Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback

Diego Velazquez
Keywords: PrinceBaltasarCarlosHorseback

Work Overview

Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback
Diego Velázquez 
Ca. 1635
Oil on canvas
211.5 x 177 cm

In 1624, soon after Velázquez`s arrival at court, the political writer Almansa noted that the equestrian order was and is the backbone of republics. This notion was shared by the Spanish monarchy and lies at the origins of the enormous prestige which the equestrian portrait achieved at court. As a court portraitist, this sub-genre of portraiture is frequently to be encountered within Velázquez`s oeuvre during the early decades of his career at court.

In 1634 Velázquez was commissioned to execute five equestrian portraits for the Salón de Reinos in the Buen Retiro palace (Museo del Prado). For the images of Phillip III, Margarita of Austria and Isabel de Borbón he made use of assistants, but was entirely responsible for painting Phillip IV and Baltasar Carlos. Within the iconographic programme of the Salón de Reinos, the equestrian portraits referred to the idea of dynastic continuity as they depicted the reigning monarchs, the King`s parents and the Crown Prince, who was born in 1629 an was then aged five or six. The period of their execution wash both a crucial and highly active on within Velázquez`s career. At this period he decisively advanced in his study or aerial perspective, notably broadened his palette and adopted a type of brushstroke that would remain one of his identifying aesthetic traits throughout the rest of his career. This technique was referred to at the time as distant patches of paint (manchas distantes) and took the form of a mesh of broad, rapid and heavily-charged brushstrokes which took shape as the viewer moved further away from the painting.

In this equestrian portrait Velázquez depicts a real landscape and sky that any courtier visiting the Salón de Reinos could have easily identified. Baltasar Carlos is seen riding in front of the Sierra de Guadarrama on the outskirts of Madrid in the area where the Monte del Pardo meets the green slopes of the upper basin of the River Manzanares. Perfectly recognizable in the background are the mountain of La Maliciosa and the start of the Cabeza de Hierro, both covered in late snow, suggesting that the painting was executed in the spring of 1635. Clearly visible in front of these mountains is the hill that encircled Manzanares el Real to the south. The mountain on the left is probably the far end of the Sierra del Hoyo. The fact that these mountains can be identified is not a trivial one as it demonstrates the degree to which Velázquez intended not only to offer a depiction of the Crown Prince but also of a specific place. At the time these mountains were easily visible from the Buen Retiro palace and contemporary viewers could thus have appreciated to what extent Velázquez was also a faithful portraitist of the landscape.

A faithful portraitist but also a profoundly original one, with a dazzlingly synthetic vision of the landscape and an ability to transmit a total experience of it involving not just topographical features and a particular chromatic range but also a sensation of light and air. Visitors who compare this landscape with the View of the Gardens at the Villa Medici, Rome, with the statue of Ariadne (Museo del Prado, P01211), will not fail to be astonished by the giant step taken by the artist in barely five years.

The setting determinates the content of the painting, completely bathing the small boy in light, colour and air and emphasizing his status as a future hope for the Spanish monarchy. This promise of the future is also emphasized by the pronounced foreshortening of the horse, which adds an enormous sense of dynamism to the composition, projecting it towards the viewer`s space. The canvas was intended to be hung at a certain height, above one of the doors in the Salón de Reinos, which explains the particular viewpoint used (Text from Portús, J.: Velázquez, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, 2014, pp. 307-308).