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In 1486, Ferdinand of Aragón wrote of the lack of decent portrait-painters in the new kingdom he ruled jointly with his wife Isabella. What they needed, he said, was a few of those renowned Flemish painters to come to court. Recently opened in Bilbao, The Spanish Portrait mines the Prado’s collections to show how within decades of that letter, the portraiture produced by Europe’s artistic lights was already constructing an imperial mythology. Bony-faced Habsburgs, dwarves, caballeros and inquisitors formed the mix of theatre and freakery that is our abiding notion of the siglo de oro.

Starting off in the Basque capital’s Museo de Bellas Artes, this huge double exhibition chronicles how such Golden Age grandiloquence slowly consumed itself in neo-classicism. Only by the second phase of the show, from the late 1700s, was the Spanish portrait slowly shrugging off the court and diversifying into the middle-class, domestic subjects of the big cities.

Its end, though, is in some ways its beginning: some of that domesticity might well have struck a chord with Ferdinand himself, four centuries earlier. In the tiny wooden panel of Queen Isabella that opens the exhibition, the anonymous Flemish miniaturist has just about individualised her plump face, with its hint of a double chin. Her finger marks her prayer book, her eyes are averted – this is a private moment of devotion, austere, pious, like the embryonic superpower itself. The drums and the trumpets, however, are a mere generation away.

Such fanfares came to Spain in Venetian form. Titian’s famous 1548 portrait of Charles V charging on horseback into the sunrise is not here, but his best Spanish imitator is. Juan Pantoja de la Cruz’s 1605 version of Charles is, in fact, Titian’s, right down to the Emperor’s amiable, crooked smile.

The role fulfilled by Pantoja and his master, Alonzo Sánchez Coello, was above all that of copyist, further transmitting the tested visual modes of Habsburg greatness. Yet they are fine, home-grown painters in their own right. Sánchez’s “Woman with a Fan” wears a dress of sumptuous impersonality, but the face that emerges from the stiff collar is not an effigy. Nervous fingers grip the fan, but the woman has an expression of intelligent dreaminess similar to that caught by Pantoja in the stare of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia about 1599. Pantoja’s portrait is emblematic – the Infanta’s ungloved fingers caress the amulet of her aged father, that wily old fox Philip II – but the far-away quality of her smile permits her a touch of privateness.

No one pushes the limits of decorum more than Velázquez. His young Philip IV, painted about 1626, is a face that lives and breathes, with its suspicious eyes, lush, full bottom lip and bony jaw. At close quarters you can almost smell the greased-back blondish hair. Just as Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” wittily enacts the courtly drama of everyone observing everyone else, his Philip IV demands to be scrutinised. Unprepossessing youth he may be but, as Velázquez shows, majesty is to be gawped at.

Potential themes seethe in this first exhibition. One is the ascetic and worldly contrasts of the counter-
reformation, seen in Luis de Morales’ bluish, cadaverous cleric and the later power-laden inquisitor by Alonso del Arco. Dwarves, too, crystallise the age, part freak-show spectacle, part symbol of their imperial masters’ sway over petty men. In a 1620 portrait, the future Philip IV rests his hand on a stunted courtier, both striking a staring, ceremonial pose that would have delighted Balthus.

Over a century later, it was the Bohemian painter Anton Raphael Mengs who heralded the neo-classicism so alien to the Spanish tradition. Mengs was one of the most famous painters of his time; it was in his shadow that Goya toiled up the courtly greasy
pole. Mengs’ faces are beacons of Reason, the flesh alive – but oddly unsettling, like a row of rosy lanterns. If earlier Spanish portraits prematurely grafted dynastic responsibilities on to its grim-faced child princes, Mengs’ young adults are positively babylike in comparison.

Mengs’ contemporary Jean Ranc depicts a small dog leaping up at the effortless bidding of the boy king Fernando VI; the contrast with the hulking equestrian portraits of the age before is notable. Philip V manoeuvring his horse as “expertly” as his kingdom was a pure fiction, of course – his kingdom was a shambles. But, compared with the new neo-classical ease and purity, the earlier fiction had a trembling, whinnying, naturalist rigour.

Yet if Goya himself sought to wrest back that naturalist tradition, the French notions of the new Bourbon dynasty were here to stay. In the second part of the exhibition, housed in the Bilbao bank BBK, Goya dominates – in quality if not in quantity, though enough to reveal his troubled dialectic between the Enlightenment and a still-wild Spain.

By this stage, the Spanish portrait had reached a pitch of technique. A self-portrait by Zacarías Gonzáles fixes every hair and nuance of flesh. Sketchy by comparison, Goya’s self-portrait is monumental where Gonzáles’s mimesis is almost glib. No brushes are in sight, yet Goya appears as if at the end of some exacting,
late-night labour. On a powerful, meaty neck, his head hangs slackly with shadow-wreathed eyes.

Elsewhere, society portraits predominate, somewhat oppressive without the theatre of real royalty. Federico de Madrazo earned a living from accomplished bourgeois commissions, though his informal takes on spirited bohemian girls are sparkier by far. Children, as ever, offer creative release. Rafael Tegeo’s study of his daughter, daydreaming with pursed lips, is a lovely example of the homelier subject matter of the time.

Another little girl is how that fine artist Joaquín Sorolla ends the long journey begun with Isabella nearly half a millennium before. His “La Niña María Figueroa”, from 1901, is disguised as a Menina, reflecting the contemporary craze for fancy dress among Spanish high society. Only her face is finished. In a fitting end to such an epoch-ranging show, she not only looks back to Velázquez, but also bewilderingly ahead: the wide skirt is drawn in rapid daubs, the plain background smeared and uncompleted. Modernism is crossing the Pyrenees.

‘The Spanish Portrait in the Prado’s Collections’: ‘From El Greco to Goya’, Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, tel +34 94 439 6060; ‘From Goya to Sorolla’, Aula De Cultura BBK, Bilbao, tel +34 94 401 56 28. Both until May 20

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