TJ McNamara: Portrait of a royal lady

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An exhibition in Madrid captures the arrogance and intrigue of a formidable Spanish family

The Grand Duke of Alba by Titian.
The Grand Duke of Alba by Titian.

A large, grand exhibition has seldom been so dominated by one painting. The Alba family, the noblest in Spain after the King, has put its private collection of art on show at the Centro Centro in Madrid and it is full of splendid things that have rarely been seen before.

Tickets are limited by time of entry, yet the rooms are always full. This is not the cosmopolitan crowd that packs the famous National Gallery of the Prado or the nearby Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. It is almost entirely Spanish.

They mostly gather in front of the painting by Francisco Goya of the 13th Duchess of Alba, Maria del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Alvarez de Toledo, born in 1762, who may have had an affair with the painter. Her short, extravagant life and her loves have been the source of legends, novels and films.

The Alba family has produced extraordinary duchesses, with the formidable current incumbent, who is aged in her 80s, always in the news and a focus of the paparazzi. She still parades in her bikini on the beaches with her husband, 30 years her junior, whom she married against the opposition of her family.

A billionaire, she has more titles than any other member of the nobility of Europe. Long before the Duchess of Cambridge, she was photographed topless and appeared on the front of a popular magazine. A lovely painting of her as a young girl in the 1920s surrounded by toys is in the Centro Centro exhibition.

The 13th Duchess, painted by Goya, was just as independent-minded and surrounded by gossip and speculation. The painting shows her in a white dress pointing at the ground where Goya's signature is inscribed. It is on the gallery's tickets, catalogue, posters and all the merchandising. It was done in 1795 when she had been married for 20 years, as a companion piece to a portrait of her husband, which is in the Prado.

Goya painted him as a reserved scholarly man leaning against an early version of a piano and reading a score of music by Haydn. He died a year later, aged 39. Goya then painted another portrait of the duchess in mourning black. Now in New York, the painting shows the duchess wearing two rings: one inscribed "Alba" and the other "Goya". It is the origin of all the speculation.

There is also the legend that the duchess posed for the celebrated twin paintings of The Maja Nude and The Maja Clothed, a scandal in their time, but now the pride of the Prado. The fact that they do not look at all like the duchess has not stopped this being accepted as a received truth.

The portrait of the Duchess in White at El Legado Casa De Alba at Centro Centro is superb. The thin linen dress on the tall, slim figure of the lovely young woman is made piquant by touches of red. A wide red sash emphasises her famous slim waist. Elaborate red bows adorn her neckline, contrasted against her long black hair left loose and natural. She wears a necklace of red coral. Her little dog has a red bow on a rear leg. The most striking feature is the direct gaze of the wonderful eyes that show complete self-confidence, just short of arrogance. In the background you can see a faint view of Madrid.

Her pose makes her a commanding figure. Rightly, she is the outstanding figure in a show of 400 objects, including many portraits. Another portrait by Goya from the collection also shows a woman in a white Empire-line dress caught high under the bust just like the Duchess'. It is of the Marquise of Lazon. It is full of character, but does not have the wonderful presence of the Alba.

The exhibition includes fine Italian Renaissance paintings, including a Last Supper by Titian, who also painted the Grand Duke of Alba in 1570. Also of particular note is The Virgin of the Pomegranate by Fra Angelico. This work by the saintly master has an Early Renaissance gold background, but it uses the then-novel medium of oil paint, making the face of the Virgin and the Christ child particularly luminous and spiritual. It is superbly preserved and the colour contributes wonderfully to the effect, especially the blue of Mary's robe.

The show includes historic documents the family preserved. These include Columbus' sketch of the coastline of Hispaniola where he first touched land in the New World and the official list of his crew. There are also elaborate, colourful deeds granting land, coats of arms and patents of nobility to conquerors of new territory.

Yet the portraits are the essence of the show, including a lovely picture of a young girl by Renoir. Deliciously, right at the end there is a flourish of the 20th century in a painting by Marc Chagall. A colourful bunch of flowers near an open window reveal a portal to all the themes of his work: a bird singing joyously, more flowers, some lovers. It again suggests the question: were the rough, deaf commoner painter and the elegant, noble duchess really lovers?


For gallery listings see herald.co.nz/arts.

- NZ Herald

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