlessly depict his fragility. He had to paint quickly, though, the boy was dead before he was four.
Glittering as was Philip’s court and extraordinary as are these paintings (their depth and luminosity are several scales of magnitude beyond that suggested by my photographs), the Spanish Empire was fatally weak. Within 40 years of Philip’s death, Europe’s new powers were at each other’s throats in the War Of The Spanish Succession, an unholy quarrel over who should take over control of his disparate territories.
Perhaps, on balance, bequeathing the world a remarkable collection of great art is a more enduring and noble achievement than leaving behind a great empire. It is hard, however, not to shed a tear for the children who, through no fault of their own, so catastrophically failed to live up to their father’s expectations.