Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII, first husband of Catherine of Aragon
Image by lisby1
It is difficult to exaggerate the rarity and the importance of this small royal portrait. When discovered it was described by Catherine MacLeod, curator of sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, as ‘the only surviving portrait of Arthur that could have been painted within his lifetime,’1 which means that it is one of the earliest surviving easel portraits in British art.
When it was painted the sitter, Arthur Prince of Wales, was heir to the newly-won throne of his father King Henry VII, and was the hope of the country in reuniting the competing dynasties of York and Lancaster after a century of bitter warfare. Not only was the prince, as son of Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor, the physical embodiment of the new dynasty’s legitimacy, but he was also crucially placed on the diplomatic stage. His formal betrothal in 1497 to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain was the final element in Henry VII’s policy intended to guarantee England’s security both at home and abroad. His untimely death a year after the marriage was solemnised at St Paul’s cathedral in 1501 had consequences that resonate through British history to the present day, as Catherine’s subsequent marriage to his younger brother the future King Henry VIII, its want of a male heir and its questionable legality resulted in England’s break with Rome and began the English Reformation.
As an example of portraiture in England at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it is a priceless document. The jewel-like richness of its execution stands comparison with the few known royal portraits that survive from this period, most notably the portrait of the sitter’s father King Henry VII (National Portrait Gallery, London) painted some five years later, and in the sympathetic treatment of the subject may be considered superior. Equally impressive is the meticulous and realistic treatment of the fur collar to the Prince’s robe, whilst the jewel in the Prince’s hat and around his neck are reminders of the opulence and display of aristocratic and royal dress at this period. The painter’s preoccupation with the rich applied gilding used in the costume bears comparison with the image of Richard II in the Wilton Diptych (National Gallery, London) painted one hundred years previously. Indeed, although attributed to an unknown Anglo-Flemish painter, the execution has as much in common with the native medieval tradition as it does with the more recent developments on the continent, and suggests the almost miniature scale and original appearance of the lost paintings of the fifteenth century kings now known only through later copies.
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