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Technical investigation and restoration

The Restoration of the two Equestrian Portraits by Velázquez Velázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y 2 December 2011

Two of the most important restorations carried out this year are now on display in the Museum. These last interventions are connected with the plan to rearrange the permanent display of the Prado, known as The Collection: the Second Expansion, which aims include to provide the works on display with the accurate museum resources to ensure an optimal exhibition, and to study and review the state of preservation of these works and proceed with appropriate restorations.

The Restoration of the two Equestrian Portraits by Velázquez

Philip III on Horseback and Margarita of Austria on Horseback, Velázquez. 1628 - 1635. Oils on canvas. 300 x 314 cm. and 297 x 309 cm respectively. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. After restoration

Supported by:
Fundación Iberdrola

State of preservation

Within the context of the re-display of the Museo del Prado's Permanent Collection and more specifically of the works by Velázquez, it was decided to restore Philip III on Horseback and Margaret of Austria on Horseback. The two canvases were painted by Velázquez with studio assistance for the Hall of Realms [Salón de Reinos] in the Buen Retiro Palace. They were part of a series that also included the equestrian portraits of Philip IVIsabel de Borbón and Baltasar Carlos. Restoration was undertaken as the original pictorial values of the paintings had significantly altered for two principal reasons:

  • The accumulation of dirt and the alteration of the varnish had changed the chromatic relationships in both paintings, dulling the contrasts and creating a 'veil' that resulted in a negative compositional effect as it reduced the spatial planes. In the case of Philip III it completely obscured the luminosity of the sky in front of which the horse and rider are located.
  • In the mid-18th century both paintings had additional strips of canvas added to them on the left and right sides. This was done in order to make them the same size as the other portraits in the series in order to display them in a recently built room in the new Royal Palace in Madrid. The addition of these strips notably affected a formal reading of the two works, particularly of Philip III. As is now clear following restoration, Velázquez opted for a foreshortened composition that he emphasised through the markedly horizontal format of the painting, resulting in a vigorous, dynamic image to which the luminous sky also contributed. His intention was thus to offer a different solution to the one he devised for Philip IV on Horseback. The lateral strips resulted in a less vertical format, thus reducing the foreshortening and producing a less powerful, dynamic composition. In the case of Margaret of Austria the additions also affected a reading of the painting, although not in such a pronounced manner. Firstly they detracted from the presence of the splendid horse and secondly they altered they landscape, which originally consisted of distant mountains but which was transformed with the additions into hills with watercourses.
  • The fact that the 18th-century additions were painted on a type of priming different to that used in the original works influenced the restoration as the pigments in the two areas had behaved differently over the course of two-and-a-half centuries. This considerably affected the chances of achieving a harmonious result in which it was not excessively evident that these were areas painted at two different historical periods.
<p><em>Figure 2</em>. Detail of the sky in the original section and added during restoration</p>

Figure 2. Detail of the sky in the original section and added during restoration

<p><em>Figure 3a</em>. The preparation of white lead, a Velázquez feature after his first trip to Italy, can be seen in this sample of the original area</p>

Figure 3a. The preparation of white lead, a Velázquez feature after his first trip to Italy, can be seen in this sample of the original area

<p><em>Figure 3a</em>. Sample of the addition based on iron oxid</p>

Figure 3a. Sample of the addition based on iron oxid

<p><em>Figure 1</em>. Detail of the face of Philip III before and after restoration</p>

Figure 1. Detail of the face of Philip III before and after restoration

Restoration

Restoration

Figure 4. Removing the additions, process of reinforcement and protection of edges

Bearing in mind all the above, the Museum's restorers decided that a 'restoration' of both paintings not only implied cleaning them but also returning them to their original perceptual conditions as far as was possible, a decision that would mean covering over the later additions.

Of the three possibilities in this respect (retaining the additional strips and creating a display that concealed them from view, folding them over the stretcher so that they were hidden at the back of the painting, and removing them), it was decided that the third option was the least harmful in the short, medium and long term as the way that the strips had been joined to the original painting allowed for a very precise type of intervention.

This intervention and the general restoration of the paintings were undertaken by Rocío Dávila. The result can be seen in Room XII of the Museum where Philip III and Margarita of Austria are now on display with the original values that had been partly lost over two hundred and fifty years restored to them. While it was previously difficult to appreciate the merit of these works within the series (other than their iconographic importance), this is now absolutely clear and a comparison, for example, between the equestrian portrait of Philip IV and that of his father reveals two different approaches to depicting royal majesty: the calm remoteness of the former, conveyed through the monarch's impassive expression and profile presentation, and the dynamism of the latter, transmitted through the foreshortening of the horse and the luminous sky against which the horse and rider are set. All those who remember these works in their former location (Room XVI) will appreciate that the results and consequences of the present restoration extend beyond the works in question and positively affect our comprehension of the entire group.

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