Closterman in Spain; three recently-discovered portraits

It’s always exciting when new work turns up that fills in the blanks in a painter’s history, particularly with an artist you really like. I got a wonderful surprise the other day googling works by John Closterman (1660 – 1711).

JZIM Closterman self-portrait.png

Closterman c.1690 (c) JZIM

Malcolm Roger’s superb catalogue of John Closterman’s work (Walpole Society 1981) mentions four portraits painted during the painter’s stay at the Spanish Court from Autumn 1698 to Spring 1699.

Closterman was travelling with his great patron Lord Ashley, later the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, and James Stanhope, later 1st Earl Stanhope. The three men were on their way to Italy, but Stanhope’s brother the Hon Alexander Stanhope was English Resident at the Court in Madrid, and Closterman wanted to paint the Queen of Spain.

Closterman painted a portrait of Alexander Stanhope himself in Court dress, ‘in Golilla with other Spanish ornaments’ as Stanhope himself describes it in the letters to his son which are our window onto this visit:

‘it will be a very good piece, and I hope serve to introduce him where I cannot go myself, for his ambition is to make the Queen’s picture, and I hope to procure him that honour.’ (Chevening MSS Rogers 1981 p.229)

BP Closterman Alexander Stanhope


Portrait of the Hon Alexander Stanhope (c) Chevening Estate ill. Rogers

Clearly the plan worked, because King Carlos II summoned Closterman to Court, told him to bring all his painting gear with him and then commanded him to do a portrait of a Court dwarf there and then. This was a double test because the established Court painter Luca Giordano had already painted the same man. And then, while Closterman was painting, the Queen came in who, as Maria Aña of Neuberg was a German by birth, was delighted to find that Closterman was a fellow countryman, and they both started speaking in German together. In her heart the Queen never left Germany; Spanish courtiers had many grievances against her, but one of the more valid was her habit of sending paintings from the Spanish Royal Collections back home as presents to her relatives. The Queen swiftly agreed that Closterman should paint the King and her, but though Closterman’s portraits are mentioned in Stanhope’s letters – the Queen ‘at length in a rich hunting dress, a gun in her hand & it is a very fine picture’ – both they and the portrait of a dwarf were believed to have been lost.

Last year, however, these two portraits turned up at auction at the Dorotheum in Vienna, bought for 54,500 Euros.

John-Closterman-–-a-pair-(2)     John-Closterman-–-ein-Paar-(2)-1

(c) Palais Dorotheum

Clearly the missing Royal full-lengths. How they reached Vienna is unknown; perhaps Maria Aña gave them as presents. At the date they were painted, Carlos II had only one more year to live. The last Habsburg King of Spain was never a well man, mentally or physically. Stanhope quotes Closterman at the time saying how healthy the King looks, so much so, he says, that he could win a lot of money back in London where people were laying bets on how soon he would die. The King’s health was a subject of great interest in the whole of Europe, where everyone believed his death without an heir would lead to war, as indeed it did. When he died, he was succeeded by King Louis XIV’s grandson Philip of Anjou, Europe went to war for the next thirteen years and the Queen retired to Bayonne for several decades before returning aged almost seventy to live her last years at a palace in Guadalajara.

Only the portrait of the dwarf seemed to be missing, and no description of the painting itself was preserved, only the details of the commission; but scholars at the Prado discovered last year that this painting never left the Spanish Royal Collection. It was in the Prado all along, this Portrait of a Dwarf holding a Parrot. As a foreign painter who had only been at Court a matter of months, at the tail end of the previous dynasty, Closterman’s authorship was soon forgotten. By 1747 the painting had been misattributed to the Spanish artist Sebastian Muñoz. But now, thanks to the Prado’s scholarship, it’s back in Closterman’s oeuvre again. Amazing to think it was painted as a public test, practically a spectator sport. The result must be one of Closterman’s top five paintings, and a masterpiece in any context.


(c) Museo del Prado

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