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Signs of identity in Lady with a Fan by Diego Velazquez: costume and likeness reconsidered - Critical Essay
Art Bulletin, The,  March, 2004  by Zahira Veliz
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Continued from page 3.

The sitter's neckline is not the only costume detail pointing to French style. The discreet brown tone of the silk reflects the French taste for somber tones in dress fabrics. (49) The lace cuffs and gloves and, above all, the fan were essential elements of fashionable French dress at this time. Although many portraits of women throughout Europe showed their sitters holding a fan--usually closed--nowhere do they appear in such proliferation as among the fashionably dressed ladies of the French court. The prints of Abraham Bosse (1602-1676) (Figs. 8, 14, 15, 16) provide evidence for this ubiquitous accessory. Frenchwomen's fans are frequently depicted "in action," in contrast to the occasional Spanish examples, when the fans are usually closed and held still. Although as the century wore on, and in the eighteenth century especially, the fan entered into the stereotype of Spanish dress, during the seventeenth century the use of the fan as a fashion accessory was more stylish in France than in Spain. The essential accessory for a Spanish lady of fashion was more likely to be a large embroidered or lace-edged square of fine batiste cotton (Fig. 9). (50) The fan remained the ultimate symbol of elegance for French ladies. (51)

Fine kid leather gloves often appear among the accoutrements of fashionable ladies. Gloves, of course, cannot be claimed as exclusively French, as they formed a component of elegant dress throughout Europe. It is interesting, however, that some fifteen years before Lady with a Fan was painted, the future Charles I of England, on his unsuccessful mission to secure a Spanish bride, received as a gift from his hoped-for sister-in-law, Isabel of Bourbon, queen of Spain, one hundred pairs of kid gloves. (52) Were such gloves a usual royal gift? Could the prominence of the gloves on the sitter's hands in Lady with a Fan be a reference to the royal favor bestowed on the duchess of Chevreuse?

The simple ornaments in the lower right of Velazquez's portrait have until now defied clear identification and interpretation. After Lady with a Fan was cleaned in the 1970s, the shape and texture of these objects could be seen more distinctly, revealing them as a gold rosary looped around the sitter's wrist, a pale blue ribbon tied into a bow, a speck of vermilion red (another ribbon?), and, nearest to the lower edge of the painting, a reflective silver-colored object of indistinct shape (Fig. 10). In France, well-dressed ladies of the aristocracy and prosperous bourgeoisie were often portrayed with rosaries, particularly in the prints of Jacques Callot published in the 1620s (Fig. 11). In Spain, rosaries could be seen in common use, if we are to believe the words of Mme d'Aulnoy, a French traveler whose piquant and sometimes fantastic observations on Spanish manners were recorded in a diary of 1679. She criticized the carelessness with which the Spanish ladies carried their rosaries, even allowing them to trail on the ground as they went to church. (53) Nevertheless, few Spanish ladies are depicted with the rosary as an article of adornment. (54)

The mysterious silver object near the lower edge of the painting has been interpreted in the past as a crucifix or as a religious medal. (55) The broad cruciform shape suggested by Velazquez's brush, however, is very like the French seventeenth-century watchcase in the form of a crucifix recorded by Maurice Leloir (Fig. 12). (56) From the 1620s until the 1640s in paintings and prints of French ladies' costumes, three distinctly French items of adornment, the galand, or love knot, a small mirror, and a little case or watch frequently appear. These were attached by ribbons or chains to the corset waist, to hang down to the level of the hips (Figs. 13, 15-17). (57) Contemporary Spanish costume was without the adornments so prominent among the French (Figs. 17, 18). From 1635, a specially tied ribbon called the noeud d'amour became extremely popular, and it may be one of these that appears in Lady with a Fan. (58) These elegant trinkets were favored by aristocrats, while the bourgeoisie would probably carry items of greater practicality, such as scissors or small perfume bottles. (59) After the decree of 1633 prohibiting luxurious display in clothes, these ornaments replaced heavy precious jewelry as the preferred adornment. The importance of these little accessories can be judged by the extremely fashionable stalls of the Galerie du Palais in Paris, recorded by Bosse (Fig. 14), displaying gloves and fans, laces and ribbons, and ready-made noeuds d'amour. Contemporary literature also paid homage to this legendary site, one of the most popular places for those of the fashionable world of the court to gather, flirt, and adorn themselves:

   Icy faisant semblant d'acheter devant tous
   Des gants, des evantails, du ruban, des dentelles;
   Les adroits courtisans se donnent rendez-vous,
   Et pour se faire aimer galantisent les belles. (60)

   (Here they come to display themselves before all /
   Making their purchases of gloves, fans, ribbons, and
   lace; / The skilled courtiers come here to meet, / And
   to make love gallantly to the belles.)

The arrangement of the hair in Lady with a Fan is also in the French style, which featured loosely curled tendrils hanging softly at the sides of the face. (61) In contrast, the hairstyles of Spanish ladies of the 1630s and 1640s remained stiff and voluminous, at least in formal portraits.


However, not everything about the costume of Lady with a Fan is as emphatically French as the aspects so far discussed. For example, the black veil and the farthingale, or guardainfante (the rigid framework of iron hoops to support large, stiff skirts), worn by the sitter were typical of but not exclusive to Spanish fashion. By the 1630s the farthingale, which was certainly still seen throughout the 1620s, had slipped from popularity in France in reaction to the simpler, more natural line then in favor. The black transparent veil that drops in folds at the sitter's elbow is a very Spanish item, corresponding perfectly to the description given of the manto as a black veil falling to the hips that could be of different weights. But such articles were by no means unknown in France. "For a long time ladies have worn a long mourning veil to attend the funeral service (this costume was still in use in Spain some years ago); it was quickly noticed that this black crepe brought out the pallor of complexion and it was transformed into a headdress tied below the chin, which took the name 'tenebre.'" (62) An inventory of the period even described "a mantle of black Spanish cloth." (63) In Lady with a Fan it seems to be a manto de humo, a veil made from a very light, transparent material known also as soplillo, illustrated in an early-seventeenth-century print by Sebastian Vrancx and Peeter de Jode (Fig. 15). (64) In addition, black veils of a shorter length were recorded by Hollar (Fig. 21) and Bosse (Fig. 14), and even an English lady was depicted with a short black veil and a fan, in 1683. (65) While testing the hypothesis that Velazquez's sitter may be the duchess of Chevreuse, we must reflect on the fact that the only women's clothing she was known to have as she came into Spain was that given to her at the border. It is probable that once within Spain she was able to acquire additional clothing, and she may have been provided with apparel by her hosts in Zaragoza, not to mention in Madrid, where she stayed in the house of the duke of Alba, beautifully furnished for her. (66) Even if clothes were made for her, it is not surprising that something Spanish should appear in her costume. It should also be said that taste and fashion were not strictly contained by national boundaries, and, especially among the sophisticated and urbane, courtly fashion was to a limited degree international. However, regional dress characteristics must have been still strongly marked if we take as a documentary sample the dozens of prints illustrating European ladies' costume. The prints by Callot and Hollar in this article are examples in point.



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