King Philip IV of Spain by Gaspar de Crayer
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the historical records for this particular historical episode are lost. But from the surviving portraits we can at least try to reconstruct it.
Wanting a serious, military portrait of himself, King Philip IV of Spain dressed up as cuirassier and stood for a number of modelling sessions with Gaspar de Crayer. In fact he wore Flemish cavalry armour, specially designed for parade but uncomfortably reminiscent of a Tiger fancy-dress costume made of brass. But all that aside, he got the portrait.
Then, deciding that the serious stuff was out the way and he could kick back, Philip would have asked (or rather demanded) that Gaspar de Crayer painstakingly paint the same portrait again. Only this time with his court dwarf standing by his side.
Whether to draw attention to his height or because the dwarf was a favourite of Philip we’ll never know. We can only hope this wasn’t meant to be serious, and that Philip wasn’t in fact so insecure that he had to stand beside an actual dwarf to feel suitably regal.
It’s possible he did. On the throne from 1621 – 1665, Philip IV presided over Spain during its slow decline as a world power. Philip’s Spanish Empire had just cut itself loose from the costly Thirty Year War. And despite being geographically extensive, size wasn’t everything; in fact it hindered the growing domestic and military issues (not to mention the threat from the French) that Philip struggled with in his final years.
Indeed, unlike his the wines that continue to grow so abundantly in his region, neither poor Philip nor his portraits improved with age. Even one of the pioneering painters of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velázques, couldn’t shroud his subject in a real aura. Philip was 51 when Velázques painted him in 1656, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was made in the last year of his reign (1665). Then again, considering the state of his country during the later part of his reign, this might not need that much explaining.