Claims of the death of history and other narrative painting in the late nineteenth century are greatly exaggerated if not false. Among those who brought new ideas and styles to the genre was the great Spanish artist Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848–1921). In this article, I take a short look at a selection of his paintings.
Francisco Pradilla Ortiz was born in 1848 near Zaragoza, in Aragon, in north-eastern Spain. He started his artistic training locally, then moved to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, also studying there at the Academy of Watercolourists.
His first major painting as a student was his version of the popular narrative, Rape of the Sabine Women (1874), which won him a scholarship to study at the Spanish Academy in Rome – the Spanish equivalent of the French Prix de Rome.
This shows the classical Roman legend in which the early citizens of Rome, almost entirely men, carried off the women of their friends and neighbours the Sabines, as captive brides. One of the standard themes for all great narrative painters, Masters such as Poussin and Rubens filled their canvases and panels with a riot of people.
Pradilla was wisely more modest, and in the foreground the group of a Sabine mother reaching after her daughter, who is being carried off in the arms of a Roman, gives the story a strongly personal and emotional touch.
After he had completed his studies in Madrid and Rome, Pradilla submitted this painting of Doña Juana “la Loca” – Juana or Joanna the Mad – in 1877, to the National Exhibition, where it was awarded the Medal of Honour. It went on to exhibit at the Exposition Universel in Paris later that year, and in Berlin.
Queen Joanna of Castile, or Juana the Mad, brought about the union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, forming the basis of modern Spain. She married Philip the Handsome in 1496, shortly before her seventeenth birthday. He was crowned king of Castile in 1506, and was the first of the Habsburg monarchs in Spain.
He died suddenly later that year, probably from typhoid fever, and Juana became mentally ill, refusing to let Philip’s body be buried. It is this which is the basis for Pradilla’s painting, in which (I believe) Juana is shown in the nun’s habit which she would have worn when she was eventually secreted into a convent. When her father, Ferdinand II, died in 1516, Juana inherited Aragon, and Spain was ruled under the personal union of her son Charles I, who was also elected Holy Roman Emperor.
Pradilla did not neglect his watercolours. Muchacho flautista coronado de hiedra, a Flute Player Crowned with Ivy (1880), shows a lightness of touch and sophistication in technique.
This small undated Portrait of a Lady in Evening Dress is even looser and more gestural.
After the success of Doña Juana “la Loca”, Pradilla was commissioned to paint La Rendición de Granada (The Surrender of Granada) by the Spanish Senate, which took the years from 1879-82 to complete.
This elaborate and heavily-populated painting shows another momentous event in the history of the Spanish nation, when Abu ‘Abdallah Muhammad XII, known locally as Boabdil, the last Nasrid ruler of Granada, surrendered his emirate to Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon (Juana the Mad’s parents) – the Catholic Monarchs, in 1492.
Muhammad XII is mounted on the left, holding the keys to the city, which he is about to hand over to Ferdinand II, whose hand is already reaching out to receive those keys, and Queen Isabella I on her white horse. Apparently Muhammad was spared the ignominy of having to kiss the royal hands, and was allowed to simply hand the keys over. Prominent in the background is the Alhambra.
Pradilla finished this painting when he was working in Rome, as the director of the Spanish Arts Academy there, a post which he held for two years.
Marino Faliero, Dux LV (1883) is a wonderful watercolour portrait of one of the most colourful leaders of Venice, who was elected Doge in 1354. The following year, he attempted to seize power from the ruling acristocratic elite. The plot was discovered early, and at the age of 81, Faliero pleaded guilty to all charges, and was beheaded. That execution is shown in a well-known painting by Eugène Delacroix (1827).
Pradilla also seems to have made the most marvellous oil sketches en plein air, here showing Lavanderas gallegas (Galician Washerwomen) (1887), above, and Laundry Day (c 1880-1910), below.
Following on from La Rendición de Granada, Pradilla painted El Suspiro del Moro, or The Moor’s Sigh. The two paintings seem to have been started at about the same time, in 1879, but he did not complete this until 1892, a decade after the scene of surrender.
This shows the legendary sequel to La Rendición de Granada. After Muhammad XII had surrendered Granada, he is claimed to have ridden up to a rocky viewpoint from where he could take a final view of the Alhambra and the valley of Granada: the location now known as Suspiro del Moro. For a while, Muhammad remained in exile in Las Alpujarras, but soon crossed to Fes in Morocco.
Pradilla shows the former ruler dismounted, after he had walked over to take his last look at Granada in the distance. Although this was painted in oils, the hills behind Granada appear as if they had been painted using watercolour washes – an unusual effect showing his technical skills.
In 1897, Pradilla was appointed director of the Prado in Madrid.
Bajo el árbol consagrado a Ceres, Under Ceres’ Sacred Tree, (1903) appears to be a fantastic exploration of classical myth associated with the Roman goddess of agriculture and grain, Ceres, and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The sacred tree is the hawthorn, or may, which comes into flower in the spring.
Pradilla shows a party of ecstatic young women worshippers at a shrine to Ceres on an ancient hawthorn tree – a wonderful flight of fancy perhaps inspired by his travels in Italy.
In La reina doña Juana la Loca, recluida en Tordesillas con su hija, la infanta doña Catalina, or Queen Juana the Mad Imprisoned in Tordesillas with her daughter, the Infanta Catalina, (1906) Pradilla returns to the tragic story of the first queen of Spain.
Juana is here shown during her effective imprisonment in the Convent of Santa Clara, in Tordesillas, north-west of Madrid in northern Spain. She was taken here in 1509, and despite being co-monarch of Castile and Aragon with her son Charles I, remained here until her death in 1555.
Pradilla shows her with her youngest daughter, Catherine (Catalina) of Austria (1507-1578), who married John III of Portugal and became its queen in 1525. The girl’s toys are scattered forlornly over the barren floor. One of Juana’s maids sits spinning, as a small fire burns in the huge fireplace.
Pradilla doesn’t seem to have painted many pure landscapes, but Niebla de primavera en Italia (The Fog of Spring in Italy) (1907) was probably inspired by one of his visits there. His style remains quite realist in detail, but away from the figures has become far looser and more painterly than in his earlier history paintings.
Cortejo del bautizo del príncipe don Juan, hijo de los Reyes Católicos, por las calles de Sevilla, or The Baptism of Prince John, (1910) was Pradilla’s last major history painting, and like its predecessors is packed with people and detail.
This shows the royal court attending the baptism of Prince John of Asturias, the brother of Juana the Mad, in Seville in 1478. John was the only son of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic Monarchs who had taken Muhammad XII’s surrender of Granada. Queen Isabella is shown in the royal box to the left of centre. Prince John died at the age of eighteen in 1497, and missed his part in history.
Venta del pescado en la playa de Vigo, a Fish Market on Vigo Beach, (1916), is a wonderfully vigorous depiction of the beach of this city in the north-west of Spain, just to the north of Portugal. His style has loosened further, with many of the figures becoming sketchy and gestural. In some parts, just to the right of centre, for example, all form breaks down into incoherent patches of colour.
Francisco Pradilla Ortiz died in Madrid in 1921. His paintings have remained popular in Spain since, and are on display in the Prado and several other Spanish galleries. However they seem almost unknown outside Spain.