Dwarf with a DogCa. 1645. Oil on canvas, 142 x 107 cm.
The custom of placing the principal figure in a portrait alongside another being that was physically or socially inferior was common practice among artists who portrayed figures from the Spanish court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Kings, queens, princes and princesses all appeared accompanied by dwarfs, children or animals in a revealing play of hierarchies. This convention exalted the central figure through the comparison of relative sizes and ranks, and was extended to portraits of dwarfs and jesters, who were at times depicted alongside dogs. The implicit comparison in these latter cases, however, has less to do with the idea of hierarchical difference than a device by which the artists -measuring their subjects on an animal scale- could demonstrate the real size of the sitter. In this particular case, a man with long hair, ostentatiously dressed in the French style, poses next to a dog. The artist has made the comparison more extreme: the dog reveals the size of the man, but the sumptuousness of his clothing serves also as a wink -perhaps a cruel one- at the tradition of juxtaposing a sitter of royal stock with an inferior. Until the early decades of the twentieth century, scholars considered this work to be by Diego Velázquez, placing it on the same level as Velázquez´s known portraits of court jesters. In fact, this painting has been published frequently in monographs devoted to the painter from Seville and in general histories of Spanish painting. In 1925, Allende-Salazar called attention to the notable differences between this work and Velázquez´s jesters in the construction of space and in the depiction of the subject. He proposed Juan Carreño de Miranda as the artist responsible for the painting, an opinion shared by subsequent historians such as Pérez Sánchez. Others, like Gerstenberg, thought it might be the work of Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo. In the 1950s, López-Rey found convincing reasons to reject both attributions and argued instead that it was by an anonymous imitator of Velázquez, a painter who admired the master´s free brushwork, the structural solidity of his works and the verisimilitude he achieved, but who, in attempting to emulate Velázquez, produced a work that is compositionally weaker. The painting presents several details that allow us to situate it in a precise chronological and artistic context. The sitter´s costume, as Carmen Bernis has pointed out, dates from the reign of Louis XIII of France, which ended in 1643. The presence of the same dog in Mazo´s The stag hunt at Aranjuez (P02571) implies that this painting could be dated to the last years of the 1630s or the early 1640s, when Mazo executed his work. In that canvas, the dog appears in the lower right-hand side, next to another dwarf and, curiously, showing only the front half of its body -exactly the same view in the anonymous painting here. Such a close dependency on Mazo´s work would suggest that the artist had access to the Royal Collections, in which Mazo´s painting is mentioned for the first time in the eighteenth century (Text from Portús, J.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 108).