Velazquez in Vienna: Prince Balthasar Charles

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Last winter the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum had a wonderful exhibit of paintings by the Spanish master, Diego Velazquez. Many of them were from the museum’s stellar collection by the artist, but some, like the portrait used for the banners, were borrowed.

The December week I spent in Vienna it rained all day, every day. Sometimes, it is true, the rain was only a gentle mist.  But I never saw a single moment without some kind of wetness falling from the gray sky.

ViennaRain

Snow in Vienna is beautiful and romantic.  Rain? Not so much. Still, there is more than enough to do indoors in culture-rich Vienna. I always say that I don’t travel to Europe for the weather.

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Self Portrait,” 1640, Public Domain

Diego Velazquez, considered by many to be the greatest of all European painters, was an honored guest at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I had a yearly museum pass, so I ducked into the Kunst almost every day. I was often dripping wet, but each time I stashed my raincoat and revisited the Velazquez exhibit, I forgot all about being chilled and damp. I felt as though I had been to sunny Spain for awhile. The museum owns a number of the works of Velazquez, because of the close family ties (inbreeding, actually) between the Habsburgs and Spanish royalty.

The young boy in the portrait below was (literally) the poster child for the exhibit. Who was this boy?

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Equestrian Portrait of Prince Balthasar Charles,” 1634-35, Public Domain, Prado Museum

The child posed confidently on a galloping horse was Prince Balthasar Charles, Prince of Asturias. He was the long-awaited male heir to the Spanish throne, the only son of King Philip IV and his first wife, Elisabeth of Spain. The Prince was born to great fanfare in 1629.

The boy appears to be at most eight or ten years old in his portrait, but that didn’t stop his parents from having him painted brandishing the baton of a Field Marshal.  He was born to lead, educated to lead, and expected to lead. King Philip IV faced challenges to the continuing rule of his family.  He needed this heir desperately. The hopes of his family and his country rested on this little boy’s shoulders. Sadly, Prince Balthasar Charles died at the age of 17 from smallpox.

Eugène Charpentier,

Eugène Charpentier,
” Jean-Baptiste, comte Jourdan, maréchal de France,” mid-19th century, Public Domain

Monarchies all over Europe awarded batons to important military officers, royal or merely aristocratic.  I imagine a Marshal wielding his baton the way Moses wielded the rod he used to lead the people of Israel.  Possibly the Biblical story is even one of the origins of the marshal’s baton. In most European armies, Field Marshal was the highest military rank, above even a General.  Usually it was awarded only to a person who was already a General, and only after extraordinary achievement, like winning an important battle. But the marshal’s baton in this portrait was purely wishful thinking.

Prince Balthasar Charles never had his chance at glory on the battlefield. His family waited eleven long years for another male heir.  My next post will tell the story of that Spanish royal child, subject of one of my very favorite Velazquez masterpieces.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

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