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 Dr. Tara Zanardi, Associate Professor of Art History at Hunter College, discuss this work (3:04 minutes)

Audio Transcript

Attributed to José Casado del Alisal (Spanish, 1831–1886), copy after Federico de Madrazo (1815–1894)

Portrait of the Duchess of Medinaceli, after 1864

by Dr. Tara Zanardi, Associate Professor of Art History at Hunter College

The Medinaceli are one of the oldest noble families in Spain so the duchess in this full-length portrait is a woman of incredible influence in society. As such, the artist represents the duchess standing erect and placing her right hand on her hip, a typical way to depict the Spanish nobility. Her gaze projects an air of confidence and gravity. In addition, she is shown in the height of fashion, which combines items considered traditionally Spanish, like the bolero jacket and the closed fan that she holds in her left hand, with a hairstyle adorned with colorful flowers typical of the nineteenth century. The bolero is a short, tight-fitting jacket that was worn by both men and women; it also closely resembles the jacket worn by bullfighters. The duchess’s bolero is embellished with fringe, ribbons, and metallic thread, typical of popular dress from the eighteenth century.

Most interestingly, the duchess wears the black basquiña (which is a petticoat worn over the skirt). The basquiña or petticoat was a traditional garment that dates to the fifteenth century and by the 1600s was a widespread trend at the Spanish court. Customarily, the petticoat was made of tulle, velvet, or silk lace, was trimmed with braids and fringe, worn in black or white, and made with flounces or pointed ends. It was generally sheer, which provided a delicate viewing of the skirt underneath. In this portrait of the duchess, the black petticoat cascades down the skirt with large pompoms, a style commonly used not only in petticoats, but also in women’s mantillas (or veils) during the nineteenth century. These circular shaped balls or pompoms form an intricate pattern in three sections, demarcated by the petticoat’s horizontal lines around the skirt. The open-knit quality and inky black color of the petticoat highlights the bright pink skirt underneath, forming a dramatic contrast.

Such portraits of aristocratic women in stylish versions of customary dress with a modern flair was common beginning at the turn of the 1800s, including many examples by the artist Francisco de Goya. In addition, the garments featured in elite portraiture were also made popular by fashion prints, which were published throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, the duchess embodies an elite Spanish woman’s fashionable elegance.

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.