January Treasure of the Month

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January Treasure of the Month

Prince Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School by the Studio of Velázquez

The Treasure of the Month series offers the opportunity to highlight less well-known works from the collection as well as to look with fresh eyes on beloved masterpieces. This month we focus on this recently conserved painting of Prince Baltasar Carlos by the Studio of Velázquez.

This painting depicts Prince Baltasar Carlos (1629–1646) age seven riding on the grounds of the Palace of the Buen Retiro, on the outskirts of Madrid. Behind him a valet hands the court’s riding master a lance, which he will in turn give to the prince. In the background, other members of the court prepare to watch the spectacle, whilst, in the middle ground, a rider is shown running at the tilt, foreshadowing the exercise the prince is about to engage in. On the 4th February 1636, the young heir to the Spanish throne practiced tilting for the first time. This was a momentous event in the life of the young boy, worth being recorded in the city’s official records of royal visits and births, and portrayed by the court painter, Diego Velázquez (1599–1660).

This highly original composition is a combination of equestrian portraiture and genre scene. It is a steep departure from previous equestrian portraits and breaks the sober and restrained conventions of Spanish royal portraiture. The thinly and sketchily painted scene unrolling behind the prince takes the viewer deep into areas of the court never seen before where less formal activities took place. Yet, despite the relaxed atmosphere of the scene, this is a powerful image that conveys a strong political statement. The prince’s masterful control of his horse and the exercise he is about to engage in foretell his ability as a ruler and future leader of the Spanish armies. The birth of Baltasar Carlos had brought new hopes and positivity to the Habsburg Court at a time of decline in the Spanish Empire.

The present painting is a contemporary version of the Prince Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School, painted by Velázquez around 1636, now in the Grosvenor Estate. Commissioned by the powerful First Minister Count-Duke Olivares (1587–1645), it prominently depicts Olivares in the foreground, standing beside the heir to the Spanish throne. Both paintings are closely related, yet some key differences in the figures depicted, particularly the absence of Olivares, have raised numerous questions regarding the attribution, dating and commission of the Wallace version. The recent cleaning and removal of the old discoloured varnish has enabled us to once again appreciate its original beauty and detail. This and the technical analysis carried out on it may help us address some of the many questions surrounding the painting, allowing us to look at this masterpiece with fresh eyes.

The painting was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in the Samuel Rogers sale in 1856 under the recommendation of his agent Mawson, as one of the gems in the sale.

- Natalia Muñoz-Rojas, the Enriqueta Harris Frankfort Curatorial Assistant of Paintings.

Gallery Talks

Wednesday 8 and Thursday 23 January at 1pm in the Great Gallery, with Natalia Muñoz-Rojas, the Enriqueta Harris Frankfort Curatorial Assistant of Paintings.