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A Monarch in Madrid

Back in the 1760s the preparations for Christian VII’s wedding included commissioning twelve portraits of various regents to decorate the so-called Potentates’ Room, which was the antechamber of the Great Hall at Christiansborg Palace. Each standing almost three metres tall, the portraits were created by twelve different court painters all across Europe. Seven of these twelve paintings still survive today, and all belong to SMK. The remaining five perished in the various palace fires that have plagued Copenhagen.

Three of the seven surviving portraits. Carlos III of Spain is first, followed by Louis XV of France and George III of England.

The paintings are clearly impressive. They were painted at a time when absolute monarchy held sway in Europe, and the power held by the monarchs of the age is demonstrated by their lavish clothes, by various attributes of royalty, and by interiors decorated with gilt furniture and costly fabrics. Painted around the same time, the series offers a clear image of the top tier of political power in Europe during the mid-eighteenth century – and an exciting opportunity to compare the working methods of the various artists.

Despite the obvious value of these paintings they have remained inaccessible to the general public for many years: their condition does not permit travel or display. The paintings have tears and holes in the unstable paint, and old repairs and retouchings have become discoloured over the years. In addition to this, most of them are covered by yellowing varnish and grime, causing their colours to appear too dark and brownish.

Detail of the king’s shoulder prior to conservation. The painting had this kind of damage in several areas, with part of the paint layers peeling away. The yellowed varnish has made the white ermine robe look grimy.

Detail showing an area where the yellowed varnish has been removed. This reveals the painting’s original colours and contrasts.

Restoring and conserving all these paintings would be a huge, very time-consuming project, one that the museum’s conservators have been unable to undertake for various reasons. However, in recent months one of the paintings has finally been consolidated and restored as close to its original appearance as possible: a portrait by the Spanish king Carlos III painted by the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs in 1766–67. The royal palace in Madrid very recently opened an exhibition about Carlos III, and while planning this exhibition the museum representatives asked permission to borrow the Danish portrait, which offers a unique portrayal of the Spanish regent. When SMK was forced to reject this request due to the poor condition of the painting, the Spanish museum secured funds to facilitate a thorough treatment, and the SMK conservators immediately embarked on this major task. As a result, the able hands of the conservators have made it possible to present the painting anew and as close to its original appearance as possible. Mengs’ painting can again be cherished with all its vibrancy and intensity, the scintillating colours depicting one of the most powerful men of eighteenth-century Europe clad in ceremonial armour and an ermine robe.

Originally created to adorn royal chambers, the painting has been briefly returned to a royal setting at Palacio Real in Madrid, where the staff are very pleased to be able to exhibit the painting as a key part of their exhibition on Carlos III. The portrait is the only full-sized portrait to show the king wearing royal garb, and it is featured on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue. Once the exhibition at the Spanish royal castle ends by the end of March 2017 the painting will return to Denmark. In future, visitors to SMK can enjoy it as part of the permanent display, where it will serve as an example of eighteenth-century depictions of the monarchs of absolute monarchy.

The portrait as it is presented at Palacio Real in Madrid. The painting has been fitted with a new, hand-crafted gold frame that accentuates the grandeur of the portrait.

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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