The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery at Brussels1647 - 1651. Oil on copperplate, 104.8 x 130.4 cm.
Depictions of painting galleries became popular in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 17th century. The exhibition of paintings and other artistic or natural objects was originally a way of manifesting the high social standing of an eminently bourgeois class with a strong desire to ennoble itself. In many cases, the paintings did not rigorously reflect the client’s collection, but served instead as metaphorical allusions to his artistic interests and standing as an art lover. They bore witness to his intellectual and cultural commitment and, in that sense, they were very efficient propaganda tools.
The protagonist of this example is the Archduke Leopold William of Habsburg, governor of the Netherlands from 1647 to 1656, who appears alongside other members of his court on the right. His chamber painter, David Teniers, appears on the other side, with the Count of Fuensaldaña, who participated in the acquisition in England of most of the works visible on the walls. The personages and artworks visible here make this one of the few paintings to depict a concrete, extant collection -a sort of catalog painting of the pictorial wealth built up by the archduke at his palace in Brussels. Most of the works are Italian, but the few Flemish paintings are very important conceptually and symbolically. On the left, Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Saint Lucas Painting the Virgin identifies Teniers’ artistic roots while, on the right, Anton van Dyck’s (1599-1641) Portrait of Isabel Clara Eugenia alludes to Leopold’s position as heir to the government of Brussels. This painting does not convey the idea of a quest for ennoblement common in other galleries, as Leopold was a Habsburg by birth, and this is reinforced by the presence of customary symbols of power, including a sword and dogs. It does, however, justify princely power as manifest in the enjoyment of an exquisite collection of paintings, which the archduke was capable of appreciating for their own merits. This explains why his gaze is directed at Raphael’s Saint Margaret.
By the mid 17th century, painting had triumphed over the other arts and was the leading element of courtly representation -even more so than arms. A prince’s power was no longer measured exclusively in terms of military valor, but also through his taste and appreciation of painting. Teniers painted several similar works for Leopold that were sent to different courts to impress them with his virtues as an art lover possessed of magnificent pictorial treasures. Thus, by sending this work to Philip IV soon after it was painted, the archduke seems to have wanted to honor his uncle as a lover of Italian painting, imitating the collections at Madrid’s Alcázar Palace. He may also have desired to challenge him by showing that the works at his palace in Brussels were able to compete with the King’s collection in Madrid (Text drawn from Pérez Preciado, J. J.: El arte del poder. La Real Armería y el retrato de corte, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2010, p. 126).