Jean-Marc NATTIER (Paris, 1685 - 1766)

Portrait of Fernando of Silva and Àlvarez of Toledo, Duke of Huescar, 12th Duke of Alba (1714 - 1776)

Oil on canvas. Signed and Dated: Nattier Pinxit 1749

On the verso, a printed label, “collection de Monsieur le baron Arthur de Rothschild,” and a red wax seal with the Rothschild arms and motto, “Concordia, Industria et Integritas.” The number 26 is inscribed twice on labels in brown ink. Inscription, top center, on stretcher in pencil: “à M. le Baron Arthur de / Rothschild” and further down, “antichre haute.” On the bottom in pencil: “91c4” and in red paint: “6070 F


  • Baroness Charlotte de Rothschild, wife of Nathaniel de Rothschild (1825-1899)
  • Baron Arthur de Rothschild (through apportioning) (1851-1903)
  • Baron Henri de Rothschild (1872-1947) ?
  • Anonymous sale, March 14, 1975, Paris, Palais Galliera, lot 42, as Portrait of Louis XV (rectified under no. 42 bis, as Portrait assumed to be of Fernando de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo)

The Occasion for the Commission
On May 25, 1749, the proclamation of the thirty-eighth list of nominations of Knights to the Orders of the King – the Order of Saint Michael founded by Louis XI in 1469 and the Order of the Holy Spirit created by Henry III in 1578 – took place in the Royal Chapel of the Château of Versailles. Mass was celebrated by the Abbot of Harcourt in the presence of most of the nominees, with the exception of the Duke of Huescar, Ordinary Ambassador of Spain to the Court of France, who had already left for Madrid. On May 29th, a royal ordinance specified that “Ferdinand of Silva-Alvarez of Toledo-Beaumont-Hurtado of Mendoza-Haro, Duke of Huescar” was admitted as a knight “with permission to wear the signs and insignia of the King’s Orders until [his] official reception.” The formal reception ceremony actually only took place in Madrid in 1760, because the Duke did not return to Paris before 1771.

This important date of 1749 is inscribed on our painting, which happens to be the only portrait to show the Duke of Alba young and already at the peak of his diplomatic career. In addition to the Order of the Holy Spirit which Louis XV just awarded him and which he wears, as he should, in the form of a sash draped from the right shoulder to the left hip, the Duke sports the medals and ribbons of Calatrava and of the Golden Fleece which he had received from the hands of Philip V, King of Spain, in 1746.

The bulk of evidence indicates that this painting was an important commission and more likely to have been official rather than private. In the first place, Nattier, an offcial painter to the king who had not left France at this time, could not have painted Huescar wearing the blue sash of the Holy Spirit because the ambassador was already in Madrid on May 5th, some three weeks before the announcement of his nomination. Furthermore, the painting itself never entered the collections of Alba House which piously conserved all of the portraits commissioned by members of this illustrious family. Unfortunately, the old erroneous identification of the sitter as Louis XV which was only abandoned in 1975 makes it impossible to establish the history of the work with any precision on account of the multitude of “portraits of Louis XV by Nattier” which are mentioned in 18th and 19th century inventories and sale catalogues.

Reception into the Order of the Holy Spirit
The reception of the Duke of Huescar to the Order of the Holy Spirit was unusual and not to be taken for granted. Although entrance into the Order had been possible since Henry IV, it remained exceptional and not every ambassador to the King of France received the blue sash at the end his mission. Only a few grandees from Spain had been admitted to the Order and decorated with the Golden Fleece by the Very Catholic King and the royal family since the Bourbons had acceded to the Spanish throne. This event was therefore quite exceptional and imbued with the highest political import. Specifically, it played an integral role in the negotiations between the two powers concerning the defense of Spanish interests in the War of Austrian Succession and, in particular, those of the Spanish Prince Philip, who had become Duke of Parma thanks mainly to the actions of the Duke of Huescar.

Two conditions had to be fulfilled for an ambassador to be able to enter the Order of the Holy Spirit. First of all, according to the Order’s statutes, a knight had to be at least thirty-five years old, a fact which pushed the nomination of the duke back to 1749. Second, given that the King of France was the sovereign Grand Master of the Order, it was better to wait until the ambassador’s mission was completed, as was the case for the Duke of Huescar in April 1749.

Our Portrait
While mitigating the delay of the official ceremony, this portrait by the royal family"s favorite painter was therefore a political commission which both complemented and made visible an ultimate honor. As such, it is neither a conventional nor a mechanical work. On the contrary, Nattier seems to have taken great pleasure in painting his very brilliant sitter. As was his custom, he probably tried to capture the ambassador’s features and piercing gaze as closely as possible during a few sittings in which he sketched his face directly on canvas. Sometime later, perhaps even after the Duke"s departure, the bust and setting were added, probably from various sketches now lost.

Comparison with Related Works
The artist, however, did not settle for simply reproducing an existing formula, even if the essential composition – a bust view of the bare-headed sitter in full armor against a background battle scene – was relatively common in his work, especially after his famous 1717 portrait in which Peter the Great of Russia is seen with his body facing left, at right angles to the canvas surface, while his head turns towards the viewer (Munich, Residenz). The artist employed similar compositions to represent the Duke of Chartres (private collection), Louis-Joseph of Bourbon (Dijon, Museum of Fine Arts), and the Duke of Penthièvre (private collection), and the Crown Prince (Versailles). He modified it somewhat for Louis XV, Pierre-Joseph Victor of Besenval (versions in the Hermitage), and the Unknown Prince (copy in Birmingham Museum of Art). In our Portrait of the Duke of Huescar, Nattier opted for a different design in which the sitter is seen almost straight on with his right hand gallantly posed on his hip, his face turned strongly to the leftand his gaze directed out of the picture frame. A hint of a smile almost brushes his lips, a touch which is unthinkable in the other portraits of men in armor with their impassive affected expressions.

The portraitist used a similar presentation in reverse for a picture representing an Unknown Knight of the Order of Saint Louis dated 1741 (Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) except that the sitter does not wear full armor. Furthermore, in our painting, the composition is more stable. In the portrait from Kansas, the medal of Saint Louis placed on the median obliged Nattier to add weight to the lower half, whereas here, the blue sash emphasizes the diagonal and leads to a very harmonious distribution of mass. The general’s tent on the leftside not only emphasizes the Duke’s rank as Field Marshal and his genuine military experience, but it also adds more depth to the scene. Finally, the Duke does not hold a baton of command nor is his sword visible; in our painting, he is acting as a diplomat maneuvering for peace and the maintenance of good relations between France and Spain. His surprisingly calm demeanor in view of the intensity of the battle raging behind him can be explained by his present function.

Inspired Use of Color
Another characteristic makes our portrait unique within the context of this relatively uniform production of male portraits in armor: Nattier seems to have been particularly inspired in his use of colors. The picture is constructed against a rhythm of grey-brown clouds, gold decorations, metal armor, tent stripes, and voluptuously brushed hair. Against this foundation, the azure blues and vermilion reds stand out brilliantly. They are concentrated in the watered silk sashes and ceaselessly dance through reflections in the armor, gaps in the clouds, the carnation flashes, the soldiers’ attire, and the mountains in the background. Everything is enlivened by little white dabs which sculpt forms and illuminate the scene so as to create a perfect balance between blues and reds, in much the same way as the ambassador was taking care to preserve perfect harmony between two Crowns. Thus, the flamboyant red bow of the Spanish sash, which placed just at the very point where the Cross of the Holy Spirit is suspended from the sitter’s waist so as to close the diagonal formed by the azure sash of France, participates in this same dynamic.

The energetic modeling, loose brushstroke, and intense gaze make our painting comparable to the most beautiful male portraits by Nattier, such as that of Louis Tocqué, painted in 1739 (Lisbon, Calouste-Gulbenkian Museum). Unfortunately, no document has been found on the fate of our portrait after its realization in 1749. Nattier never exhibited it in the Salon, nor did it figure in his sale of 1763, even if the “seven fnished bust portraits” can’t be precisely identified. Whether it was commissioned by the King of France or the ambassador himself, the picture could have been a gift to a Spanish dignitary or, more likely, to the Ducal couple of Parma – Philip of Spain and Elisabeth of France, the oldest daughter of Louis XV. The latter did in fact visit the French court between December 1748 and October 1749. She received several portraits from Nattier which mainly depicted members of the royal family. However, the bonds which existed between the Duke of Huescar and Prince Philip are what make one mainly think that the portrait might have been sent to Parma, as the Duke had served in Italy under the orders of the Prince and came to France mainly to guarantee his possession of the Duchy of Parma.

Intended Purpose of the Portrait
It would not be the least bit surprising if the ambassador wanted to give the prince his portrait by Nattier. Such practice was not unusual. For example, the Ambassador of Sweden to the Court of France, Carl Gustav Tessin, commissioned an offcial portrait of himself in armor from Louis Tocqué in 1741 which he sent to Stockholm to remind the King and the Diet of his good services (Stockholm, National Museum).

Two other portraits exist of the Duke of Alba. It would seem that the anonymous artist of the Portrait of the Duke of Alba at the Real Academia of Spain had not seen Nattier’s painting, whereas Anton Raphaël Mengs who painted the Duke after 1760 had (Alba House, De Liria Palace, Madrid). Mengs, who was accustomed to showing sitters full face in stiff poses, chose this time to use Nattier’s composition in reverse in his depiction of the Duke wearing court attire rather than a breastplate, because Huescar had abandoned arms long before, in spite of his title of Captain General of the King’s Armies. Although Mengs never came to France, he could have admired Nattier’s work either first in Italy or later in Spain under Queen Marie-Louise of Bourbon-Parma.

HIstory of its Provenance
The only certainties in the history of our picture concern the end of the 19th century, when it belonged to Baron Arthur de Rothschild and hung in the upper antechamber of his private mansion, 33 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. His mansion, according to Perrinet de Jars, was built in 1714 by Pierre Grandhomme for Anne Chevalier, widow of the fonancier André Le Vieux. Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild bought it in 1856 and had it transformed in about 1864 by Léon Ohnet. Until his death in 1899, his wife, Charlotte de Rothschild, was the soul of this town-house. Passionate about art, and an artist herself, Charlotte had assembled a beautiful collection of old paintings. Her acquisitions joined the paintings inherited from her father, James de Rothschild, and those purchased by Nathaniel in England and France. In 1899, she gave several of her paintings to the Louvre.

Born in 1851, Arthur was the fourth child of Nathaniel and Charlotte.This stamp collector who had written a Histoire de la poste aux lettres depuis ses origines les plus anciennes jusqu’à nos jours (History of Postal Services for Letters from the Earliest Origins until Today), never married and never left the family mansion which his mother bequeathed to him. When Arthur died in 1903, the dwelling passed to his nephew Henri, who sold it in 1920 to the Cercle de l"Union Interalliée which still occupies it. In Henri de Rothschild"s collections were several portraits by Nattier, including those of Louis Tocqué (Lisbon), the Princess of Rohan (Sotheby"s sale, July 3, 1991), and Madame Adelaïde C with a Fan painted in Compiègne in July 1749, then given by Louis XV to Madame Infante (Versailles). All of these portraits came from the collection of Charlotte who particularly loved French 18th century art. We know that she paid 9,400 francs for the Portrait of Tocqué in 1889 and that she also had that of Madame Geoffrin by Nattier(Carnavalet Museum) in her home. Besides, Henri and Arthur were not very interested in Old Master paintings. The latter preferred contemporary works by Karl Bodmer and Louis-Eugène Lambert.

Everything leads us to believe, therefore, that our portrait was probably acquired by Charlotte de Rothschild in the 1890’s, apparently as a Portrait of Louis XV. Unfortunately, no description of the Rothschild mansion or photographs of the interior during Charlotte’s or Arthur’s time are known. The private apartments on the second floor where the portrait seems to have been exhibited were redesigned for the Cercle de l’Union Interalliée and the upper antechamber was suppressed.

The painting almost certainly left the family shortly after the sale of the mansion, but it does not figure among the objects which came in part from the dwelling and were dispersed at the Henri de Rothschild Sale on May 15, 1933. It only reappeared on the market in 1975, still identified as Louis XV, and without any indication of provenance. The intervention of Hervé Pinoteau made it possible to identify the sitter, but no research was done on the painting itself which still does not figure in any of the studies devoted to Nattier.

Quality of our Picture
Nonetheless, the Portrait of the Duke of Huescar is one of the most beautiful portraits by this artist who is more often lauded for his images of women. It is also one of his most technically accomplished expressive works, as if painting this foreign sitter made it possible for Nattier to go beyond the conventions which regulated official portraiture in order to fully reveal his talent as a colorist. We would like to think that the blue fabric of Madame de Marsollier, painted in 1749 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the superb, astonishing red material which clothes Marie-Geneviève Boudrey (1752, London, private collection) might be reminiscences of this celebration of blue and red in the Portrait of the Duke of Huescar, a work which merits being reattached to the oeuvre of Nattier.

The Sitter
A Spanish grandee, Fernando of Silva and Alvarez of Toledo, future Duke of Huescar, was born on October 14th, 1714 in Vienna where his parents, Manuel-Maria-José de Sova, Count of Galva, and Maria-Theresa, Duchess of Alba, resided after having backed Archduke Charles and the Imperialists in the War of Spanish Succession. The Albas returned to Madrid in 1727, and in 1733, Fernando de Silva became a Gentleman of the King’s Chamber, followed by Duke of Huescar in 1739. As a Knight of the Order of Calatrava and Colonel of the Regiment of Navarre, he followed Don Philip, Duke of Parma, to Italy in 1742. The Prince made him Field Marshal and supported his appointment as Commander of the King’s Bodyguard in 1744. An Army Colonel General, the Duke of Huescar was sent to France in 1746 as Extraordinary Ambassador and Plenipotentiary Minister to present Philip V’s objections to the treaty which France was preparing to sign with Sardinia. Primarily, his mission was to defend the interests of Don Philip of Parma. His first audience took place on February 19th in Versailles. On May 30th at the Château of Bouchout, he took leave of the king and left for Madrid, where he received the Collar of the Golden Fleece. The Duke returned to France at the end of August 1746 to replace Ambassador Campoflorido and to uphold the Franco-Spanish alliance which was being weakened by the War of Austrian Succession. His mission lasted more than two years. He had his leave-taking audience with Louis XV on April 13, 1749, and on May 5th, he was received by the King and Queen of Spain, to whom he offered precious gifts.

Very close to the king, he was appointed Grand Master of the House of Ferdinand VI, Supreme Commander of the Spanish Armies, and Grand Chancellor of Navarre, Dean of the State Council. De Silva temporarily was responsible for Foreign Affairs after the death of José de Carvajal in 1754 and advised the king on remaining neutral in the Seven Years War which took place between Great Britain and France. A great defender of the politics of enlightened reform, he was received into the Spanish Academy the same year, where he became Perpetual Director in February 1755. Twelfth Duke of Alba after the death of his mother in 1755, he was made the Grand Chancellor of India in March 1756, but the ascension of Charles III to the throne in 1759 ended his political success.

On July 22, 1760, in St. Jerome Church of Buen Retiro, the Duke of Alba and Cristobal Portocarrero, Count of Montijo (appointed in 1746) were formally received into the Order of the Holy Spirit by the Prince of the Asturias (future Charles IV) who himself had just been made a knight by the king two days previously at Aranjuez Palace. The Duke of Alba o-cially pronounced the oath for himself and the Count of Montijo who had bad eyesight.

He gave his resignation to the king in December 1760 and retired to his properties of El Barco de Ávila and Piedrahita. In 1771-1772, he returned to Paris privately and formed a friendship with Rousseau and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. A man of intelligence and wit, an amateur of literature and the arts, he participated in the financing of the statue of Voltaire.

The Duke of Huescar died in Madrid at the age of sixty two years on November 15th, 1776.


• J. L. S. Escolar, La Casa de Alba : mil anos de historia y de leyenda, Madrid, Esfera de los Libros, 2006.
• Juan-José Luna, “Peintures françaises en Espagne aux XVIIe et XVIIIe
siècles,” Revue de l’Art, 1985, vol. 70, pp. 91-98 (p. 96).
• Ramón Menéndez Pidal (dir.), Historia de España, vol. 29 et 30, Madrid, 1987.
• Pierre de Nolhac, Nattier, peintre à la cour de Louis XV, Paris, 1925.
• Hervé Pinoteau, “Deux importants documents de l’ordre du Saint-Esprit dans l’Archivo històrico nacional de Madrid et une lettre de Louis XV à Ferdinand IV-III des Deux-Siciles,” Hidalguía, vol. 32, no. 182, January-February 1984, pp. 129-144, et no. 183, March-April 1984, pp. 177-203.
• Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy, “Charlotte de Rothschild, artiste, collectionneur et mécène,” B. Joubert (dir.), Mélanges en l’honneur de B. Foucart, vol. II, Paris, 2008, pp. 251-265 et 570-576.
• Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy, “Hôtel Nathaniel de Rothschild,” B. de Andia et D. Fernandès (dir.), La rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, Paris, Délégation à l’action artistique de la Ville de Paris, 1994, pp. 119-124.
Recueil des instructions données aux ambassadeurs et ministres de France depuis les traités de Westphalie jusqu’à la révolution française, vol. 12 bis, Espagne, éd. Alfred Morel-Fatio et H. Léonardon, Paris, 1899, pp. 436-438.
• Xavier Salmon, Jean-Marc Nattier. 1685-1766, exhibition catalogue, Versailles, Paris, 2000.

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