Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Don Gaspar de Guzmán (1587–1645), Count-Duke of Olivares
The equestrian portrait has a long history in European art going back to antiquity.
Over succeeding centuries, the form found its way from sculpture to painting and was reinterpreted according to changing values. In ancient Rome, the genre was associated with imperial authority. In the Middle Ages, it was linked to the concept of the Christian knight. By the seventeenth century, when Velázquez painted this portrait of Don Gaspar de Guzmán (1587–1645), the Count-Duke of Olivares, sitting astride a horse, the equestrian portrait had come to convey other messages as well.
This image of the Count-Duke on horseback is one of a few similar portraits believed to have been versions of an original work now housed at the Museo del Prado. Except for the color of the horse—brown in the Prado version and white in this one—and a few other minor changes mostly to the landscape, the images are virtually identical. In both, the horse faces in the direction of a military conflict in the distance. On top of the horse, the Count-Duke’s body is also angled toward the battle. His head, however, turns back to give the viewer a glimpse of his face. In addition to his armor, Guzmán wears a red sash and carries a baton, both symbols of command.
Although attempts have been made to link the image to a specific military event—the Spanish victory over the French at Fuenterrabía in 1638—evidence for the connection is purely circumstantial. Furthermore, although Guzmán was credited with Spain’s triumph at Fuenterrabía, his contribution was purely strategic. He did not participate in the actual fighting as the portrait would imply. It is more likely (and not necessarily incompatible with the Fuenterrabía thesis) that the image was created as a general statement of the Count-Duke’s status and authority.
Guzmán was a powerful figure who had a major impact on Spanish politics and culture during the reign of Philip IV. He was both a military general and the patron who brought Velázquez to the king’s court. This portrait reminds us of both roles. At the same time, it speaks to Guzmán’s horsemanship. Learning the art of horseback riding was an important part of a noble’s education at the Spanish court. It has been pointed out that the horse in this work is not rearing, but performing levade, a dressage position that required tremendous strength on the part of the horse and great skill on the part of the rider. The significance of the Count-Duke’s ability to control his horse, however, went beyond the literal. The ability to rein in a horse and direct him at one’s will was widely understood as a metaphor for successful governance and leadership.
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