It is said that Philip III, King of Spain, seeing from the windows of his palace a laughing man, said gravely: “Or this man is mad, or he reads Don Quixote.” They inquired, the man was reading Don Quixote.
It was of this austere Court, still darkened in the following reign, that the brilliant Velazquez was the official painter. He originally enjoyed only of the personal friendship of Philip IV, whose features he has so often reproduced. The rest of the Court scarcely esteemed him, and scarcely placed him above the buffoons and madmen who were in charge of cheer the sad hosts of the royal palaces. At that time only the painter whose talent was exclusively consecrated to the Church was regarded as an artist. Velazquez receives eight pounds for three portraits, one of which is lost, and the other two, Philip IV and the Count of Olivares, are in Spain. A little later, he was rewarded with a present of three hundred ducats and a pension of the same value, with a lodging. In 1644, the king appointed him Inspector of the Buildings, then Marshal of the Palace, with high salaries and a lodging in the house of the Treasure.
With what joy could the great artist seize the opportunity of painting the young infants and infantes of the court! These fresh figures, these agreeable mines, were the only ray in those palaces from which joy and laughter were banished. All the light of his color, all the shimmers of his palette, are spent with love in the numerous portraits of the infant Don Balthazar Carlos, in those of the infants Philippe Prosper 50 and Don Fernando of Austria and especially in the famous painting of Las Meninas which is a piece of life transposed with inexpressible happiness and a fullness of means and effects that have never been surpassed.
Among these graceful works there is one which the Louvre has the happy fortune of possessing; it is the portrait of the Infanta Maria Margarita, who was later to become the wife of the Emperor of Germany Leopold I.
In front of this painting, admiration is unanimous. “See,” exclaimed Raffaelli, “the portrait of the Infanta Margarita, in her harmonious and strong color, the true pearl of a colourist, where the tones pass through one another without ever telling how or where, as they do in the nacre. Silver-gray, black, pink, and fair-haired of the girls make up all the harmony of the picture of the queen-child.”
Léon Bonnat is no less enthusiastic: “Ah! The adorable Infanta, the pale Infanta with the blue eyes! She stands in her stately costume, her arms spread out, spread out over her enormous baskets, and she holds in her hand a pale rose like her frail person. Is she unhappy enough, the royal princess, in her splendor and her attire, to be thus constrained by the rigorous etiquette of the Court? Let’s not complain too much though. It passes to posterity thanks to the genius of the great master. Can one, indeed, see a more ravishing portrait? These gray, pinkish, and Argentinian tones, the hair of an ashen blond, the knots, the ribbons, all standing out on red, carmine, violet hangings, what do I know? Can we see a happier assemblage of delicate tones, and is it not really an exquisite tenderness?”
Before them Theophile Gautier had already celebrated this picture: “What a delightful creature this little Infanta Margarita, with her pink bow in her blonde hair, and her robe of taffeta gray pearl laced with black lace! Through the naivete of childhood, one feels in this cute figure the conscious dignity of her position. She is a little girl, but a king’s daughter, who will be a queen one day.”
In this painting, as in all those of Velazquez, gray plays a considerable part. Early, the artist had come to the conclusion that gray was the harmonic basis par excellence in nature, the subtle and supple tie which allowed the most delicate colorings to sing and vibrate in the air waves, that this nature, which one never interrogates in vain, had herself a horror of blackness, that she knew perfectly how to use gray in order to temper the oppositions of light and to dampen the too full or too vivid brilliancy of the colors. Velazquez came to use gray to make the stuff of his preparations and the definitive caress of his glacis; he has proclaimed in his most admirable masterpieces the sovereign virtue of the gray, the divine gray of van der Meer and Corot. If any master had suspected this truth before him, witness Balthazar Castiglione of Raphael, no one had formulated with this breadth of initiative the fertile principles.
The portrait of the Infanta Margarita was painted by Velazquez in 1659, the same year as the full-length portrait sent by Philip IV to the Emperor of Germany. Theophile Gautier, traveling through the Louvre in 1830, regretted that a place in the “radiant cenacle” of the Salon Carré had not been spared for the delightful infanta. His vow is now realized: the charming work of Velazquez is there now, between Veronese and Raphael, and solicits the admiration of visitors, by the puerile grace of the model and the prestigious beauty of the execution.
Height: 0.70 – Width: 0.59 – Half-length figure, natural size.