Frans Pourbus the Younger
(1569 – 1622)
Elisabeth of France (1602 – 1644), later Isabelle, Queen of Spain
Painted circa 1610 – 1612
Oil on a de-lined canvas: 21 ¼ × 18 ¼ in. (54 × 46.5 cm.)
Acquired in the South of France during the late 1970s;
Private collection, France;
Sotheby’s, Paris, 26 June 2014, lot 12;
with The Weiss Gallery, until 2016.
The Weiss Gallery, From Merchants to Monarchs: Frans Pourbus the Younger, 2015, no. 12.
On long-term loan to the Rubenshuis, Antwerp.
Newly discovered and previously unpublished, this is possibly the very first in the series of portraits by Pourbus of the eldest daughter of Henry IV and Marie de’ Medici, that were painted in the years from 1610 to 1615, before her departure to Spain as Queen. She is depicted here as a very young girl about eight to ten years old. With the assassination of her father outside the Palais du Louvre in 1610, her brother Louis XIII succeeded under the regency of their mother. Because of their closeness in age, the two siblings were very devoted and this is reflected in their iconography – with their portraits often painted simultaneously. As with the rest of her immediate family, Pourbus portrayed Elisabeth at various times during his employ at the French royal court, but the present design appears unique, with no other known versions or copies. Bust-length in scale, it is comparable in size and date to the other bust portraits painted of her siblings, for example, the portraits of Louis XIII dated 1610 (Jakober Foundation, Majorca), Gaston d’Orléan c.1612 (Pitti Palace, Florence), and Henriette-Marie de France c.1612 (Pitti Palace, Florence).
Our portrait presents the child princess at a pivotal moment in her life – presumably as negotiations were beginning for a double marriage between the royal families of France and Spain. Elisabeth was to marry her cousin the Prince of Asturias (the future Philip IV of Spain) and her brother Louis XIII the Spanish Infanta Anne. Without any knowledge of the painting’s early provenance or history, it is impossible to say for whom or what purpose the portrait was painted. Whilst it is plausible that our portrait was intended for presentation to the court of Spain, its intimate scale suggests that is more likely to have been commissioned for familial use, and perhaps was sent by Marie de’ Medici to her family in Florence. Stylistically, the work fits well with how Pourbus depicted the siblings before the 1611 series of full-length portraits of Elisabeth of France (Pitti Palace, Florence) and her brother Louis XIII (Cleveland Museum).
It was not until 25 November 1615 the thirteen-year-old Elisabeth and her brother Louis were finally to meet their respective spouses - on the Pheasant Island in the river Bidassoa that divides France and Spain between the French city of Hendaye and the Spanish city of Fuenterrabia. It was here that the exchange of the two princesses took place and the moment was recorded in a painting by Rubens, Exchange of the Princesses at the Spanish Border, as part of his Marie de’ Medici cycle. In Spain, Elisabeth’s name took on the Spanish form of Isabel. She became the new Princess of Asturias and on the death of her husbands’ stepfather in 1621, she became Queen Consort of Spain, Portugal, Sicily and Naples, Duchess consort of Burgundy, Brabant, Luxembourg and Limburg, Countess consort of Flanders and Countess Palatine of Burgundy.
In an age when the fate of a kingdom depended on the formation of alliances – the ‘princely’ image was endlessly refined, reworked and reconsidered. In the complex relationships between reigning dynasties, politics were an art and art was political. The sophisticated nature of Pourbus’s paintings cannot be properly understood without recognising the manner in which they were used by those in power. Even so, this portrait of Elisabeth is more than just a form of currency with which to lay the foundations for the marriage to the future king of Spain or as a reminder of her ties to the Medici – it is on a small enough scale that it achieves an intimacy.
 This followed a tradition of cementing military and political alliances between the Catholic powers of France and Spain with royal marriages, a tradition that went back to 1559 with the marriage of King Philip II of Spain to the French princess Elisabeth of Valois, daughter of Henry II of France.
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