Frans Pourbus the Younger (Antwerp 1569-1622 Paris) Portrait of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1562-1612), wearing armour and the Order of the Golden Fleece, inscribed and dated upper left and centre: AN. 1602 .. AETA' SVAE 39., signed upper right: Fran. cià... Pourbus fe..., oil on canvas, 77.5 x 61 cm, framed ÜBERLANGTEXT
possibly commissioned by the Ducal Court for Maria Manrique de Lara (1538–1608), wife of Vratislav von Pernstein, imperial chancellor in Prague, in 1602;
by repute Collection of Max von Grunelius, Frankfurt/Main (1870–1963);
Collection of his cousin Marie Adélaïde Mallet, née von Grunelius, married to Guillaume Mallet (1859–1945), and their descendants, Le Bois des Moutiers, Normandy, where documented until 2010;
art market, France;
where acquired by the present owner
P. Bertelli, Un ritratto ritrovato di Vincenzo I Gonzaga. Nuovi appunti sull’iconografia del quarto duca di Mantova. Con un saggio di Alice S. Legé, Mantova 2021 (forthcoming publication)
We are grateful to Paolo Bertelli for endorsing the attribution and for his help in cataloguing the present painting. His written report is available. A technical analysis by Manfred Schreiner is available on request.
Pourbus rarely signed his works. The present portrait of the ‘splendidissimo duca’ Vincenzo I Gonzaga, his influential early patron, is the only likeness of the Mantuan ruler known to scholars signed by the artist. The rediscovery of this signed early masterpiece is therefore not only a remarkable addition to the corpus of Pourbus known works; it also provides an invaluable point of reference for the chronology of his activity.
Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, was an immensely influential patron and collector who, keen to cultivate a more visible role for his duchy on the larger European stage, fostered a culturally sophisticated and luxurious court by securing the services of internationally famous artists. He was a major patron of the arts and sciences and turned Mantua into a vibrant cultural centre. Having annulled his first, childless marriage to Margherita Farnese, he married Eleonora de’ Medici in 1584, with whom he shared a maternal grandfather, Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor. Eleanor bore him six children, the youngest of whom was espoused to the Emperor Ferdinand II. Vincenzo travelled to the archducal court in Brussels in 1599 to secure the services of two able artists, Pourbus and the then lesser-known Rubens.
Pourbus at that time was court painter for the Archdukes Albert and Isabella in Brussels, after having been introduced most likely by Frans Francken the Elder, who’s portrait by Pourbus is now in the Uffizi in Florence. Representing the third successful generation of painters from his Antwerp family, not much is known about Pourbus formal training, but the number of works surviving from even before his appointment to the archducal court bear testimony to his accomplishments as a portrait painter at a young age.
Vincenzo had already tried different Italian artists as potential court painters, including Domenico Tintoretto, Jacopo Ligozzi, Federico Zuccari and Ottaviano Leoni. Now he wanted to secure the service of an accomplished artist to help spread the image of the Ducal Family to the other courts of Europe as means of his dynastic iconography, and also needed to hire a man able to work and present himself in the distinguished environment of the Mantuan court.
Under Vincenzo’s reign, the Ducal Household comprised of more than six hundred people. It was of famous extravagance, not least for the art collection amassed by the duke and his forebears. Between 1627 and 1630 a part of the collection would be sold to King Charles I of England, while the rest was to be scattered following the sacking of the Ducal palace in 1630 by Imperial troops during a dispute over the Gonzaga succession. Consisting of well over 2,000 paintings and more than 20,000 bronzes, marbles, medals, coins, arms, ceramics, manuscripts, books and other objects, the Gonzaga collection was one of the greatest ever amassed.
When Rubens and Pourbus arrived in 1600, the Mantuan court undoubtedly was amongst the most sophisticated of Europe. Pourbus had become accustomed to the elaborate Spanish protocol at the archducal court in Brussels and appears to have acclimatised to Mantua and the new position with ease. Federico Zuccari described Pourbus as an elegantly dressed courtier after having met him in Mantua that autumn, and as having been granted many favours by the duke, being able to move freely in Vincenzo’s Apartments. This relationship of trust seems to have deepened over the years, as all members of the ducal family regularly corresponded directly with the painter, the Duchess even at one point, expressing sorrows about Pourbus health, when the artist had travelled to Naples, in 1607 to advise the Duke to purchase Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Rome, Palazzo Barberini) and the Madonna of the Rosary (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).
While Pourbus was employed primarily to produce portraits of the Duke and his family, Rubens was to paint mainly religious and mythological works, and his small corpus of portraiture from the earliest years of the seventeenth century owed a clear debt to Pourbus, who had a formative influence over his Antwerp compatriot. Pourbus continued working for the Gonzaga family in different guises until 1610, when he became Court Painter to Louis XIII, after having been to Paris before on assignment for Maria de’ Medici, sister of the Duchess Eleonora.
Whilst employed by the Gonzaga, Pourbus consistently produced his finest works. The portraits from this period have a distinct and deep richness of palette and are imbued with an element of dark drama that gives them an intensity which is not present in the court portraits that Pourbus would go on to paint in the final chapter of his career in Paris.
The present painting is a prime example of the Mantuan activity. The date of 1602 and the description of the duke’s age allow for a precise date of execution between January and September 1602, the duke’s birthday being the 21 September. It shows Vincenzo at the height of his power and maturity. Pourbus places him to the right of the viewer, with an intense, focused gaze, and in apparent anatomic reality, devoid of any idealising features. The reddish, lively flesh tones, the undulating skull and an astonishing attention to detail, such as the rendering of each individual hair of the beard, create a portrait of great reality and presence. The beautiful ruff of lace from Burano is also depicted in great detail.
An important feature of late Renaissance and Baroque court portraiture, and especially in the case of Vincenzo Gonzaga, is the richly decorated armour. Vincenzo owned many impressive suits of armour. On many other portraits he is shown wearing the so called SIC armour, which shows his device, the letters ‘SIC’, in a crescent moon, decorating the richly gilt-ornamented plates of the armour. The present armour, a luxurious chivalric item, decorated in abundance with golden grotesques, canons, swags, weapons and an eagle, appears in only one other portrait of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, which is now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden (oil on canvas, 95 x 73.5 cm, inv. no. 835, not signed, see fig. 1). Pourbus oeuvre consists of about 105 paintings, of which only 20 are signed. This marks the present painting as an unusual and fortunate rediscovery. The reason for the date, the reference to the dukes’ age and the artist’s signature might be the unusual destination of the finished work.
Paolo Bertelli proposes that the present portrait could very likely be the one referred to by Annibale Chieppio, Ducal advisor, in several letters to Aderbale Manerbio, the dukes secretary, in 1602, as having been commissioned for Maria Manrique de Lara (1538–1608), lady-in-waiting to the Empress and wife of Vratislav von Pernstein, imperial chancellor in Prague.
Annibale Chieppio writes to Aderbale Manerbio in Prague, Mantua, 16 May 1602: ‘Intanto si mandano alla signora donna Maria i ritratti di questi prencipi che saranno notati nell’inserto foglio, et fra poco se le manderanno quelli anchora del signor duca et delle due serenissime madame. Intanto vostra signoria iscuserà la tardanza perché questo pittore di sua altezza è assai humorista et non se ne può cavar construtto se non quando gli piace di lavorare, fingendo hora di essere amalato, hora qualch’altro impedimento, il che tutto gli viene sopportato per l’eccellenza del suo valore’ (Archivio di Stato di Mantova; Archivio Gonzaga, b. 2688, f. III 2, doc. 113–113bis). This would indeed explain the inscriptions and the signature, as these could be interpreted to point to a foreign commission, as Bertelli proposes. Maria Manrique de Lara came from a wealthy Spanish family (there is a portrait of her daughter Polyxena by Alonso Sanchez-Coello, today in the Lobkowicz collection). Unfortunately it has not been possible to trace the provenance all the way to this likely commission from Prague.
The present painting, according to labels on the back, belonged to Marie Adélaïde Mallet, née Grunelius, and her husband Guillaume Mallet (1859–1945), of the French Protestant banking dynasty. It was kept at the family’s famous country estate Le Bois des Moutiers, Normandy, built by the then young architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, with the Gardens designs by Gertrude Jekyll. Le Bois des Moutiers is an early and important example of the Arts and Crafts style and remains a Lutyens/Jekyll Masterpiece. In an article published in 2010, the present painting is shown in situ in the dining room (see K. Lebert, Les jardins enchantés du Bois des Moutiers, in: Maisons Normandes, 122, December 2010 – January 2011, pp. 24-31:30).
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