Spanish Golden Age Art: Portraits and their Significance.

Golden Age Art: Portraiture.

Pictorial representations of people stretch back in Europe to Greece and Rome, although surviving examples exist primarily on painted vases, mosaics and frescos. During the Middle Ages, the Christian view of the material world as generally worthless discouraged realistic features, associating human representation with the sin of pride. Depictions of people were non-specific, to the degree that saints, for example, could only be identified by symbols associated with them (e. g. keys with Peter)

It was in the late 14th and early 15th centuries that portraits began to appear in northern Europe and Italy. They especially flourished in Flanders where the discovery of oil as a medium allowed endless reworking and thick applications resulting in greater detail and greater resistance to aging.

Hans Memling. Virgin and Child between St. James and St. Dominic. 1488-90. Several of those in prayer are drawn from real life.

On a very modest scale initially, these early portraits appeared primarily in two forms. 1. They were inserted in the side panels of altarpiece triptychs (or occasionally to the side of the central panel) commissioned by wealthy donors (kings, nobility, church hierarchy, merchants).

In this way, their likeness and perhaps that of family members –kneeling and at prayer–, would be immortalised in the holiest part of the church. It was also a means of displaying the donor’s high social status and piety. 

2.  An affluent bourgeoisie prospered in Flanders thanks to its commercial activities (Castile was a major exporter of wool for the booming Flemish textile industry). As a result, successful merchants, wishing to celebrate their wealth and status, commissioned small, modest portraits of themselves.

Among the most outstanding early practitioners of both donor paintings and single portraits were artists from Flanders: Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), Rogier van der Weyden (ca 1400-1464), or artists who moved to Flanders from e. g. France or Germany: e. g. Robert Campin (born France ca 1378-1444), and Hans Memling (born Germany ca. 1440-94).

Portraiture in Spain’s Golden Age. The Artists.
After religious topics, portraiture was the most popular subject for painters in Spain’s Golden Age (generally the 16th and 17th centuries). However, it was Flemish and Italian painters who dominated the field in Spain for much of the 16th century, thanks to the enormous prestige and influence they enjoyed and to the sponsorship of royalty and aristocracy.

As a result, native Spanish portrait painters were relative latecomers to the field although considerable cultural, commercial, religious and political contacts between Spain, Flanders and Italy allowed Spaniards to keep abreast of artistic developments in those countries. Still, we have to wait until the second half of the 16th century for the first Spanish portraitist of note: Alonso Sánchez Coello (ca 1531-88).

Early on, Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) set the tone, employing the Flemish artists Juan de Flandes (?-ca 1519) and Michiel Sittow (1468-1526) as court painters. Isabella’s grandson and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-1558), favoured the great Italian artist Titian, while his son, Philip II (1527-98) –also an admirer of Titian — appointed the Flemish painter Antonis Mor (ca. 1520-ca 1576) as royal painter. Interestingly, too, was the appointment as royal painter of Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1540–1625), an Italian lady and first woman to be appointed royal painter in Spain.

Philip III (1578-1621) did not have his father’s interest in art nor indeed much inclination in governing. The chief figure in the administration of the country and in collecting art was the court favourite, the Duke of Lerma (Francisco de Sandoval y Rojas). The scene in Spain was still dominated by Italian painters decorating the Escorial, Philip II’s massive palace-monastery just north of Madrid. Of the six royal painters, the most pre-eminent was the Italian-born Vicente Carducho (1585-1638).

Philip IV (1605-65), like his grandfather, Philip II, was a major benefactor of artists and his reign (1621-65) represents the peak of Spanish Golden Age art, with native painters now pre-eminent: e. g. Diego de Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), Jusepe de Ribera (1588-1652), and Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660). It was Velázquez who achieved the pinnacle of recognition, being appointed court painter (a rank higher than royal painter) in 1628 when still only 30 years old.

The Significance of Portraits.
For the rich and powerful in Spain as in other European countries, the implications of marking status or office and achieving enduring fame through art was clear. But paintings had other significant functions. For example, portraits of royalty also carried propaganda value, promoting the monarchs’ presence through copies hung in palaces and places of public gathering throughout their realms.

Antonis Mor: Philip II ca. 1549.

Given the semi-divine status of kings, their portraits projected gravitas, or solemnity and dignity, that was required to convey the sense of distance and unapproachability inherent in the relationship between monarch and subject.

While the portraits captured the likeness of the monarch, more important was the projection of image, i. e. the persona, captured by a stern or expressionless face, by his or her regal bearing, and the garments and symbols of authority worn. Antonis Mor’s portrait of Philip II  captures excellently the persona of the prince cast against a dark background that removes all distraction for the viewer. There is an air of aloofness in the face and power underlined by the widespread and powerful arms highlighted by the contrasting white of the sleeves.

Juan de Flandes: Catherine of Aragon. C. 1496.

Portraits were also very important in consolidating marriages between respective parties. For instance, portraits of the daughters of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, were sent to European courts to acquaint possible marriage partners with their likeness.

Titian. Philip II as prince 1551.

Similarly, Titian’s painting of Philip II in armour (1551) was sent to England when arrangements were made for his marriage in1554 to Queen Mary (Tudor), while Mary’s portrait painted by Philip’s court artist, Antonis Mor, was sent to Spain (see below).

Antonis Mor: Mary Tudor. 1554.

Antonis Mor established in his royal portraits features that were to characterise paintings of the Hapsburg dynasty in Spain: Figures painted with few symbols of their status, although they were often dressed in sumptuous costumes highlighted against a dark or muted background. Muted backgrounds became common in portraits, reducing distraction and emphasising the sitter.

One of the most famous royal portraits of the 16th century is that of Charles V on horseback, in full majestic and imperial splendour.  Painted by his favourite, Titian, after Charles’s victory over Protestant forces at the Battle of Muhlberg (1547), it shows the king seated on the same horse and wearing the same polished armour that he wore in battle.

Charles V, painted by Titian, 1548, following the Battle of Muhlberg, 1547. A public image of the imperial, triumphant, warrior king.

It captures superbly the image of Charles as a man of action. The famous Hapsburg jaw, the lance at the ready and the calm control of the prancing horse convey strength and determination in tune with the concept of heroic majesty.

Sánchez Coello. The Infantas Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela.

The first Spanish-born portraitist of note, Alonso Sánchez Coello (ca 1531-88), was a student of Mor, and contributed numerous portraits of Philip II’s family. However, his star has now dimmed owing to numerous and inferior copies wrongly attributed to him and to the appearance of several highly gifted native artists.

El Greco. Fray Hortensio Paravicino. 1609.

Although not a native Spaniard and better known for his religious paintings, El Greco (ca.1541-1614) showed his prodigious talent at capturing the spirit and character of the sitter in the few portraits that he did. Virtually all his subjects were from Toledo or associated in some way with the city’s elite.

Even more talented at capturing the spirit and character of his sitters was the most accomplished Spanish portrait painter of the Golden Age: Diego Velázquez. His subjects varied widely, from the severe looking Mother Jerónima de la Fuente (1620) wielding her cross (before heading for the Philippines), to court dwarves, and his famous portraits of royalty and nobility (e. g. Philip IV or the Duke of Olivares).

Velázquez: Jerónima de la Fuente 1620

The peak of his achievement is generally conceded to be Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting, 1656) in which he audaciously includes a self portrait while relegating the King and Queen to reflections in a mirror.

By the end of the 16th century, portraiture expanded to include scenes from every day life, with ordinary –even socially marginalised– individuals. These were painted so realistically that although nameless or unidentified they were almost certainly drawn from real life.

We can see this in Jusepe de Ribera’s Boy with a Club Foot (1642), or the unnamed peasant in his Sense of Taste (ca. 1613-16), Murillo’s somewhat sentimental urchins, Zurbarán’s monks, and Velâzquez’s Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618) or The Waterseller (ca. 1620).

Jusepe de Ribera. Boy with a club foot. 1642.
Murillo. Boys eating melon and grapes. 1645.


Velázquez: Old woman Frying Eggs 1618.

The depiction of ordinary subjects or everyday life did not appear in a vacuum. On the one hand, it responded to the study of the real world and imitation of nature advocated by Italian painters led by Caravaggio (1573-1610).

On the other hand, it complemented one of the dictates of the Catholic Church set out in the Council of Trent (1545-63): that biblical stories should be represented as naturally as possible.

It also reflected a general shift in literature in Spain, best illustrated in the novel where romances of chivalry, pastoral and Byzantine novels gave way to the daily struggles of common people depicted in picaresque works (e. g. Guzmán de Alfarache, El Buscón) and to related realistic novels set in contemporary society (e. g. Don Quixote).

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven and London 1998
Glendinning, O. N. V “The Visual Arts in Spain,” in Russell, P. E. ed. Spain. A Companion to Spanish Studies, pp. 473-542 New York 1987
Museo Nacional del Prado: The Prado Masterpieces London New York, 2016
Warner, Malcolm Portrait Painting New York 1979
Hans Memling. Virgin and Child: By Hans Memling – Own work, PHGCOM, 2009, Public Domain,
Juan de Flandes: Catherine of Aragôn:
Antonis Mor: Philip II and Mary Tudor:
Titian: Charles V on Horseback:,_Holy_Roman_Emperor.
Sânchez Coello: The Princesses: By Alonso Sánchez Coello – [2], Public Domain,
El Greco: Fray Hortensio:
Velázquez; Jeronima de la Fuente:
Jusepe de Ribera: Boy with Clubfoot:
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo: Boys Eating Grapes and Melon: