The mystery of 'Lady with a Fan': was she a fugitive French duchess?

With 13,000 advance tickets sold, the first substantial exhibition in Britain of the 17th-century Spanish master Velázquez, which opened yesterday, is certain to be a bigger draw for the National Gallery than any of its previous blockbusters - including Vermeer, Titian and Caravaggio.

But the work that is absorbing devotees of Spain's greatest painter and pre-eminent exponent of baroque is to be found a short distance across London, in the former French embassy building which houses the Wallace Collection. Here resides Velázquez's work Lady with a Fan (c1630-1650), which has been the source of long arguments over the identity of the elegant sitter who betrays the faintest hint of décollete.

The received wisdom is that she is one of the many Spanish courtesans painted by Velázquez during his 43 years as court painter for King Philip IV of Spain.

But a British art historian, Zahira Veliz Bomford, has presented a robust challenge, claiming the subject is an intelligent and feisty French aristocrat, Marie de Rohan-Montbazon, the Duchess of Chevreuse who was forced to flee France on horseback over the Pyreneesdisguised as a man after her volatile clashes with Louis XIII's minister Cardinal Richelieu endangered her life.

Ms Bomford takes as her starting point a letter of 1638 recounting that Velázquez was painting the French aristocrat, "in French air and dress". She also makes the case that the costume of the sitter - white gloves, and daring blue noeud d'amour (love knot) - was out of keeping with the highly conservative, even repressed, Spanish women of the day. The brown silk of her dress is typically French, as is her hairstyle and accessories, Ms Bomford argues. Her tied noeud d'amour was also an extremely popular trinket in France, as was the fan the sitter displays, especially shown in the open "action form" as painted by Velázquez; Spanish women kept theirs closed.

So conservative was Spanish culture at that time that it was not even possible to paint Spanish ladies in the guise of goddesses, a practice popular in northern Europe where, in another intriguing pointer to the provenance of the work, the Duchess of Chevreuse also happened to be painted 11 years earlier by Deruet as Diana in a picture which bears a striking resemblance to the sitter in The Lady With a Fan.

If Ms Bomford is correct, then Velázquez - whose works are known for inviting exploration of the circumstances of their making - was painting one of the most colourful women in mid-17th century Spain, who became a celebrity at Philip's court after reaching Spain in November 1638.

She left France in a hurry after participating in conspiracies against Louis XIII's ministers. Her status as a French enemy of Richelieu put Philip IV, then at war with France, in a difficult position, yet she was welcomed into the court, perhaps as a result of her friendship with the Spanish-born French Queen, Anne of Austria.

The trustees of the Wallace Collection, who may not lend out works under the terms of the original bequest to the nation, are exhibiting the work next to another beautiful female portrait attributed to Velázquez, the Portrait of a Young Lady, from Chatsworth House. Many art historians believe the sitter in both portraits to be the same individual.

At the National Gallery, four rooms have been cleared to make way for the 46 works by "le peintre des peintres," as the French artist Edouard Manet once described Velázquez. These include nine belonging to the Gallery, which has the largest collection outside Spain, and eight from Madrid's Prado.

The exhibition will include one of the jewels in the gallery's collection, The Rokeby Venus - the only surviving example of a female nude by Velázquez, painted at a time when that sort of thing was frowned on.

"Velázquez is perhaps the very greatest painter, a painter who was in tune with his medium - the stuff of paint," said Dawson Carr, the exhibition's curator.

Velázquez - The Lady with a Fan Revealed? is on view at Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1, until 14 November

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Arts and Entertainment
Pink Floyd on stage at Live 8 in 2005. From left to right: David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright
music New album The Endless River set to overtake boyband for most pre-ordered of all-time
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama