Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Royal Portrait Prank

Marie de MediciBeing a hopeless romantic, I have always wondered what it must have been like to marry someone you have never met. People during George IV's marriage to Caroline of Brunswick gossiped that it was sort of like buying a "pig in a poke." (A poke is a small bag). But royals did not have to enter into marriage agreements completely blinded. They did have portrait miniatures to appraise their future mate's true beauty. Often these small, lifelike paintings of the bride or groom were sent well before the marriage took place. Here is the harlequin romance version of how I have always pictured the anticipation of that first meeting.

The impatient king nervously shifts in his saddle waiting for his future bride to appear in the horizon. He longingly gazes down at the portrait miniature of his beloved rendered in tiny, gentle brushstrokes and closes his sweaty fingers around this small talisman of her beauty. For one brief moment, he nervously wonders if the artist has captured her true likeness.

He sees her approaching in the distance. She is getting closer and closer and the brush strokes that formed her lovely visage start to get sharper and sharper as the real flesh and blood form comes into focus. But wait. What’s this? No, this can’t be. This is not the rosy cheeked woman in the painting! This must be her inbred cousin sent as a trick…one last practical joke on the king before he gets settled into matrimonial bliss.

But it is not a trick. The king has just been a victim of the Royal Portrait Prank.

Anne of ClevesThe Flanders Mare
Probably one of the most famous victims of the portrait swicheroo was Henry VIII. In 1538, Henry was back on the marriage market looking for wife #4. In an effort to secure a Protestant alliance, Henry's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell pushed heavily for a union between Henry and Anne of Cleves. Cromwell sent Henry's court painter, Hans Holbein to paint Anne knowing that Holbein was famous for his flattering portrayals. Henry immediately fell for the youthful, clear-faced beauty in Holbein's painting and agreed to the marriage alliance.

But when Henry laid eyes on Anne he was shocked to find "a lady so far unlike what had been represented."1 Legend has it that Anne looked more like a "Flanders Mare" than Holbein's painting. Anne was reportedly gangly, pock marked and was blessed with the fashion sense of a Long Island grandmother. To further add insult to the foreign princess, Henry pronounced that his repulsion was so great that it prevented him from consummating the marriage and he feared that he could never produce another heir with such an uncomely creature. Then as comical relief for the rest of the court, Henry called in his court doctor, Dr. Stubbs, to attest to the fact that Henry could still do the deed if Anne was not occupying his bed.

Many a monarch would have grinned and bared the old portrait prank, but Henry didn't like being tricked. Heads were going to roll. He could have punished Holbein, but truthfully the artist was just too darn good to destroy and Henry had a great appreciation for art. No, Cromwell had pimped the supposedly unattractive princess out and now he must pay. Anne was sent packing with a generous settlement, Cromwell lost his head, and the whole ugly business was quickly forgotten when a pretty, nubile distraction named Catherine Howard became Henry's next royal pursuit.

History fails to record Anne's reaction to her future husband although she agreed quickly to the annulment. Henry at this point had become the fat, tyrannical, beast of a man that we know and love. His festering leg wound oozed pus, his hair was thinning and his breath stunk. Anne could not have been pleased.

I Marie de Medici and Henri IVHave Been Deceived!
In the painting to the right, Marie de Medici commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to recreate her betrothal to Henri IV. We see small cherubs playfully holding up the painting as Henri adoringly gazes upon the beautiful Medici Princess. Now, if there is one thing that I have learned in life, it's this — never trust the naked winged babies. They are always up to no good. See the helmeted figure to the right of the besotted king? She is whispering, “It’s a trick old chap. You're going to find her as attractive as a sow’s behind.”

In reality, Henri and Marie’s meeting was not as idyllic as Reuben’s heavenly painting. Rumor has it that the disappointed king exclaimed, “I have been deceived. She is not beautiful.”2 Yet in public, Henri appeared to adore his wife showering her with expensive gifts and participating in elaborate festivities to welcome the new queen. The people of France, were enthralled by Marie's youthful, healthy glow and the splendor of her attire. She represented renewed hope in the monarchy and hopes for a future heir to France. To Henry, she symbolized his duty and obligation to France.

Marie de MediciOf course, there is nothing wrong with a girl having a healthy appetite, but Marie was a bit plump even in her younger years. The painting that duped Henri had been painted seven years earlier when Marie was 20. We will never know how much the betrothal painting flattered her because it no longer exists. I was fortunate enough to see an amazing art show in Florence on how Marie influenced art in Italy. The few paintings that depicted Marie as a young girl should have left Henri satisfied enough. Marie may not have been as beautiful as Henri's many mistresses, but her regal demeanor demanded respect. It is more likely that the perpetually, love-sick king resented being forced into the matrimonial bed.

George IVThe Fat Adonis
While Henri hid his distaste for his wife, George IV was not nearly as chivalrous. He has been sent a portrait of his future bride, Princess Caroline of Brunswick before his wedding and remarked hopefully, "Lennox and Fitzroy have seen her, and they tell me she is even handsomer than her miniature."3 George had little to complain about before the wedding. Caroline's dowry would pay his insurmountable debts and the newspapers had extolled upon her infinite charms and graces. What was there to worry about? How bad could she be?Caroline of Brunswick

Unfortunately, Caroline's miniature failed to capture how George's olfactory senses would react to his new bride because she stunk like a barrel of drowned rats. George might have forgiven her short stature, fat figure and over-sized head, but not changing your undergarments (underware had not caught on yet) insulted the pampered prince's sense of decency. Upon meeting his future bride, a shocked George retired to his apartments and asked the Duke of Malmesbury, "Harris, I am not well, get me a glass of brandy."4 He then preceded to drink himself into a stupor in the hopes of numbing the rest of his senses.

In all fairness, Caroline could hardly hide her disappointment either and inquired, "My God! Is the Prince always like that? I find him very fat and nothing as handsome as his picture." Often called the "Fat Adonis", the pudgy prince had little right to be picky. It seems both parties had been victim of the old Portrait Prank.

George IVWhat followed was a marriage that would make the worst Hollywood divorces look positively tame. After their daughter, Princess Charlotte was born, George told Malmesbury that there would be no more children for he didn't intend to ever touch his wife again. Caroline moved into her private residence at Montague House and did what any scorned woman would do with a title, money and plenty of time....she partied like a rock star. Reports of her raucous misbehaving include such gems as dancing topless at a Ball in Geneva and sleeping with her footman (all acts of treason). George so despised his wife and her bawdy behavior that when told by a courtier, "Sir, your greatest enemy is dead." George happily replied, "Is she, by God?"5 Unfortunately, his courtier was referring to Napoleon.

The Portrait can Lie
George IIIEliabeth I
So as you can see, portrait miniatures have led to countless disappointments in marriage negotiations. Unlike state paintings, miniatures were created to capture the likeness of a subject so it would not have been unnatural to assume the painting resembled the sitter. These small treasures measured about 1-2 inches in diameter and were most often painted in watercolors on vellum or ivory. The more striking Italian and Dutch miniatures of the 16th century used oil on copper and silver for a more opaque and far richer painting. The example to the left is a miniature painted in enamel on copper created by George III's much-loved, youngest daughter, Princess Amelia. The example to the right shows an unfinished miniature of Elizabeth I. The artist has blocked in color on a neutral background and filled in the background with the customary blue. Although this painting would have been copied from an original, it does capture Elizabeth's hooked nose and tight lips.

If you would like to see more portrait miniatures then visit the portrait miniature blog.

Sources:
Eustace Chapuys's account of Henry and Anne's first meeting.
Chambers, Roberts. The Book of Days. W. & R. Chambers ltd, 1832.
William, Hugh Noel
. Last Loves of Henri of Navarre. Hutchinson, 1925.
Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1991.
Pardoe, Julia.
The Life of Marie de Medici. Charlestown, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2006.Langdon, Gabrielle. Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love and Betrayal in the Court of Duke Cosimo I, Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
Clerici, Graziano Paolo.
A Queen of Indiscretions: The Tragedy of Carolone of Brunswick, Queen of England. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
Baur, Karoline.
Memoirs of Karoline Bauer. Roberts Brothers, 1885.
Doran, John.
Lives of the queens of England of the house of Hanover. R. Bentley, 1875.
Notes:
1. Weir p. 397
2. Noel p. 70
3. Chambers p. 185
4. Bauer p. 449
5. Doran p. 131