A student post by Carter Lyon, doctoral student in History of Art and Hunterian MuSE.
When the Hunterian Art Gallery unveiled its re-hang in 2019, I was pleasantly surprised to see the familiar face of Anne of Austria (GLAHA:43810) in the heart of the gallery. Although at the time it had not recently been on display, this was not my first encounter with the portrait of the Spanish queen. Two years earlier, we made our acquaintance in the conservation lab at Kelvin Hall: as an M.Litt student in Technical Art History, I conducted a technical examination of Anne of Austria for my dissertation. My detailed assessment of the portrait’s canvas and painted surface involved the use of X-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared imaging techniques and microchemical analysis of its paint. I learned a great deal about the materials employed in the production of this work, but each exciting discovery raised even more new questions. Such is the nature of research!
Anne of Austria is a gem within The Hunterian’s art collections, but relatively little is known about its history. The portrait’s provenance only dates to the mid-20th century, when Captain Charles Hepburn (1891–1971) purchased it in Glasgow. It then entered The Hunterian’s collection in 1971 as part of the Hepburn bequest, where it became known as the Hepburn portrait. There is no question about its sitter: this formulaic representation of Anne of Austria (1549–1580), the fourth wife of the Spanish Habsburg King Philip II, traces back to the sixteenth century. Many portraits of Spanish monarchs were painted by court artists including Anthonis Mor (1517–1577), Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531–1588), and Juan Pantoja de la Cruz (1553–1608). The Hepburn portrait’s historical attribution to Sánchez Coello is based on its likeness to this artist’s other Anne of Austria portraits, which feature in art collections across Europe. Coincidentally, another splendid Anne of Austria portrait attributed to this artist is on display across the Clyde in Glasgow Museums’ Pollok House.
While the style of the Hepburn portrait bears great similarity to Sánchez Coello’s depictions of this sitter, my technical examination highlighted some inconsistencies between its materials and the known working practice of this artist. At the end of my dissertation project, many questions about the portrait’s production persisted. Inspired by the Hepburn Portrait’s return to the gallery and my current research on Spanish art theory and artistic practice, I have returned to this portrait’s technical examination for further investigation.
One key to interpreting the Hepburn portrait will be to better understand its relationship with the other Anne of Austria portraits associated with Sánchez Coello. Many of these works are very similar, though not identical. Recurrent details like the queen’s posture, facial expression, hairstyle, jewellery, embroidery, gloves, and hat suggest that these portraits are versions or copies of a common model – and this is where things get a bit complicated.
Royal portraits played an essential role in statecraft, and their production was no mean feat. The Habsburgs dispatched these works of art across their vast empire, and in order to meet the great demand for portraits artists and their workshops devised strategies to maximise their efficiency while maintaining fidelity to the royal likeness. Contemporary Spanish artist treatises describe methods for tracing and transferring the contour lines of one painting to another, which certainly made the whole process much smoother. But the distinction between court-sanctioned replicas, copies, and versions – plus the market for unsanctioned replicas – all complicate our efforts to attribute these portraits.
My analysis has been influenced by the intriguing research by the University of Glasgow’s Stirling Maxwell Spanish Paintings Project on the working practice of Spanish Golden Age court painters and by Harvard Art Museums on the simultaneous production of royal portraits. Building upon my earlier technical examination, I am collaborating with experts from University of Glasgow, the Museo del Prado and other Spanish institutions to learn how this familiar face at The Hunterian relates to other Anne of Austria portraits. I am also investigating how the Hepburn Portrait was modified since departing the artist’s studio many centuries ago. I aim to publish my findings and hope that this case study will aid in the interpretation of other portraits from this prolific era of Spanish Art History.