Fernando VII [Ferdinand VII]

Fernando VII [Ferdinand VII]

  • 1832
  • Oil on canvas
  • 187 x 135 cm
  • Cat. P_143
  • Commissioned from the artist by the Banco Nacional de San Carlos in 1828
  • Observations: Existe un dibujo preparatorio en la Biblioteca Nacional.

King Ferdinand VII (1784-1833) is shown seated, with his feet extending into the foreground of the picture. This gives a sense of physical closeness. This is an 'official' portrait, and as such it contains numerous allusions to the sitter's rank, responsibilities and honours. There are also references to the intended destination of the picture. The king is dressed in his Captain General's uniform, with its red sash over his stomach, a sword hanging on the left side of his waist and his staff of command, all of which are traditional emblems of Spanish monarchs. On his chest he wears various insignia denoting his status and lineage. For example that of the Toisón de Oro ['Golden Fleece'] is a constant in royal portraits from the Habsburgs onwards. Beside it is the insignia of the Order of Charles III, which can be identified by its image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. He also bears the blue and white sash of the same order across his chest. Below it is the insignia of the Order of Isabella the Catholic. All these insignia are closely linked to the Spanish monarchy. The symbolic rhetoric of the portrait is supplemented by the table with the red cloth on which the king's left hand is resting. On it are a writing set and several books, which presumably represent an attempt to update his image as a king aware of his responsibilities. The spine of the book on which his hand rests reads 'Real Cédula del Banco de San Fernando'. This book was published in 1829.

At the time of the painting, Ferdinand VII was forty-five years old. He lived just four more years. This portrait is thus a magnificent depiction of his physical appearance and facial expression in the latter part of his reign. He is seated in quite a relaxed posture, even lounging a little, unconcernedly holding his staff of command. His expression is verging on a smile, making it very different from the impassiveness, remoteness and gravitas with which Spanish kings were traditionally portrayed.

This is one of the best documented works in the Banco de España Collection: the dates on which it was commissioned and delivered are known more or less exactly and there is also a sketch (at the National Library in Madrid) that helps understand the creative process behind it. The work was first mooted by the Banco de San Carlos in mid 1828, making it one of the last expenditures of its kind by the institution before it was superseded by the new Banco de San Fernando. Having had no news as to the progress of the painting, in November 1829 the Director of the latter bank asked Vicente López about it, with the excuse that the bank needed a picture of the king to hang at the celebrations to mark his marriage to Maria Christina of Bourbon. The artist replied that 'my tasks in the service of His Majesty [...] are of a kind that do not always brook delay, so I have been unable to devote all my time to His Majesty's portrait'. The portrait was finally paid for in 1832: the painting itself cost 9000 reales and the frame 3860.

This price is in line with the worth and interest of the work, which were recognised from the outset. The Bank's own appraisals show this. In 1857 it was valued at 14000 reales, i.e. far more than Goya's painting of Charles III (2200 reales) or any of the portraits of governors also painted by Goya (between 1000 and 1200 reales). In the second half of the 19th century Tomás Varela wrote that the artist assured this to be 'the finest portrait there is' of Ferdinand VII, and in the 20th century, praise was heaped on it by all specialists in the work of Vicente López.

The work occupies a significant place among the numerous portraits painted by López, in terms of both its quality and its unique composition. It brings together all the traits that made him Spain's number one portrait artist of his generation, and an essential name in any overview of the history of the genre in Spain. The wide variety of fabrics and objects that appear in the picture permit him to show off his skills in drawing and his ability to reproduce textures, which is one of the virtues for which he is most admired. He also uses a very wide range of colours, which he combines with great skill. The green of the king's breeches is set off by the ochres and greens in the column, the curtain and the wall. These hues are combined with various shades of red to define the chromatic setting of the painting. The surviving preliminary sketch highlights the great care that Vicente López took in creating the work. Strikingly, one important detail of the painting is missing from the sketch: the stool on the right in the foreground on which a hat rests. This is a very interesting feature in compositional terms, as its front-on position highlights the oblique angle at which the figure of the king is depicted. It also gives López a chance to show off his great skills as a sketch artist, as the depiction of the hat required all his expertise in the use of perspective.

The painting is not only important for its intrinsic quality, but also as an example of its type. In the long history of Spanish portrait art up to that time, monarchs had mainly been painted standing or, occasionally, on horseback. There are very few seated portraits (though a few do exist, e.g. that of Charles V by Titian). In the case of Ferdinand VII the explanation may lie in his gout, but the posture is well suited to the intended destination of the painting. Although he is dressed as a general, the military and command attributes are shown in a fairly relaxed manner and the prevailing image is of a convivial man. Symbolically, great importance is attached to the writing set and the articles of association of the bank on the table by his right hand. From the perspective of the bank, there is a significant precedent for this style of portrait: the painting of the Count of Altamira. The latter is also shown seated with his left hand resting on a table containing a writing set. The rest of the rhetorical features are much more varied in the case of Ferdinand VII. Vicente López (b. Valencia, 1772 - d. Madrid, 1819) was an admirer and friend of Goya, as evidenced by the portrait he painted of him in 1826 (Museo del Prado, Madrid), just two years before the commission for the Banco de San Carlos. It is quite probable that when he undertook the portrait shown here his painting of his colleague, also produced for the bank, was in his mind.

Javier Portús

The preparatory drawing for this work preserved at the Biblioteca Nacional shows the king seated, with very slight alterations made on the final canvas. These details include the decoration of the table he sits next to, the presence of the inkstand and the monarch’s hat, and other small differences, showing the sketch to have been drawn in preparation for the great canvas at Banco de España. However, the most interesting thing about this drawing is perhaps its relationship with another one, also preserved at the Biblioteca Nacional, where López rehearsed a dual portrait of the monarch that he never came to paint. It shows Ferdinand VII accompanied by his brother, the Infante Carlos María Isidro, both of whom appear as patrons of the Fine Arts. The technique employed, pencil and sepia ink, is very similar to that of the other drawing. It is dated in 1829, when the king, ill and widowed before his future marriage to his fourth wife, Maria Christina of Bourbon, is associated with his brother in a composition almost certainly made in preparation for an engraving, since it has the clear propaganda function of emphasising the continuity of the Bourbon dynasty in the midst of a profound political crisis. The king here takes his brother with his left hand while pointing with the right to an allegorical group of the Three Noble Arts. Although the definitive version of this protectionist Bourbon image was finally discarded, López evidently retrieved it after it had become impossible to imagine the king posing with an estranged brother given to intrigue, and used it for a portrait of the monarch on his own in a work as significant as the one at Banco de España.

Wearing the uniform of a Captain-General decorated with the Golden Fleece and the Grand Crosses of Charles III and Isabella the Catholic, Ferdinand VII poses full-length at the age of 46, “fat and slow-witted, with a malicious look in his eyes and stiff, obese limbs”, as Enrique Lafuente Ferrari describes him. Even so, neither the unappealing appearance nor the scant prestige of the monarch detracts from the work’s pictorial quality. For Aguilera, it is “probably the best of the portraits executed by Vicente López of his odious patron, who could not possibly have come off better favoured.” The king here appears alongside a table where, next to the silver inkstand and several books, is a volume with a clearly legible title, “Real Cédula del Banco de San Fernando”, the Royal Charter of Banco de San Fernando, in a clear allusion to the institution the picture was painted for. Although it had been commissioned in the middle months of 1828 by Banco de San Carlos, the bank’s transformation has led to his presentation as the founder of Banco de San Fernando, with the charter as recognition of his patronage.

The story of this lengthy commission is known from correspondence preserved by the painter’s descendants. The director of the new Banco de San Fernando founded by Ferdinand wrote to López on 25 November 1829 to ask him if the king’s portrait would be ready for delivery in time to be displayed for the monarch’s imminent fourth marriage. López replied to the director, Andrés Caballero, that “for the days of the celebrations, your purpose is served by the one I painted from the original some time ago, whose size with its frame would be no more than four feet. It will be my pleasure to make it available to you, and you may use it until the conclusion of the full-length portrait you have commissioned from me.” The director replied to the painter three days later, thanking him for his offer but informing him that the bank already had another portrait of the king with which to adorn the festivities for His Majesty’s marriage, in all likelihood the one by Zacarías González Velázquez. The new portrait was not delivered by the artist until 1832, when he presented an invoice for approval by the board on 22 May, charging 9,000 reales for the painting and 3,860 for the fabulous frame it still retains. These sums were paid to him immediately. At the board meeting of 1 February 1833, a motion was brought forward that the expenses occasioned by the portrait commissioned from López should not be repeated, even though the price was well adjusted to the work’s value on the market at the time. In the bank’s inventory of 1847, indeed, it is valued at 14,000 reales de vellón, far higher than the appraised value of the Goyas, and more than was actually paid to the artist.

The artistic qualities and iconographic value of this portrait make it one of the finest pictures of the monarch painted by López. There is a known partial copy, a short bust, in Barcelona, and another full copy at the Museo de Córdoba.

Carlos González Navarro

Javier Portús
Vicente López Portaña
València 1772 - Madrid 1850

As the son and grandson of painters, he was oriented towards a career in art from childhood, beginning studies at the Academia de San Carlos in his native Valencia in 1785. His considerable gifts for drawing soon led to several academic prizes and a scholarship to the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid. There, he was influenced by the work of Anton Raphael Mengs, Francisco Bayeu, Mariano Salvador Maella, Gregorio Ferro and Luis Paret, whose styles he was able to merge with the late Baroque training he had received in Valencia. This combination favoured his extraordinary mastery of drawing and a notable capacity for composition. The academic prizes he won in Madrid proved useful after he returned to Valencia in 1793, as he was commissioned to paint numerous religious canvases and frescoes. When Charles IV visited that city in 1802, López painted an allegorical portrait of him. The monarch was so pleased with the result that he appointed López to the post of court painter and summoned him to Madrid. From then until his death, he was a fundamental figure on the Spanish art scene, outstanding not only for the importance of his commissions, but also for his participation in leading official and administrative projects. He was appointed Director of Painting at the Academia de San Fernando in 1819, directed the Escuela Real de Pintura, and played a fundamental role in the shaping and organisation of the Museo del Prado, of which he was the first artistic director.

His catalogue is quite varied, including around nine hundred paintings – mostly religious images that reflect late Baroque and Neoclassical styles, but also a number of allegorical paintings and frescoes for royal residences or churches. He made numerous portraits, mainly of members of the royal family, leading noblemen or statesmen. Some of these, including his likeness of Goya (Museo del Prado, Madrid), reveal a strong capacity for psychological insight, and all of them are characterised by an outstanding realism, precise drawing, a capacity to reproduce the textures of textiles and particular care in depicting clothing and accessories. He also made an outstanding number of drawings for engravings, mostly as book illustrations. He has over five hundred known drawings and close to three hundred prints based on his designs.

The versatility and quality of his work made him the finest Spanish artist of his generation, and the abundance and quality of his portraits make his catalogue one of the main references for grasping the ideals, ambitions and expectations of Spanish society in the first half of the nineteenth century, especially in official circles.

Javier Portús

Paloma Gómez Pastor
Fernando VII (El Escorial 1784 - Madrid 1833)
King of Spain 1814 - 1833

The ninth child of Charles IV and Maria Luisa of Parma. The premature deaths of his brothers, the twins Carlos and Felipe, put him in line to succeed his father on the throne. In 1789, he took the oath as Prince of Asturias at the church of San Jerónimo el Real. The prince’s education was far from excellent, but he was not ignorant or contemptuous of culture. In his youth, he took a liking to chemistry and the experimental sciences in the laboratory placed at his disposal, run by the scientist Gutiérrez Bueno. He took pains to increase the size of his library, and he knew enough French to be able to translate texts from that language. He was keen to see the economic state of his kingdom for himself, and wrote about it in his travel diaries. Moreover, he was interested in the arts, continuing his father’s tradition, and it was during his reign that the Prado Museum and the Conservatory of Music were founded in Madrid.

However, the image transmitted by his contemporaries is one of a vulgar man lacking in any kind of grandeur. Those who dealt with him described him as weak, easily influenced, hypocritical, mistrustful, timid, cowardly and incapable of feeling affection for others. He was extremely conscious of his elevated status and worried about his public image, as well as opinionated and authoritarian. Mesonero Romanos said of him that he was possessed of a selfish cunning that allowed him to make use of men of all kinds.

His role at court was insignificant until his marriage to Maria Antonia of Naples in 1802. Under the influence of his wife, he started to take an interest in politics. He did nothing without intrigue, aided by what we might call a ‘Fernandine faction’ formed by Canon Escóiquiz and a group of aristocrats. The main goals were to prevent Godoy from blocking his passage to the throne, put an end to the Enlightenment reformism of the last years of Charles IV’s reign, increase the weight of the aristocracy in the government, and satisfy the aspirations of the clergy.

Taking advantage of the serious economic difficulties Spain was experiencing in the early nineteenth century and the strong diplomatic pressure of Napoleon, who enforced the terms of the treaty of 1796 to commit Charles IV to the war against England, Ferdinand’s faction launched an offensive against Godoy. It was based on a propaganda campaign financed by Ferdinand himself which compromised the sovereigns, especially the queen, whose sexual depravity was held to be responsible for all the kingdom’s ills.

In 1807, the Fernandines advanced a step further in their plan to get rid of Godoy and at the same time win the support of Napoleon. Charles IV was alerted, and ordered the Prince of Asturias’s room to be searched. Papers were found that revealed the plot. The legal proceedings known as the ‘Trial of El Escorial’ commenced, the prince confessed, and the episode ended with Charles IV pardoning his son. The populace, misinformed about what had really happened, thought it unlikely the Prince of Asturias would take part in an operation against the king, and put it all down to a manoeuvre by Godoy to blacken the name of the “innocent prince”. The failure of the conspiracy thus turned immediately into success for the Prince of Asturias.

After the events of El Escorial, the Fernandines could not have been better regarded by public opinion. Seizing the opportunity offered by the attempt to transfer the Court to the south of the Iberian Peninsula, a precaution against unexpected actions by the French troops then entering Spain, they therefore organised the events known as the ‘Aranjuez Mutiny’. The mutiny deposed Godoy and ended with the abdication of Charles IV. Napoleon offered to arbitrate, though his real intention was to annex the realm. He made all the members of the royal family go to Bayonne, and there forced Ferdinand VII to return the crown to Charles IV, who was induced in turn to abdicate in his favour. It was with great ease that Napoleon won the Spanish crown.

Ferdinand VII remained in Valençay from May 1808 to March 1814, when the Peninsular War came to an end. Ferdinand’s conduct during this time was one of complete submission to Napoleon, and he made no attempt to contact the Spaniards who were fighting in his name. In 1813, however, there was an unexpected turn of events. Napoleon needed to end the war in Spain in order to have more troops at his disposal, so he negotiated a treaty with Ferdinand VII. To make sure he accepted it, he promised to allow his return to Spain as absolute monarch. The Treaty of Valençay was not ratified by the constitutional regency, the executive power legally established in Spain, but Ferdinand VII’s return was authorised as it signified victory over Napoleon. He returned greatly fortified, for he was the “legitimate” king by contrast with the “intruder” Joseph Bonaparte, and above all he was the “innocent prince”, free of responsibility for the nation’s evils, who had nevertheless sacrificed himself for it by enduring harsh captivity.

During the king’s absence, the Cortes (parliamentary assembly) of Cádiz had resolved the crisis of the traditional Spanish monarchy by transforming it into a constitutional monarchy through the Constitution of 1812. Ferdinand VII and his supporters would not accept this solution. The promise made to him by Napoleon and the manifest antipathy shown for the work of the Cádiz parliament by the Duke of Wellington, the man with the greatest military power in Spain at that point, smoothed the way for Ferdinand to repeal the Constitution, declare the decisions of the Cádiz parliament null and void, and restore the absolutist monarchy in 1814.

Ferdinand VII never accepted the Constitution of 1812 or any other representative system, whatever its nature. Nevertheless, the uprising of Riego forced him to endorse it, although he immediately fostered a number of operations aimed against it. The rest of his reign was characterised by personal insecurity mingled with a visceral hatred of the liberals and constitutionalism. He repealed the Constitution again in 1823, this time with the decisive military intervention of a foreign army, the ‘Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis’, agreed upon by the European powers at the Congress of Verona the previous year.

While it would be inexact to speak of a complete victory of the absolutists in 1814 and 1823, the general impression was that the traditional absolute monarchy was back, incarnated in a monarch who was endowed with full powers limited only by Catholic doctrine and the traditional laws guaranteeing the privileges of certain persons and territories. The political system created by Ferdinand VII was characterised by the personal assumption of royal power, a markedly counterrevolutionary spirit and the systematic implementation of harsh repression.

To save their lives or avoid going to prison, those liberals who could went into exile, mostly to France and England. This political exile, together with the failed attempts of the liberals to rouse the Spanish population against absolutism, constituted the defining features of this monarch’s reign. Other occurrences of paramount importance were the loss of America, with the exception of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Spain’s regression on the international stage.

In 1826, in the face of dual opposition from the liberals and the ultra-royalists, Ferdinand was forced to agree to a policy of reforms aimed at modernising the administration. The executors were the so-called “moderate” or “pragmatic absolutists”, individuals with Enlightenment ideas who firmly supported the absolute monarchy, although their fidelity to the king would perhaps make it more appropriate to refer to them as “Fernandines”. Among them were Martín de Garay, García de León Pizarro, Cea Bermúdez, the Count of Ofalia, López Ballesteros and Javier de Burgos. Their measures, which included such appreciable reforms as the creation of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Ministry of Public Works, the mining laws, the Code of Commerce and the foundation of the Madrid Stock Exchange, were aimed at guaranteeing the survival of the Fernandine regime. In 1827, prompted by discontent among peasants, artisans, clerics and local dignitaries, Ferdinand visited Catalonia after the revolt of the Agraviats (Aggrieved) or Malcontents, and then went on to Navarre and the Basque Country. The enthusiastic welcome of the population convinced him of their fidelity. By the time he returned to Madrid, he had regained much of his lost popularity. The more moderate royalists thought channels might now be opened for participation in power, but the master guidelines of royal policy did not move an inch.

One of the great problems of his reign was the succession. His first three wives left him no descent. By his fourth wife, his niece Maria Christina of Bourbon, whom he married in 1829, he had two daughters, Isabel and Luisa Fernanda, but no male heir. Months before the birth of the first, who was to reign with the name of Isabella II, he published a Pragmatic Sanction (March 1830) suppressing the Salic Law, in force in Spain since 1713, and reestablishing the Castilian law of succession, whereby if there was no direct male heir, the women of highest degree and lineage could reign without having to defer to males further from the direct line. This was opposed by the ultra-royalists, who were in favour of his brother, Carlos María Isidro, whereas the moderate absolutists and the liberals supported the Sanction. After 1830, Spanish politics entered a phase of turmoil between the so-called “Carlists” and the “Isabellines” or “Christines”.

The question of succession apart, the liberals also continued with their attempts to bring about political change, borne along by the atmosphere created in Europe by the revolutionary movements of 1830. Various actions were attempted, all failures, and many of those involved in them were executed. Especially notorious were the cases of Mariana Pineda and General Torrijos.

Ferdinand VII died on 29 September 1833. Queen Maria Christina assumed the regency until her daughter Isabella II came of age.

Paloma Gómez Pastor

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