Attributed to José Casado del Alisal, Portrait of the Duchess of Medinaceli, after 1864

Ornately dressed woman standing on a stone patio

Attributed to José Casado del Alisal

(Villada, Spain, 1831–1886, Madrid, Spain)

Portrait of the Duchess of Medinaceli

after 1864

Oil on canvas

56 3/4 x 34 3/4 in. (144.1 x 88.3 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.76.03

Listen to Meadows Museum docent Jean Felsted discuss this work (2:30 minutes)

Audio Transcript

Attributed to José Casado del Alisal (1831–1886)

Portrait of the Duchess of Medinaceli, after 1864

by Jean Felsted, Meadows Museum docent

Well, she’s certainly impressive. We already know she is a duchess but we’re told she is dressed as a maja. So what that’s about? A maja can mean slightly different things in different contexts, but for our purposes, it means a pretty young woman of the working class—often a domestic worker or street vendor—wearing distinctive clothes. These clothes became high-fashion dress-up for the upper classes.

Looking closely at our duchess, we study the distinctive hairstyle—parted in the center, drawn back smoothly from the face into ringlets, and adorned with flowers and ribbons.

Looking at her costume, we notice her short, close-fitting jacket or bolero. The full, brightly colored skirt is ornamented with an overskirt of tassels and ball fringe in the shape of a madrone—a wild, edible berry eaten raw, or used in preserves or sometimes to make vinegar or a liquor. It’s a great-looking outfit and we wonder if the actual majas were flattered or annoyed to be so copied.

More about our duchess—she was also a Nobel Lady of the Queen and thus a frequent palace visitor. She and the duke were supporters of the arts, opening their own private theater.

With all of this, she found time to raise seven children. After the duke passed on, she remained a widow for twenty years, and then married again, at the age of sixty-six.

The Medinaceli House has a long history dating from the fourth century and merging with other noble and historic families over time. To this day, the Medinaceli House preserves an extraordinary art collection managed by its own foundation.

Currently, there is a twenty-three-year-old 20th Duchess of Medinaceli, who is said to have forty-three titles, the most in all of Spain.

Just one thing more comes to mind in regard to this painting. Careful observers sometimes question the identity of the figure in black just visible at the edge of a column in the far right. We don’t think it’s the duke lurking off in the sidelines, [but] mostly like a servant in attendance waiting [for] instructions from our duchess.