Human Pets at the Royal Court

Images of ‘Buffoons’ in the exhibition ‘Portrait of Spain’ at MFAH

“And the Infanta frowned, and her dainty rose-leaf lips curled in pretty disdain. ‘For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’ she cried, and she ran out into the garden.”  
– Oscar Wilde, The Birthday of the Infanta.

(1566–1633) and Magdalena Ruiz, c. 1585–88, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

What art lover does not dream of visiting Spain’s Prado? Founded in 1819 as a public museum to showcase the royal art collection and later expanded to comprise a number of nationalized private collections, Museo Nacional del Prado is one of the greatest museums in the world.  Masterpieces from this outstanding collection rarely leave their home, but this winter more than 100 works are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, after the exhibition “Portrait of Spain” premiered at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia. Houston is the only city in the United States to host this exhibition thanks to the support of BBVA Compass Foundation.

“Portrait of Spain” features masterpieces by the leading Spanish painters from the 16th through 19th centuries — Diego Velázquez, El Greco, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Francisco de Goya — as well as by famous artists from other countries who enjoyed the patronage of Spanish monarchs — Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. As we feast our eyes on superb paintings of these great masters, we also are traveling through time to witness life at the Spanish court in its glamorous as well as its unsettling moments.

The exhibition presents such a wide assortment of genres, subjects and artistic styles that it is impossible to do justice to all of them in a brief overview. There are royal portraits, painted with such incredible mastery in regards to surfaces and textures, that silks, brocades and jewelry appear real. Religious images range between extreme naturalism, exemplified in Titian’s weeping Christ carrying the cross, and otherwordly immaterialism, manifested in Murillo’s ethereal Virgin Mary. Still-lifes (called bodegón in Spain, from bodega — “pantry”) are among the most convincing trompe-l’oeil paintings ever created. And Goya’s etchings from the series “Disasters of War” would ben sufficient to bring crowds to the Museum of Fine Arts even if no other works from Prado had been included in the exhibition.

The works that I chose to discuss in my review are the portraits of dwarves who played an important role in the daily life at the Spanish court. These powerful life-size images are the first works that visitors see upon entering the exhibition. Several of them are by Diego Velázquez, but some were painted by other court artists.

The fashion for keeping dwarves at court was not limited to Spain — it was a popular tradition with all European courts dating back to medieval times and continued almost until the end of the 18th century. Considered as rare attractions, dwarves were bought and sold throughout Europe. Their roles at the court were mostly related to entertainment: they added to the carnivalesque atmosphere at ceremonies, provided amusement and companionship for the monarch’s children and, generally, served as jesters. Adorned in beautiful garments, they often appeared in portraits standing next to their royal patrons. Due to their small stature and not uncommon deformity, their presence reinforced the idea of perfection and superiority of the ruling dynasty.

Spain, the greatest European power in the 16th-17th centuries, was the leader in all matters related to courtly life, including the fashion for dwarves. For example, Philip IV, Velázquez’s patron, retained 110 royal dwarves. It was at the Spanish court that the formula for the royal portrait, which featured the monarch attended by a dwarf, was developed and became a model for emulation for the rest of Europe.

The portrait of the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia and Magdalena Ruiz by Alonso Sánchez Coello (c. 1585-1588) is a perfect example of such a portrait. The daughter of Philip II of Spain, Isabella Clara Eugenia, upon her marriage to Archduke Albert of Austria, became sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands in the Low Countries and the north of modern France. Coello painted her wearing a gorgeous dress of white silk lavishly decorated with gold embroidery. However, the most important elements of her attire are the jewels, which belonged to her mother, Elizabeth of Valois, and her stepmother, Anna of Austria, and the cameo with an image of her father. These jewels and the cameo are far from being precious accessories: they are symbols of the dynastic continuity.

The Infanta’s left hand is resting on the head of her dwarf servant, Magdalena Ruiz in a manner that may be interpreted as both domineering and protective. Magdalena is portrayed in a kneeling position, which even more emphasizes the imposing appearance of the Infanta. The dwarf is twiddling a medallion and, by doing so, is imitating the gesture of her august patron, like court jesters used to do. In her arms, Magdalena is holding two rare New World monkeys which, along with the string of corals around her neck, allude to Spain’s colonial expansion. Apparently, the dwarf herself is just another exotic pet of the Infanta.

The monkeys may have an additional meaning. Since the Middle Ages, a monkey was traditionally a symbol of a soul filled with sinful thoughts. If a chained or a leashed monkey appeared in a female portrait, it signified the lady’s control over base desires. In Coello’s painting, it is hard to tell whether the silver chain that runs through Magdalena’s fingers is suspending the medallion or restraining one of the monkeys. Whatever the case, the presence of playful monkeys brings humor and gaiety into the otherwise stuffy regal portrait.

On the whole, the Infanta’s image projects a sense of superiority and almost divine power. Her imperial gaze seems to imply that we, mere mortals, are “dwarfed” in her presence and are expected to act as subserviently as Magdalena.

Given the widespread attitude towards dwarves as rare pets, it is especially amazing to see the series of dwarves’ portraits by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), the court painter of Philip IV. Instead of painting them at the edge of the canvas as “accessories“ in formal portraits of royalties, Velázquez treats them with the same respect as any other sitter. These are individual portraits, with the sitter taking the central place on the canvas. One may say that these portraits of dwarves display more personality than paintings of their regal patrons.

(left) Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, THE COURT JESTER DON
ANTONIO WITH A DOG, c. 1650, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. 
(right) Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, FRANCISCO LEZCANO, THE BOY
FROM VALLECAS, c. 1636-38, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
© Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional

The subject of “The Court Jester Don Antonio with a Dog” (c.1650) is of a fine-looking, well-proportioned, albeit diminutive, gentleman. He looks anything but a buffoon, despite the painting’s title. He is dressed in rich clothing and is wearing a sword at his side, like a nobleman. In fact, had he not been standing next to a huge mastiff, we may not realize that we are looking at a dwarf. It was customary for dwarves to be entrusted with the care of animals. Don Antonio exudes intelligence and confidence and seems to be quite capable of controlling his impressive charge which is almost his size.

By contrast, the adolescent boy Francisco Lezcano, called “El Niño de Vallecas” (c.1640) looks physically and mentally impaired. However, this does not diminish the emotional appeal of this painting. It is impossible not to empathize with this pensive and aloof youngster. Dressed in a tabard and green pants, Francisco is portrayed in the landscape, sitting on a bolder and obliviously handling a deck of playing cards. According to the court records, “El Niño de Vallecas” was a companion and entertainer of young Prince Balthazar Carlos.

Probably one of the most poignant images in the exhibition is the portrait of Eugenia Martínez Vallejo, (1680), painted by a younger contemporary of Velázquez, Juan Carreño de Miranda. The painting features an obese girl whose extraordinary proportions are additionally emphasized by the magnificent flowered red gown that she is wearing. Her physical anomaly, probably the result of a hormone imbalance, made Eugenia a “high commodity” in baroque Spain, known for its taste for freaks of nature. She was taken to court where she was promptly nicknamed “la Monstrua” (“the monster”) — no negativity implied, just a metaphor. At the direct order of King Carlos II, Juan Carreño created two portraits of Eugenia: one showing her dressed and one in the nude. The former is included in the exhibition “Portrait of Spain”; the latter, currently on view at Prado, presents her adorned with grape leaves and grape clusters, evoking associations with Bacchus1.

Juan Carreño de Miranda, EUGENIA MARTINEZ VALLEJO, KNOWN AS ‘THE MONSTER’, c. 1680, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
© Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Looking at this girl who lived more than 300 years ago, I am trying to imagine how she felt living in the relative comfort, maybe even luxury, of the court, being treated as a live toy of royal offspring. Was she content, angry, indifferent? Her unsmiling eyes and pouting lips seem to indicate a hidden temper. Notwithstanding cultural differences between 17th-century Spain and our times, I don’t think that she liked being called “la Monstrua” any more than a modern teenager would.

The exhibition “Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado” is organized by Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid in association with The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The exhibition is on view through March 31.

MFAH is located at 1001 Bisonnett in Houston’s museum district.

For more information, visit


1 To see this portrait, follow the link to Museo Nacional del Prado online gallery:


Issue Magazine – February 2013
Story by Elena Ivanova