The “Isabella” Portrait

by Melville Holmes

Isabella, painting, Melville Holmes, Davenport, hotel, restoration

The colorful portrait on the end wall of the Isabella Room is an original fixture of what was initially the Davenport Hotel’s Dining Room. In Pride of an Empire, the hotel’s guide book published in 1915, it is described as being by “Nattier,” which is to say the French artist Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), though it bears little resemblance to his highly refined style and the attribution cannot be verified. One specialist at a leading auction house has suggested that the painting was done in the style of Largillière, which is also hard to support. The unsigned painting is certainly 18th-century French in style and has no connection with Queen Isabella of Spain, after whom the room was named. (She died over 200 years earlier.) A double portrait said to represent her and her husband, Ferdinand, is in keeping with the costume style of the Castilian queen’s time period.

Presumed portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, said to be in the collection of the Convent of the Augustinian Nuns in Avila, Spain.

During restoration, when the painting was out of the frame, it was obvious that it had been cut down to some degree (how much cannot be determined), because the painted image was partially wrapped around the stretcher frame. Cutting paintings down to fit picture frames was not an uncommon practice in the past.

Dating the painting is difficult. It has the age cracks one expects from old oil paintings. Auction house specialists and at least one conservator at the Getty Museum felt that, while it is 18th century in style, it is more likely a 19th-century production.

That may be open to debate, however, because it is painted using 18th-century techniques. One of these was the practice of applying a unifying colored glaze to a much brighter underpainting, a historically documented technique. In this case, for example, the woman’s dress was originally a shockingly bright pink but was subdued by a harmonizing transparent layer of gray, which had been applied essentially to the entire figure and drapery.

The “Isabella” portrait before restoration.

Evidence for this was determined during the cleaning process. The painting had become dark due to surface grime and brown, discolored varnish. The cleaning process revealed that there had been at least two “restorations,” a crude recent one and a somewhat more sophisticated old one. The former involved broadly slapping thick oil paint over some damaged areas, while the earlier one evidences an old varnish removal and attempts to cover up over-cleaning that took off original paint. A detailed account of the restoration can be found by clicking on the picture at the left.

The fact that the picture had gone through an old restoration suggests an older than late 19th century date. The exact provenance of the picture is unknown but it seems likely that it was touched up before whatever dealer sold it to whoever bought it for the Davenport. It takes more than 50 years for natural resin varnish to darken to the degree that it needs removal. One may deduce that the portrait must be before 1850 at the latest, and by that time this was already a long out-of-date style.

The final question is what the picture represents. The woman is unknown. It is suggested here that the aristocratic lady with the basket of flowers is an an 18th-century style allegorical portrait of an individual in the guise of  the goddess Flora, holding an idealized, symbolic garden tool.