The Spanish are coming

Alonso Sánchez Coello and workshop | The infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia and Magdalena Ruiz (La infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia y Magdalena Ruiz), c.1585-88 | Benifairó de les Valls, Valencia c.1531 – 1588, Madrid | Oil on canvas | Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado | © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Kings, gods, saints and sinners, dogs and very small people will feature among the cast of characters to be seen in a Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado.

The exhibition, an Australian first and exclusive to Brisbane, presents a portrait of Spain that starts with the perspectives of royal monarchs, their children, courtiers and jesters. The dark years of war are seen through the terrifying lens of Francisco Goya while exquisitely laid tables of fruit, flowers and lace will have you believing you can almost smell the quinces, pears and freshly baked bread.

This not-to-be-missed exhibition will take you on a journey into the heart of Spain and an empire that was unrivalled for 200 years. Masterworks by Velazquez, Goya, Melendez, El Greco and Ribera will be seen with the works of Flemish and Italian artists such as Rubens, Titian and Giordano, whose paintings the Spanish monarchs collected to form one of the great collections of European painting now in the Museo Nacional del Prado (the Prado), Madrid. This is a rare and unique opportunity to see the story of Spain through over 100 of its outstanding works.

This spectacular frock belongs to Princess Isabella Clara Eugenia, eldest daughter of Philip II of Spain. Philip II was monarch and ruler of one the most extensive empires on the planet in the sixteenth-century and this full-length portrait of his daughter by Alonso Sánchez Coello was commissioned to immortalise one of the most important women in the Habsburg dynasty.

Isabella Clara Eugenia was born in 1566 to Philip and his third wife, Elizabeth of Valois. She was one of two surviving daughters from the five children of Philip and Elizabeth, who died following a miscarriage in 1568. Isabella Clara Eugenia grew up with her younger sister, Catherine Michelle and her stepmother, Anna of Austria. In 1599 she married Archduke of Austria, Albert VII with whom she administered the Spanish Netherlands from 1601-21 during a period of prosperity and stability following the upheaval of the wars of Reformation. Their court at Brussels became a centre for artistic excellence in Europe and patronised the Flemish painters, Peter Paul Rubens and Pieter Breughel the Younger.

In this portrait the magnificent and richly adorned dress of silk and gilt embroidery with lace and a feather head-dress actually draws our attention to the cameo portrait of her father, Philip II that she holds at the very centre of the painting — it is all about the king after all. Isabella is accompanied by a family servant, Magdalena Ruiz, who kneels beside the ‘infanta’ — the Spanish term used to designate a child of the King who is not heir to the throne. The representation of Magdalena alongside the infanta, is part of a long tradition of portraits in which servants, pages, jesters and dwarfs appear with members of the royal family. The most complex and important painting within this tradition is Velázquez’s great masterpiece in the Museo Nacional del Prado collection, Las meninas c.1656.

Magdelena also holds two small monkeys in her hands which came from Portuguese territories in the Amazon, which then belonged to Philip following the union of Spain and Portugal in 1580. In 1581, Magdalena travelled with Philip and his daughter to Portugal, where he went to claim the Portuguese throne. It has been suggested that she received both the exotic animals and the necklace that she is wearing on that occasion as gifts for loyal service. An additional reference to Portugal may be observed in the white and gold of the infanta’s beautiful dress, a characteristically Portuguese style in ceremonial costume.

So, we see that royal portraits were not just any old portrait. They were coded with symbolism and relations of power and territorial conquest at a time when an absolutist belief in the rule and perpetuation of the monarchy was paramount.

Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado is at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) from 21 July to 4 November. This extraordinary and never-before-seen-in Australia exhibition will fascinate, surprise and reward those who make the effort to see it. The exhibition will be supported by a  richly illustrated 304 page catalogue of the same name and a kids hardcover book introducing the Prado’s collection through ten selected art works, information about the artists, fun facts about Spanish history and culture, as well as instructions for at-home activities such as Spanish recipes.

Edgar Degas captures a candid moment in the life of a dancer


Margaret Olley was an important benefactor and tremendous supporter of QAGOMA and this gift — a bronze sculpture of a dancer by Edgar Degas, called Danseuse regardant la plante de son pied droit (Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot) is a lasting legacy to the people of Queensland.

Edgar Degas, France 1834-1917 / Danseuse regardant la plante de son pied droit, quatrième étude (Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot, fourth study) c.1882-1900, cast before 1954 / Bronze, dark brown and green patina / 46.2 x 25 x 18cm / Gift of Philip Bacon AM, in memory of Margaret Olley AC, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Edgar Degas’s sculptural practice was essentially an experimental and private studio activity. He exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime. Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot is one of an edition of bronzes cast after the artist’s death in 1917. It typically captures a candid moment in the life of a dancer — a subject that Degas explored exhaustively through paintings, drawings and prints. It is widely agreed that for Degas, the making of sculpture was more akin to sketching and drawing — a means to realise or study in detail particular poses, masses, forms and volumes.

Following Degas’s death in 1917, his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel — also an executor of his estate — and the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, discovered more than 150 of the artist’s wax and terracotta sculptures. Only 73 of these were rescued intact, plus a handful of terracotta figurines and plasters. In consultation with Adrien-Aurélin Hébrard, owner of a respected Parisian foundry, Degas’s heirs granted Hébrard the rights to cast a limited edition of the 74 waxes in bronze. Work began in 1919 and continued until 1936 when the Hébrard Foundry ceased operations.

DELVE DEEPER: The art of Edgar Degas

RELATED: Margaret Olley

Three views of Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot, fourth study

The bronze bears the foundry stamp of A A HEBRARD with the assignation of 40/T. Each of the sculptures was assigned a number and a letter denoting the series of casts. Each series was originally intended to be cast in editions of 20, although this number seems to vary in some cases. The first-generation casts made by the Hébrard foundry were made from wax models of Degas’s original mixed media sculptures. It is widely agreed that Degas never had any of his sculptures cast in bronze during his lifetime and therefore it must be acknowledged that the posthumously produced editions with stamped signatures are reproduction casts. However, the stamp on this sculpture suggests it was one of the original lost wax editions, and therefore is likely to be dated pre-1936.

In 1990 Margaret Olley established the Margaret Olley Art Trust to donate works of art to public collections throughout Australia. Olley was an important benefactor and tremendous supporter of QAGOMA, and this gift of Philip Bacon AM, in memory of Margaret Olley AC, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2012 is a testament to this.

David Burnett is former Curator, International Art, QAGOMA

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Feature image detail: Edgar Degas Danseuse regardant la plante de son pied droit, quatrième étude (Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot, fourth study) c.1882-1900, cast before 1954

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Harder than it looks

Henri Matisse | France 1869 — 1954 | Portrait de Claude D. (Portrait of Claude D.) 1946 | Collection: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris | © Succession H Matisse. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2011

My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion. The simplification of the medium allows that. At the same time, these drawings are more complete than they may appear to some people who confuse them with a sketch.

Henri Matisse, ‘Notes of a painter on his drawing’, 1939

Henri Matisse wrote a number of short treatises on his own work which reveal his thoughts, theories and aims for his art. This quote is a particularly interesting one as it goes some way towards explaining something that may confuse some viewers of his work.

Like Picasso, Matisse was trained in and very adept at academic, realistic drawing — a style that many associate with a high level of skill. What Matisse points out in this quote however, is that to simplify but at the same time retain the essential qualities that he wishes to express in his drawing is much more difficult. Many pure line drawings are included in the ‘Matisse: Drawing Life’ exhibition at GOMA which describe the essence of objects, plants, faces and the human form in restrained and greatly simplified form. This kind of economical drawing is like the difference between a precise, evocative poem and a longer, extended essay.

‘Matisse: Drawing Life’ shows the development of Matisse’s drawing from carefully shaded academic studies to his late works made with brush and ink which are, as he says, ‘the purest and most direct translation of my emotion’.