Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes
Oil on canvas
29 5/8 x 20 7/8 in. (75.2 x 53 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.67.04
Hear docent Jean Felsted discuss this work (2:31 minutes)
We sense that it is the portrait of a real person—her individual features are unique. We notice that she is poised and calm and looks directly at us.
The title of the work tells us who she is: Portrait of Queen María Isabel de Braganza y Borbón. She was an infanta of Portugal, “infanta” meaning a princess not in direct line to succeed to the Portuguese throne. She was brought to Madrid in 1816 at the age of nineteen to become the second wife of Ferdinand VII. As was often common, royal marriages were arranged between relatives, so Ferdinand VII was her maternal uncle.
We notice she’s not smiling—it was not the custom for royalty to smile in their portraits. But there is something in her expression beyond that–some viewers think she looks sad, some that she looks sick, others that she is sullen. Knowing more about her may help us to understand her expression. The job of a queen being to bear heirs, she immediately became pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter who lived only five months—such sadness she must have experienced in losing her tiny daughter! Soon becoming pregnant again, she herself died at age twenty-one in a prolonged and particularly gruesome childbirth, this daughter being stillborn.
The painting dates are 1816–18 so we can assume that the artist started it soon after [María] came to Madrid but also worked on it in 1818, the year María Isabel died.
When we study the painting, we may well say it looks unfinished: the gray-black that accentuates the queen’s head only covers a small portion of the brownish background of the work. Her dress is partially painted and her left arm is only the barest of a sketch. So—why is this? Some museum visitors suggest that the queen died before Goya could finish it; some say that Goya simply stopped working on it; others suggest that perhaps the queen or her husband, the king, didn’t like the painting and made Goya stop.
But another idea is that, to Goya, this work was finished—his expression of the one young queen’s unfinished life.