Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Queen Victoria Eugénie of Spain (1887-1969) 

Philip de László (1869-1937)

Portrait of Queen Victoria Eugénie of Spain (1887-1969), Philip de László
Oil and Canvas
20th Century
35 ˝ x 25 in. (90.2 x 63.5 cm)
Artist’s possession until his death in 1937; The sitter, Queen Victoria Eugénie of Spain; By family descent, until 2015.
D. Hart-Davis, De László: His Life and Art, (Yale University Press, 2010) p. 207. Studio inventory, p.11 (61): Painted in Madrid, the first study for a large portrait.
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We are grateful to Christopher Wentworth-Stanley, author of ‘De László: A Brush with Grandeur’, for his assistance when writing this note. We are also grateful to Katherine Field, senior editor of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of De László work, for her contributions.

This supremely elegant ad vivum sketch, which was until recently obscured by layers of discoloured varnish, was painted by the great society portrait painter Philip de László, and depicts Queen Victoria Eugénie of Spain (known to the British public as ‘Ena’). A romantic figure in 20th century Spanish history, Ena was Granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain, consort of Alphonso XIII, and through her issue great-grandmother to the present king of Spain, Felipe VI.

This important royal portrait is an example of de Laszlo's virtuosity for capturing the glamour and presence of his noble subjects with a directness that was as greatly admired during his lifetime as it is today. De László’s fluent, effervescent brush strokes had until very recently been hidden beneath tarnished vanish and its removal - and thus revival of the painting's former condition - marks an important re addition to de laszlo's body of early work upon which his international reputation is founded. Photographs of the cleaning process are available on request.

Apart from the obvious imprint of John Singer Sargent, De László’s work was heavily influenced by Velasquez and Goya and it was Goya’s oeuvre which inspired him in his characterisation of Spanish royals. There is a Goyan influence in de László’s flat, smooth brushstrokes, his dark background, and use of chiaroscuro in this portrait of Queen Victoria Eugénie which he takes most obviously from Goya’s portrait of Dońa Isabel de Porcel, purchased by the National Gallery in London in 1896. Dońa Isabel is dressed as a ‘maja’, a group of low-class Spaniards from the 18th and 19th centuries, renowned for their lavish dress and sense of style. The dress of the maja was then later adopted as the formal Spanish dress for women

The life of Queen Ena was long, dramatic and challenged circumstance. Princess Victoria Eugénie of Battenberg was born on 24th October 1887 at Balmoral Castle, Scotland and was the only daughter of Prince Henry of Battenberg and Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom. She was the youngest grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and grew up in her household until her death in 1901, after which she moved to Kensington Palace.

Following a romantic courtship Victoria Eugénie married King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1906 at the Royal Monastery of San Jerónimo in Madrid but unfortunately their happiness was short-lived. As the King and Queen travelled back to the royal palace from their wedding, an assassination attempt was made on their lives; a bomb was thrown at the royal carriage from a balcony by anarchist Mateu Morral which killed fifteen people. Fortunately, as the bomb exploded, Ena turned her head to look out of the window at St Mary’s Church and her life was spared – the guard riding at the side of the carriage was killed and his blood was said to have stained the young bride’s wedding dress.

This event understandably unnerved Ena and she became increasingly isolated from the Spanish public. In 1907 she gave birth to Alfonso, Prince of Asturias, heir to the Spanish throne, but when the baby was circumcised the wound did not stop bleeding - he suffered from haemophilia, a disease inherited from Queen Victoria and of which Ena was a carrier. Although Alfonso XIII long understood the possibility that Ena could be a carrier of haemophilia, he never forgave his wife for his son’s condition and their marriage quickly broke down. The couple went on to have seven children, five sons and two daughters but Alfonso had a string of affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. Both Ena and Alfonso’s eldest and youngest sons, Alfonso and Gonzalo, suffered and died as a result of their haemophilia and Jaime, born in 1908, was deaf from the age of four.

Despite these family tragedies Ena turned her attention to helping others. She worked for hospitals and services for the poor and was involved in the reorganisation of the Spanish Red Cross – a statue of Ena dressed in a nurse’s uniform stands in Barcelona as recognition of her outstanding work. She was made a Dame of the Royal Order of Queen Maria Luisa, an order created by Charles IV of Spain at the request of his wife in 1792, which recognises noble women who distinguish themselves with their services to others. Ena was also awarded the Golden Rose by Pope Pius XI in 1923 for her work for the Red Cross; this was the first time this honour had been given to an English-born princess since 1555.

Ena and her family went into voluntary exile in April 1931 with the hope of preventing a Spanish civil war. They lived in France and then moved to Italy where Ena and Alfonso separated. Ena lived between the UK and Switzerland, returning briefly to Spain in 1968 to become godmother to her great-grandson, the current King of Spain, Felipe VI. Ena died at the age of 81 in April 1969 (38 years after she had left Spain) in Lausanne in Switzerland and was interred at the local church of Sacre Coeur. In 1985 her remains were transported to Spain and she was re-interred to the Royal Vault in Madrid next to her husband and three sons.

Ena wears the Order of Queen Maria Luisa on a purple and white striped ribbon, pinned to a plain sleeveless black gown and black lace and chiffon stole, her head is covered with a black lace mantilla. Initially Ena was reluctant to wear a Spanish mantilla as she was painted wearing one in 1910 by Joaquin Sorolla in a portrait she disliked; she was, however, supposedly pleased with de László’s portrait of her. This portrait was acquired by Queen Ena sometime after 1938, when De Laszlo’s inventory was recorded following his death the previous year, and was then given to an antecedent of Dona Maria Cristina de Baviera, daughter of Alphonso XIII’s nephew.

De László painted thirteen portraits of King Alfonso XIII and his family during a seven week stay at the Royal Palace in Madrid in 1927, including five portraits of Ena, of which this is the first. The fifth and final portrait of the Queen in this guise is housed at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.[1] De László received a warm reception at the Royal Palace during his stay and commented that: ‘The Queen spent hours and hours in my studio and discussed art with the competence of an aesthete. Life in the Palace is infinitely pleasant and harmonious.’[2]

The Hungarian painter Philip Alexius de László, famous for his portraits of royalty and the aristocracy, was born Laub Fülöp in Budapest in 1869 to Jewish parents of modest means. Laub Adolf was a tailor and Laub Johanna, a governess before her marriage.[3] Fülöp and his brother Marczi changed their surname to László in 1891. László had little formal education but apprenticed with a portrait photographer Sándor Strelisky from 1884, before attending the National Academy of Arts in 1885, where he studied under Bertalan Székely and Károly Lotz. He later studied in both Munich, where he met his future wife Lucy Guinness of Stillorgan, Dublin and Paris where László was awarded the Grand Gold Medal at the Paris International Exhibition in 1900 for his portrait of Pope Leo XIII. In 1900 László married Lucy and they went on to have six children.

In 1893 he made the acquaintance of Alexius de Lippich who worked for the fine arts department of the ministry of education. Alexius was so impressed with László’s work that he began to secure several commissions for the young artist including portraits of Prince Ferdinand and Princess Marie-Louise of Bulgaria. It was following these two portraits that commissions to paint the aristocracy, politicians and royalty, particularly in Germany, became abundant. For four years, between 1903 and 1907 László lived in Vienna before moving to England. He made a number of visits in 1908 to the USA and painted Theodore Roosevelt. In 1909 he was made a member of the Royal Victorian Order by Edward VII, and showed his work regularly at the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy in London between 1911 and 1914.

In 1912 László was ennobled by King Franz Joseph of Hungary and his surname became formally changed to László de Lombos; it was from this point that László started signing his work ‘de László’. From 1913 in Britain he was a fellow of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and was elected president of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1930 and then vice-president of the Royal Society of Arts in 1937. He gained British citizenship from 1914 and remained in Britain until his death in 1937. During the First World War, de László was interned for over 12 months for suspicious behaviour, in particular for sending money to desperate relatives in Hungary.
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