Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain (1500-1558) 

Flemish School 

Portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain (1500-1558), Flemish School
Oil on paper laid on panel
16th Century
3 ½ inches, 9.2 cm, circular
Michael Onnes van Nijenrode, Nijenrode Castle; Fred. Muller, Amsterdam; Otto Lanz, Amsterdam; Kunsthandler Peach by 1936; English Private Collection; Until sold, 20 May 2009 Bonhams, London, lot 6, as ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’.
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This recently rediscovered portrait shows Charles V, the most powerful man in Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century. From an unlikely beginning (he was born in a town house in Ghent) Charles, thanks to a combination of chance and the childlessness of his wider family, became the heir to not only the Habsburg territories of Austria and Hungary, but also the Kingdoms of Spain, Naples, and Sardinia, as well as the Duchies of Savoy, Luxemburg and Burgundy (which included the Netherlands), and a sizeable swathe of Germany. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. To an early sixteenth century European, Charles ruled half the known world (as well as much of the ‘New World’ thanks to Spanish conquests in South America).

Inevitably, Charles struggled to maintain control over his vast empire, and his reign was dominated by perpetual challenges to his authority. In the East, he faced continual threats from the expanding Ottoman Empire, whose armies launched regular attacks on the Habsburg’s Austrian and Hungarian dominions. Inside the Empire, the Protestant movement begun by Martin Luther (in what Charles originally dismissed as an ‘argument between monks’) led to a religious war, which was only temporarily ended by Charles’ victory over the Elector of Saxony at the Battle of Muhlberg in 1547. Charles also fought numerous wars against France, and even the Papacy, leading to the Sack of Rome by his troops in 1527.

Much of Charles’ reign coincided with that of Henry VIII’s. In 1522 Charles visited England to conduct negotiations with Henry as part of their plan to ally against Francis I of France. The negotiations resulted in Charles’ proposed marriage to Henry’s daughter, Princess Mary, even though she was just six years old, and the two were betrothed at Windsor in the summer of 1522. Despite the fact that Charles was sixteen years her senior, Mary was schooled in the ways of the Habsburg and Spanish court, and received letters from Charles addressed to ‘my best sweetheart the Princess, the future Empress’. A miniature by Lucas Hornebolte of this date [National Portrait Gallery, London] shows Mary with a jewel inscribed ‘The Emprour’. When Charles’ political requirements altered, however, he broke off the match, writing to Henry that Princess Mary was ‘a pearl worth the keeping’. She eventually married his son, Philip II of Spain.

Towards the end of his reign Charles, weighed down by ill health and the responsibility of maintaining his disparate lands, decided to not only abdicate his titles, but to split his territories. Spain, Naples and the Netherlands went to Philip II, while the Habsburg lands were granted to his younger brother, Ferdinand I. Charles spent his retirement in a monastery in Spain, where he spent much of his time repairing old clocks.

This portrait shows Charles at the age of about 50. It is painted in oil on paper, which has been applied to a circular wooden panel. The artist is unknown, but the portrait was probably painted by a Flemish hand in the Spanish Netherlands. The likeness is similar to Titian’s portrait of Charles seated [Alte Pinakothek, Munich], painted in Augsburg in 1548, but differs in a number of aspects, and may therefore be the result of independent observation. The portrait was until recently identified simply as that of an unknown man, despite the prominence of the Order of the Golden Fleece around Charles’ neck, and his prominent Habsburg jaw.
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