Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria, Duchess of Parma (1746-1804) 

Johan Zoffany RA (c.1733-1810)

Portrait of Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria, Duchess of Parma (1746-1804), Johan Zoffany RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
27 ¾ x 16 1/8 in. (70.5 x 41 cm.)
According to a label, verso, the private collection of Ludovica von Stumm, Baroness von Stumm; Private collection, England; Sotheby’s, London, 3 July 2013, lot 43
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This portrait of Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria (1746-1804), wife of Ferdinand I, Duke of Parma (1751-1802), is an exciting addition to Zoffany’s oeuvre. Maria Amalia was the daughter of the Habsburg Empress, Maria Theresa, one of Zoffany’s most important patrons, and had been married to Ferdinand I since 1769. But the union was not a success and the present painting is a remarkable commentary on the personal and political life of the court of Parma, as seen by Zoffany when he arrived there in the summer of 1778.

Zoffany had then just completed his masterpiece The Tribuna of the Uffizi [Royal Collection] and was being hailed as one of the greatest artists of the modern age. The present painting further demonstrates the heightened social observation and sharp sense of humour that helped make The Tribuna such a success, for here Zoffany daringly lays open the full breakdown of the marriage between Maria Amalia and her husband. Despite Ferdinand’s intense religiosity (he built fourteen chapels, and was mocked by Louis XV for behaving like a monk), the Duke was serially addicted to what Count Giuseppe Gorani described as ‘a pinch of debauchery’, and was known for combining prayer with willing peasant girls. In time Maria Amalia, who had strongly resisted the marriage, embarked upon her own adulterous affairs, and she and Ferdinand were effectively separated by 1775.

The extent to which Zoffany’s portrait makes Maria Amalia and Ferdinand’s separation clear is nonetheless surprising for what was presumably a formal commission. Here, Maria Amalia emphatically turns away from her husband, who is represented only in the form of a portrait (of a type painted by Zoffany and known in two versions) placed above a conspicuously empty chair. Even in an age before ‘body language’ was ever discussed, anyone viewing the portrait would have been aware of how it reflected on Maria Amalia’s relationship with Ferdinand, and one must wonder, therefore, at the extent to which she herself was aware of the significance of the composition. It is possible that the reduced size of the portrait indicates a commission meant only for private consumption, and certainly it is wholly different in approach to Zoffany’s much more formal portrayal of Maria Amalia’s four eldest children [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna].

Whatever the circumstances of the commission, it seems Zoffany was fascinated by the dysfunctional relationship of his patrons. In his extraordinary Self-Portrait with a Friar’s Habit, painted in oil on panel in Parma in 1779 [Galleria Nazionale di Parma], Zoffany is seen mocking the curious mix of devotion and debauchery practised by Ferdinand. Zoffany portrays himself donning the habit of a Capuchin Franciscan, of whom Ferdinand was a noted adherent, but behind him pinned to the wall is a pair of finely painted condoms, hung next to a suggestively torn print of Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Even more scandalously, on the reverse of the self-portrait is painted a Holy Family.

Maria Amalia remained in Parma with Ferdinand, even after Napoleon’s invasion in 1796. She presided over a short-lived regency after Ferdinand’s death in 1802, but was soon sent into exile. She died in Prague in 1804.
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