Philadelphia Museum of Art conservators have discovered that a pair of portraits of the first Emperor and Empress of Mexico were painted over portraits of the former monarchs of Spain, King Charles IV and Maria Luisa of Parma. The matched half-length portraits of Emperor Agustín de Iturbide and Empress Ana María were painted by Mexican artist Josephus Arias Huarte in 1822, the year Agustín was proclaimed the constitutional Emperor of Mexico.
Agustín I’s reign last less than a year. He and his family were exiled. He was persuaded to return in 1824 but was arrested the minute he landed and executed by firing squad. Ana María and their children remained in exile. They moved to the United States, eventually settling in Philadelphia where she died in 1861 and is buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. John the Evangelist.
The portraits have been in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1922, but they are rarely exhibited and were not seriously studied until 2017 when conservator Sarah Mastrangelo examined them for possible exhibition in the museum’s massive new galleries which open this year. With 22,000 square feet of space to fill, conservators have been examining the museum’s holdings for previously-neglected categories like indigenous American art.
Observing the Empress’ portrait under a microscope, Mastrangelo saw there were two “grounds,” the prep layer applied to the canvas. Further examination under a infrared light revealed an eye on Ana María’s belly. The ghostly image was obscured by the red paint of the ground, but an X-ray uncovered an entire portrait flipped upside down. An X-ray of her husband’s portrait revealed the same thing.
The upside down portraits were not done by the same artist. The style and technique in the originals were different, better, and the clothing predated 1822 by several decades. Mastrangelo believes they are good quality copies of portraits of King Charles IV and Queen Maria Luisa of Spain originally painted by Goya. Charles and Maria Luisa reigned from 1788 until the king was forced to abdicated by Napoleon in 1808. They were kept captive in France for four years. In 1812 they were allowed to move to Rome under the protection of Pope and were living in the Palazzo Barberini when they died 18 days apart in 1819.
So they hadn’t been on the throne of Spain for 14 years and had been dead for two when Iturbíde led the fight for Mexican Independence and took Mexico City from Spain. When he was proclaimed emperor a year after that, recycling the portraits of deposed, dead former Spanish monarchs to make coronation portraits of the new Mexican-born rulers was a satisfyingly pointed statement as well as a practical choice as there wasn’t a great deal of canvas available in Mexico at the time.
Mastrangelo consulted curators Mark Castro and Alexandra Letvin, who believe the long-hidden portraits of the Spanish royals were made in around 1799 or 1800 and based on popular prototypes developed by court artist Francisco de Goya. It is unclear if the original compositions were made in Spain or Mexico, but the canvases were in Mexico two decades later when they were reused by Huarte to paint the Iturbides upon their coronation in Mexico City in 1822.