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Signs of identity in Lady with a Fan by Diego Velazquez: costume and likeness reconsidered - Critical Essay

Art Bulletin, TheMarch, 2004   by Zahira Veliz

Renowned as a great portraitist in the seventeenth century, the Spaniard Diego Velazquez stands with Rembrandt as an artist whose works can be viewed as wordless essays on the human condition. In addition to serving as records of likeness, most portraits are repositories of clues to the values that brought artist and sitter together. Velazquez's portraits are arresting and memorable images that invite exploration of the circumstances of their making, which leads to a more informed reading of the artist's work. The analysis of Lady with a Fan can be seen as a case study that expands our ways of understanding and thinking about early modern portraiture.

The Lady with a Fan is an enigmatic work among portraits by Velazquez (Fig. 1). As painter to Philip IV of Spain, Velazquez principally recorded the appearance of members of the Spanish royal family and the high nobility, figures that are easy to recognize. However, the sitter in Lady with a Fan has not yet been convincingly identified, despite attempts to do so, perhaps because crucial signs in the portrait have been misinterpreted. The portrait itself is our most reliable evidence for the encounter between the artist and sitter, as little documentary information has come to light. The details of the costume that will be analyzed below suggest the sitter is dressed according to French fashion of the late 1630s. Therefore, the possibility exists that she is a Frenchwoman. The only reference indicating that Velazquez painted a Frenchwoman is found in a letter dated January 16, 1638, which states that he was portraying the exiled duchess of Chevreuse, then living in Madrid under the protection of Philip IV. (1) Until now, identifying the woman in Lady with a Fan with Marie de Rohan, duchess of Chevreuse (1600-1679), has been passed over for two reasons. First, it was believed that no resemblance could be discerned with other portraits of the duchess, and second, it was assumed that her costume revealed a Spanish tapada (a precursor to the popular majas of the eighteenth century) or a member of Velazquez's own family. Arguments can now be marshaled that clarify both likeness and costume and, concomitantly, the significance of pose and gesture, all of which lead to a new reading of the image.

Lady with a Fan, while accepted as a painting by Velazquez, is distinctly short on early documents. On the basis of its place in Velazquez's stylistic development, the portrait has been dated to 1638-39, and it was first registered in the collection of Lucien Bonaparte in the early nineteenth century. (2) It has been assumed that he acquired it in Spain when he was there in 1801. As no earlier record of the painting in any Spanish collection exists, however, it is possible that he acquired it either in England or in Italy, where he spent most of the period of the Napoleonic Wars, or even in France, as suggested by the episode between the then duke of Luynes, a direct descendant of the duchess of Chevreuse, and Lucien Bonaparte. While at dinner in the latter's house, the duke of Luynes recognized on his host's walls two pictures that had formerly belonged to him, and that "he had been obliged to sell to antique dealers, in the time of sequestrations, imprisonments, and immigrations." (3) Lucien Bonaparte promptly had the pictures taken down and returned to the duke. Unfortunately, no positive evidence remains that Lady with a Fan was ever inventoried in any of the family collections. The duchess of Chevreuse passed her Paris house to the son born of her first marriage and retired to the convent at Gagny in 1663. (4) Any inventories made at the time of this property transfer have been lost. By 1847 the painting was in the Hertford Collection, later forming part of the Wallace Collection. A variant of the portrait, believed to have come to England before 1753, when it appeared in the inventory taken at the death of Lord Burlington, now resides at Chatsworth (Fig. 2). (5) An entry in the 1689 inventory of the marquis of Carpio's collection--"A painting of a woman with a black lace veil on her head, with a square lace collar, and yellow dress with black stripes, an original by Diego Velazquez, one and one third vara in height, and one half and a sixth in width, framed, 1000 reales"--seems to identify the Chatsworth painting. (6) This portrait was in the quarta pieza (fourth room) of Carpio's house El Jardin de San Joaquin, where it hung with some twenty other portraits of men and women, about ten religious paintings, and five mythological or secular subjects. (7) The intriguing relationship between the two versions will be discussed below.

When we stand before the painted image of a human being and attempt to penetrate the character, assess the status, and identify qualities of the personality represented to our eyes, we imitate the encounter between the sitter and the artist. Besides the face, visual elements that accompany it act on us in our interpretation of the sitter. (8) Awareness of the conventions of representation with which both artist and sitter were fluent will enrich our reading of the image, and in the case of Velazquez, illuminate the "episodio biografico" (biographical episode) within the portrait. (9) As in all human encounters, there must have been expectations on both sides. The sitter, presumably, was desirous of being portrayed and perhaps curious to see how she would be perceived by a celebrated professional. She might well have had a clear notion of how she wished to be seen, or the code of her social class may have dictated the mode of her representation. The artist would study his subject, analyze her form, and take her physical and metaphorical measure. Sympathy--or its absence--between artist and sitter might influence the representation, although this subjective quality would be difficult to assess historically. The complex ritual of portraiture in the seventeenth century relied on a series of theatrical conventions that resulted in an image more layered and composed than the pieces of reality we capture at the present time in spontaneous or random snapshots. (10)

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