The Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of AustriaCa. 1634. Oil on unlined canvas, 107 x 106 cm.
An inventory from 1636 describes this striking portrait of the Infante Ferdinand: A half-length portrait, which the Marquis of Leganés brought back, of the Infante Ferdinand in the dress and manner in which His Highness entered Brussels. He has a baton in his right hand. He wears a bright red velvet coat with gold trim, and a scarlet sash embroidered with gold, in which there is a broadsword. There is a brocade curtain. It is by the hand of Van Dyck, a Flemish painter, with a gilded and burnished frame.
The Cardinal-Infante was the younger brother of King Philip IV of Spain. At age ten he was elevated to the status of cardinal, a custom of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1631, he was designated to succeed his aunt, the Infanta Isabella. He left Madrid in 1632 to become viceroy of Catalonia. Upon Isabella’s death on December 1, 1633, Philip IV appointed Ferdinand governor of the Spanish Netherlands. In early autumn of the following year, Ferdinand and his imperial army marched northward from Italy. They encountered the Swedish forces and defeated them at the Battle of Nördlingen on September 5-6, 1634. This handsome court portrait of the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand commemorates his celebrated entry into the city of Brussels on November 4, 1634.
A contemporary description recounts the Cardinal-Infante’s arrival in Brussels: He entered into the city with all his train of attendants, dressed in scarlet with gold embroidery, with a long smock or jacket of the same fabric, plumes, a red sash, and the ceremonial sword worn by his grandfather Charles V when he subdued the enemy at the Elbe, and now by His Royal Highness at the Danube; his hair long and a collar of fine lace covering his shoulders, a custom of the country and a part of the dress of a military officer; his presence noble, his complexion clear and white, and the down on his upper lip blond, a characteristic of his family, at twenty-one years and six months of age.
The portrait documents a historic event and glorifies the Habsburg dynasty. The painting was sent home to Philip IV in 1636. It was hung in the royal palace, the Alcázar, near a painting of the Battle of Nördlingen. Ferdinand holds a field marshal’s baton in his right hand, emphasizing his military leadership. Tucked into his regal sash is the sword his great-grandfather Charles V used at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547. The elaborate costume with its brilliant red and gold fabric is sumptuous and ceremonial, reflecting the importance of the Cardinal-Infante and his military achievements. In its prominent place within the Alcázar, the portrait served as a reminder of the significance of the Habsburgs and their place in Spanish history. Philip IV and the royal family were not the only audience for this portrait of the Cardinal-Infante, as van Dyck’s painting was engraved by Pieter de Jode the Younger, Adriaen Lommelin, and John Payne, each time with Ferdinand facing the same direction, and several copies were painted, including one for Charles I and other English nobility.
By 1630, van Dyck was in great demand as a portrait painter. To serve his illustrious clientele, which included European royalty and nobility as well as courtiers, diplomats, clerics, and scholars, in 1633-34 van Dyck set up his studio in Antwerp, the commercial and artistic center of the Spanish Netherlands. As the preeminent Flemish portrait painter, van Dyck was the natural choice for any political commission. He was known for his technical skills as a painter, his ability to capture a physical likeness, and his speed of execution. Van Dyck commonly worked on several portraits at once. In this case, his studio assistants likely painted the elaborate garments worn by the Infante, the background, and the brocade curtain, while van Dyck finished his magnificent head and graceful hands. After his assistants completed the figure, the Flemish painter worked over the whole surface, adding highlights and touches to the opulent gold and lace details. His signature style was influenced by his teacher Peter Paul Rubens’ methods and the color and painterly style practiced by the Venetian painters.
Van Dyck was one of the first European artists to give psychological depth and naturalness to his portraits. The Cardinal-Infante appears as if he has just walked into the artist’s studio. His raised baton suggests movement and adds to the naturalness of the pose, which is both dignified and unaffected. The victorious aristocrat gazes at the viewer with somber eyes and soft lips, which convey a subtle expression of humility and thoughts we can only imagine (Lipinski, L.: El Greco to Goya. Masterpieces from the Prado Museum, Museo de Arte de Ponce, 2012, pp. 123-124).