Frans Pourbus: Lo Splendissimo Duca

Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569 – 1622) rarely signed his paintings. This portrait of the flamboyant, Vincenzo Gonzaga, 4th Duke of Mantua, is the only likeness of the Mantuan ruler known to have been signed by the artist, making the discovery of this early masterpiece of great importance to our knowledge of the artist’s work, as well as giving us insight into the court of the splendidissimo Duca. The painting is one of the highlights of the Old Masters sale.

Vincenzo Gonzaga – Patron of the Arts

Vincenzo Gonzaga (1562-1612) was an immensely influential patron and collector of art who transformed his court in Mantua into a sophisticated centre of culture. He secured the services of famous international artists, musicians and writers and became a major patron of the sciences in his pursuit to cultivate a more visible role for his duchy on the larger European stage. Vincenzo wished to create a dynastic iconography to perpetuate his reputation and set out to find an accomplished artist who had the necessary skills to work and present himself in the elevated environment of the Mantuan court. The duke travelled to the Netherlands in 1599 in order to purchase works of art. In Brussels, in the court of Archduke Albert of Austria and Infanta Isabella of Portugal he met and engaged two gifted artists, the already celebrated Frans Pourbus the Younger and, the then lesser-known, Peter Paul Rubens.

The Mantuan Coart

Frans Pourbus der Jüngere (1569–1622) Porträt von Vincenzo Gonzaga, Herzog von Mantua (1562–1612), in Rüstung Öl auf Leinwand, 77,5 x 61 cm, Schätzwert € 150.000 – 200.000
Frans Pourbus II (1569–1622) 
Portrait of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1562–1612), in armour
oil on canvas, 77.5 x 61 cm, estimate € 150,000 – 200,000

When the two artists arrived in 1600, the Mantuan court was undoubtedly amongst the most luxurious and extravagant in Europe. Under Vincenzo’s reign the ducal household alone included over six hundred people and the art collection he amassed was legendary, consisting of well over 2,000 paintings and more than 20,000 bronzes, marbles, medals, coins, arms, ceramics, manuscripts, books and other objects. Pourbus, who was accustomed to the elaborate Spanish protocol at the archducal court in Brussels, acclimatised to Mantua and his new position with ease. He was granted many favours by the duke, being able to move freely in Vincenzo’s apartments in an apparent relationship of trust. In recognition of the duke’s regard for him, the painter was given the title of “Pittore e Cameriero della Chaive d’oro dell Altezza di Mantova”.  Significantly, the same accolade was not bestowed upon the young Rubens.

Portrait of the Duke

Pourbus consistently produced his finest works during his years in Mantua. He was employed primarily to produce portraits of the ducal family and his works from this period have a distinct and deep richness of palette and are imbued with an element of dark drama, giving them an air of great intensity. In this portrait of Vincenzo, we see the duke at the height of his power and maturity. The painting is executed with astonishing attention to detail, the attitude of the sitter and the unidealised aspects of his person, such as the reddish tone of his face and the individual hairs of his beard, being described with great precision. The beautiful ruff of Burrano lace is also intricately rendered and great attention is given to the magnificent, richly decorated, armour worn by the duke. 

The Pourbus oeuvre consists of about 105 paintings, of which only 20 are signed. This marks the present painting as an important discovery. A possible explanation for the untypical presence of the signature and the date, which is a reference to the dukes’ age, might be the probable destination of the finished work which is thought to have been commissioned for the court in Prague. Pourbus continued working for the Gonzaga family in different guises until 1610, when he went on to become Court Painter to Louis XIII in France.

Information: Mark MacDonnell, specialist in Old Master Paintings


Old Masters, 11 November 2021, 16:00 (CET)
Palais Dorotheum, Dorotheergasse 17, 1010 Vienna
Tel. +43-1-515 60-403

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