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What Velázquez’s Portrait of King Philip IV of Spain Tells Us About Voting Rights Today

by Margaret Hawkins

Context is everything. Diego Velázquez’s 1630 portrait of King Philip IV of Spain once graced the monarch’s palace in Madrid, a solipsistic reminder to the resident of his God-given right to rule nations, and a statement to everyone else of his absolute power. Now, thanks to American circus money, the painting hangs in the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. It attracts scholars — is it really by Velázquez? — and art students. (The painting’s a beauty.) Tourists sandwich viewings between visits to the beach and orders of fish tacos, while briefly considering their relief not to be subjects under Philip’s reign. The painting no longer reminds anyone of their place in the Spanish empire. It’s a gorgeous relic, a document of a way of life few want to return to. 


This tradition, of creating portraits of leaders to reinforce and broadcast their powers, is nearly as old as art itself, and the more authoritarian the leader the more propagandist and idealized the image. Consider the Egyptians and their Pharaohs, the Romans and their Emperors, Communist China and its Chairman Mao, of course the German Third Reich and its dictator. Today there’s the hermit kingdom of North Korea and the towering ubiquity of the many-times-larger-than-life photograph of Kim Jong Un’s face framed in a golden wreath, as much an invention as any painting ever was.  

What struck me about the 400-year-old portrait of Philip though is how modern he looks. Partly that’s thanks to Velázquez’s extraordinary ability to capture subtle human psychology through his mastery of oil paint, but it’s also because the man was modern, in a way. The impulse to hoard power exists outside of time; it is both modern and ancient.


Diego Velázquez, "Portrait Philip IV, King of Spain," c. 1628-29, oil on canvas, 82 3/8 x 47 5/8". 

Courtesy of the Ringling Museum of Art, bequest of John Ringling, 1936.

The painting simply exposes that trait. It is an announcement, the literal picture of entitlement. That’s why this painting looks so oddly familiar. And scary. Showing as it does government as a safe house for the entitled, this image reminds me that while we Americans don’t inherit our leaders, we are in danger of having them handed to us by people every bit as ruthless as Philip appears here. 


Diego Velázquez, “Philip IV of Spain” (detail), ca. 1656, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the National Gallery of London.

A modern viewer regarding this portrait, looking at the clothes and the date, infers vanity, colonialism, blood lust, greed, possible cruelty. The man looks imperious. We view him from below, as if kneeling in his presence, which we most certainly would have been expected to do. He appears foppish and arrogant, his body swathed in layers of rich fabrics. We are reminded that wealth confers power and vice versa. Philip wears leather leggings, boots with spurs, puffy lace-trimmed above-the-knee pantaloons, a suede vest to encase his plush belly, a satin cape, lace collar. One gloved hand clutches what appears to be a rolled-up chart, possibly to indicate the lands he rules over. When this painting was made, Philip was king not only of Spain but of Portugal and most of South and Central America. 


It’s hard for Americans to fathom the kind of worldly power such an image once conveyed. We’ve never had a king. We elect our leaders every four years, and we control them through term limits and checks and balances. The system is faulty but the idea, at least, is that our leaders work for us, and fair elections is how we hire them, or are supposed to. We boast about one person, one vote.  Never mind that gerrymandering and the electoral college makes that claim not quite true. We’re still a democracy, and we feel so secure in that fact that most of us take voting for granted. 


Looking at a painting like this, it’s easy to be complacent, to think that kings and palaces are ancient history, to assume we’re kinder and more sophisticated now. But the impulses from which monarchy and authoritarianism arise, the need for order and the temptation for those in power to exploit that need and run over those without power, is not a thing of the past. Greed and pride are not a thing of the past. They are part of human nature and must always be defended against. Voting is our foundational tool for that and when voting rights are eroded so is our protection from those who would wrest power for their own purposes.


Official state portrait of Kim Jong Un, North Korea. Photo: KCTV.

Totalitarianism is hardly dead.  It reasserts itself whenever it can, digs in and lasts as long as it is allowed, and never without the spilling of a good deal of blood. Royalty still rules parts of the world. A friend reports of her time living in Saudi Arabia, having her American magazines redacted, whole pages torn out, parts of the junior high school newspaper her students produced, censored. Disallowing free thought and free speech has always been a way to stay in power. Keeping people deemed political enemies from exercising their right to vote is another.


I visited Velazquez’s portrait of King Philip IV one month before Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama went on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, the very museum that was the site of the Obamas’ first date. I returned to this city amidst the museum’s Chicago-centric pre-opening hype.


Kehinde Wiley, “Barack Obama,” 2018, oil on canvas. ©2018 Kehinde Wiley.


Amy Sherald, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018, oil on linen. ©2018 Amy Sherald.

The rhapsodic press releases were a little silly, but the excitement is genuine. (Most) Chicagoans are proud of the Obamas, and the pair of official portraits speaks volumes about us as a nation, at least who we were in 2008 when we voted Obama in, and not only because the subjects and the artists are Black. Barack in his field of flowers (chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago), with his big searching hands, leans democratically towards us. He’s arrogant, too, of course, leaders tend to be, but he appears willing to listen, the exact opposite of Philip who seems to recoil from us commoners, barring engagement with a wary stare and a defensive knee. Barack’s expression is not that of a ruler but of a peeved philosopher with a problem to solve, the problem being us. Some details stand out. That dented forehead suggests cogitation, worry, too many late nights working. He works for a living. His necktie, that great signifier of class, has been abandoned. We chose this man twice. That’s what voting rights achieved. One worries now, if Democrats don’t find their way to pass new federal legislation safeguarding access to the ballot, if we could do it again. 

Art provides felt visual evidence that, spanning centuries: we were there, now we’re here. We’ve come so far. We’re not a perfect union but we are better than we were — certainly better than before the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, and far better than nations past and present without fair elections or freedom of speech or laws that protect difference. But progress is inherently fragile and reversible. In some states now the voting rights of people who look like the Obamas, and other people of color, are in danger. The recent Supreme Court decision, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, upholding voter restrictions in Arizona and weakening Section 2 of the 1965 law, may well pave the way for widespread exclusion of voters of color in that and other states — in all cases so-called red states. To disenfranchise these citizens is to hoard power for an electoral minority, to deliberately hold it away from people whose interests differ from those currently in office so as not to be answerable to those citizens. 


Should you ever feel complacent about justice in America, look to the faces in past portraits of rulers of the world and see how familiar they seem. Greed and pride. Forms of government change but these traits don’t. Philip’s costume is out of the past but his face is not. Put him in a big baggy suit and see how modern he looks. 


Digital collage. David Byrne in 1984 film “Stop Making Sense,” Cinecom Pictures; Diego Velázquez, “Philip IV, King of Spain,” 1644.

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