The Secret Locket and the Intense Gaze: Spanish Portraits at MFAH


When I went to Paris for my 30th birthday, I thought I would fall in love with the city and its art. Although I blame the lingering winter and incessant rain for much of my disillusionment, there was so much of Paris that was reminiscent of everywhere else (like a Gap on the Champs) and so much of Paris I had already seen in photos. Going to Paris was like being at home watching a movie about Paris.

This was not the case when I went to Spain a few years later. Everything about it seemed like a secret, tightly wound, and ready to be unraveled. Madrid somehow carried the sophistication of an urban center and the regal nature of a former empire with easy balance. Madrid seemed to hold its past hand in hand with its future, which was evidenced by me going into a mantilla comb shop right next door to an electronics store.

Spain, known for its strict Catholicism and the Inquisition, is not as known for its art, per se, or at least not like France or Italy. El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya. That’s pretty much it. What most people don’t realize is that during the Inquisition, Court Painter Francisco Goya painted the first hints of pubic hair on a woman’s portrait (“The Naked Maja“) and that he painted one of the first depictions of homosexual fellatio (“The Madhouse“). And he got away with it. Spain in its quiet but intense way was a formidable part of the development of art and examples of El Greco ‘s work, particularly ‘The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse” remind me of the work by Edvard Munch many years later especially “Madonna.

Spanish art is like a secret picture in a locket: detailed and precise with a gaze of such intensity that it should emblazon love or at least duty on the breast of her who wears it.  My love for Spain is regularly carried around my neck as a black and gold bird pendant I bought across the street from El Prado – the same place  where my great aunt did some 50+ years earlier. And so the loan that El Prado made to the MFAH was like a trip back to Madrid when I discovered Jusepe de Ribera at the Thyssen Museum for the first time.

The collection of more than 100 works, includes pieces from Spanish greats as well as artists from other countries who worked in Spain (like Flemish Peter Paul Rubens) and Spaniards who were working in other countries (like Jusepe Ribera who worked primarily in Italy).

There is an existential intensity that links most of the works in the collection – an arrogance that speaks to the nature of the Spanish royalty. They took themselves seriously and never seemed to doubt their own authority. While French painters during some of the same periods were focused on color, energy, and outrageous clothing, the Spanish were painting stoicism – the unflinching gaze, the profound and wise wrinkles of the forehead, and the power that could be yielded in the larger than life hands.  The portraits seem to demonstrate that each subject’s place in the world was immobile and indestructible. Power, a restrained display of wealth, and faith are all parallel images in these portraits and yet when you look at many of them – like Empress Margarita Teresa of Austria or Don Tiburcio – it is as if they are daring you to ask the next question. And so it is with me and the Spanish portraits: continuously asking what the locket around a Queen’s neck holds and what her gaze is trying to tell me.

Below I would like to highlight a few of the works in the collection and then I finish the post with a quick biographical sketch of one of Spain’s most infamous queens. (Some of the information below is taken from the audio tour but since the catalog is sold out (what?!) I cannot give any credits.)


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Peter Paul Rubens “Vulcan Forging the Thunderbolt” (1636): Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish painter active in Spain. This piece, which is based on the Roman mythological character Vulcan, god of fires and volcanoes, shows the influence that Rubens will have on Goya some 100 years later, particularly in his piece “Jupiter Eating His Son.”

Francisco de Zurbaran “Hercules and Cerebus” (1634): Zurbaran, who painted primarily religious works, did a series of Hercules paintings for Philip IV, who saw Hercules as his doppelgänger and felt his reign was epitomized by  his power and virtue.


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Juan Carreno de Miranda “Eugenia Martinez Vallejo” (1680): Probably one of the most unsettling paintings in the collection is of Eugenia, also known as “The Little Monster.” Eugenia was born with probably a thyroid disorder and was 154 pounds at the age of 6. For court entertainment, Charles II had Eugenia live at the palace and had multiple paintings made of her – including those of her nude. When seeing this work it is impossible to not think of 20th century, Colombian painter Fernando Botero’s characteristic voluminous figures.

Diego Velasquez “Dwarf with a Dog” (1640) and “The Boy from Vallecas” (1638): Velasquez takes two different approaches to the Spanish obsession with oddities here. In “Dwarf with a Dog” he uses humor and scale to indicate the size of the dwarf but in “The Boy from Vallecas” his tone is more compassionate. When first approaching the painting you do not realize his stature. Velasquez, instead, uses subtle hints. Over 400 years later,  20th century photography Diane Arbus would later use her craft to show compassion to dwarves and others on the fringes of society.

Jusepe de Ribera

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Jusepe de Ribera “Democritis” (1630) and “Saint James” (1631 – 1637): Of all the painters highlighted in this collection, Ribera is my favorite. I first found Ribera at the Thyssen Museum and fell in love with “La Piedad (Lamentation on the Body of Christ)”. If Spanish art is about the gaze, then he is its master. While portraits throughout the show focus on, well, royal arrogance (Juan Bautista Martinez Del Mazo “Empress Margarita Teresa of Austria” (1665) or Juan Carreno de Miranda “King Charles II” (1681), Ribera’s ability lay in the subtle gestures of faces and hands that seem incredibly contemporary. Greatly influenced by his teacher, Caravaggio, Ribera’s Democritis has a smile that seems deeply emotion and heartfelt and Saint James seems to ask God for guidance without emotional rapture. While Charles II is commanding you, Democritis is talking with you. The ability to evoke true emotion – not drama, or politics, or history – is a rare gift and Jusepe de Ribera has it.

“The Madness of Queen Joanna of Castille”

Lorenzo Valles “The Madness of Queen Joanna of Castille” (1479- 1555): The only thing larger than this painting is the story behind it. In this portrait of Joanna – ruler of Castille and Aragon (modern Spain), Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, Philippines, Americas, and Burgundy Netherlands – mother to 2 emperors and 4 queens, we see her shushing the people surrounding the bed of her husband, Phillip the Handsome (heir to Flanders, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and France). Of course, it was not until I listened to the audio tour that I realized that Phillip was in his bed because she had him taken out of his tomb and she was asking priests to try to resurrect him. Hence the madness.

And here is the part of the post where I digress into history. (If you’re here for the art, you can quit reading)

History has not been the kindest to women, much less women in power, so let’s talk about Joanna for a moment because her treatment in this painting and other works at the time are an amalgamation of politics, gossip and misogyny. Unfortunately, the paintings, the poems, the operas – they are her legacy as they were of many women. Anne Boleyn ring a bell? The depiction of women in art is tricky and although the idea of Joanna being crazy and trying to resurrect her husband is amusing, I could not help but feel compassion for her. So I had to do some research.

Clearly, Queen Joanna was known for being crazy. In fact her husband, her father, and her sons and daughters all locked her away in a convent leaving her to die alone. But wouldn’t you if your daughter’s/wife’s/mother’s incarceration would give you widespread European control and immense wealth?

But how did Joanna get so rich, powerful and, well,  crazy? And should she have really been put on a 16th century reality show? Joanna was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand. (remember Christopher Columbus) She was incredibly bright, conversant in over 6 languages, an accomplished musician, dancer, and equistrian. She was raised to be a queen. At 16 she was married (by proxy – how romantic) to Philip the Handsome who’s dad had a pretty good gig – he was the Holy Roman Emporer.

I am going to do this as quickly as possible so all the politics make sense. When Isabella (mom) died, Ferdinand (dad) was no longer King (he was a regent), and Joanna was the heiress apparent. This was a downgrade for Ferdinand to say the least. However, it was stipulated that if Joanna was absent or unable to rule, Ferdinand could rule in her place. Thus begins the plotting.

After Joanna and Philip (her regent husband who just cavorted with hussies all the time), took over the throne, Ferdinand tried everything he could to take back the monarchy, but he was unsuccessful. A nearby Civil War ensued and so Ferdinand and Philip decided to join forces to protect the monarchy and strategized to exclude Joanna (the only true monarch of three of them) due to mental instability. But, poor Ferdinand, Philip trumped him and Ferdinand was left – again – without his royal status.

Shortly thereafter, Philip died, Joanna took over as sole monarch and the country fell into disrepair (plagues, famines, the whole nine  yards). Perfectly timed, Ferdinand made his way back into the picture and all plagues, etc vanished. Magic. That said, everyone wanted Joanna gone. Ferdinand (her dad, remember) asked her to give up her royal position. She refused. Therefore, he confined her to a convent. (Only a crazy person would refuse to stop being Queen, right?)

He remarried, hoping that he would produce an heir. But Ferdinand wasn’t up to snuff and he was left childless when his wife died. Please keep in mind, Joanna is still the Queen, by document et al and she is still in a convent.

By this point in time her oldest son, Charles I has reached the age of 17. Surely he will help his mom out, right? He visits her in the convent, gets her to sign a document to be co-monarch and then keeps her in the convent. Later, a group of rebels wanted to overthrow Charles and asked for Joanna’s assistance. She wouldn’t do that to her son (who has kept her confined in a convent).

So she died there – alone at the age of 75.  Historians agree that Joanna may have had depression or schizophrenia but her circumstances (above), pushing out 6 children (without dying), and having any type of opinion in a male dominated political superstructure  would probably  have driven anyone to appear if not actually be crazy.

I leave you with Joanna’s portrait and a THANK YOU that I was not a female living in 16th century Spain.


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