Portraiture is a strange tradition. Before the invention of the camera, many artists devoted a large part of their practice to creating likenesses of the rich and powerful—a convenient and consistent means of paying the bills between grander commissions for religious or history paintings. It can be easy to overlook portraits today, when the names and histories of the sitters are lost. Hey look, it’s another old rich guy who wanted his portrait to hang next to his old rich ancestors in a moldering manor house.
But occasionally one of these old formal portraits can still reach out from the canvas and lock eyes with you. This portrait by El Greco, along with five others, was donated to the Museo Del Prado by the widow of the Duke of Arco, Master of the Horse to King Philip the fifth of Spain. One of the first El Greco paintings to be shown at the Prado, this gentleman has become famous for his melancholy gaze and mysterious identity.
Who was this quiet knight, dressed in somber black and holding a gilded rapier? One candidate is Antonio Pérez, secretary to Philip II. Another is the famed Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The best guess is the nobleman Juan de Silva y de Ribera Second Marquis of Montemayor, Commander of the Toledo Alcázar and Chief Notary to the Crown, whose many titles impart a baroque dignity onto his simple dress. The key to this possible identification lies in the sitter’s hand, resting delicately over their heart. It’s typically a religious gesture, but in this portrait it may signify a solemn oath taken in service of the Spanish crown.
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Reed Enger, "The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 23, 2015; last modified November 06, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/el-greco/the-nobleman-with-his-hand-on-his-chest/.