By Richard Carreño
[WC News Service]
MADRID -- I have two great painters in the family.
One was my grandfather, Toribio Carreño, an early 20th-century immigrant from Cuba, who was house painter in New York.
The other is Juan Carreño de Miranda, a 17th-century Spanish court painter.
They both worked in oils.
That's pretty much where their artistic similarities begin and end. Toribio went on to have his ephemeral masterpieces take pride of place on several residential blocks in Brooklyn. Juan's works have proven to be more timeless, taking pride of place in the Museo Nacional del Prado here.
Family legends are often dodgy, more fun to playfully indulge in than rigorously inspect, and thus it's often best not to scratch too deeply into genealogical details.
Still, it's more than just amusing to associate one's own DNA with a historical figure, especially a personage who can link a family's roots to a glamorous, regal past. True, Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685) wasn't as skilled, prominent, nor as well-connected as his contemporary Diego Valázquez (1599-1660). Valázquez painted kings. Carreño, for the most part, painted dukes and lesser royalty. (Though, as a royal painter, he still did get a few cracks at depicting Mad King Charles II in a few unflattering portraits).
I like to think the Toribio-Juan connection is a lot more than just silly pretence. Thanks to some rudimentary genealogical sleuthing, a simple circumstantial case is easy to make. Juan and Toribio's forebears share the same background, provenance in the northern province of Asturias. The Carreño surname is still a prominent moniker there.
Several years ago, I visited a small eponymous coastal village, on the Bay of Biscay, still the Asturian epicenter is what is now a 400-year-old family brand. One night I ate at the harbourside Carreño Yacht Club. A day later, I spent the night at Hotel Carreño in Oviedo, the provincial capital.
We also used to have a now long-lost picture -- one of those Charles II portraits -- by Carreño de Miranda. Actually, it was a copy that my father, Ralph, had commissioned more than fifty years ago.
Back then, at a time when most national European museums were still free of roaming gangs of tourists, the Prado was a place for actual contemplation and academic study. Technical learning was accompanied, in what is today an almost an unbeknownst practice, by copying. Copyright strictures weren't so vigorously enforced, and for pennies on the peseta (before the euro, of course) a struggling art student could be enlisted to turn around an oil copy in short order. Thusly, our portrait of Charles II as a adult was produced.
Today, as I learned on my most visit to the Prado earlier this month, even photographs are forbidden. When I tried for a shot of another Carreño de Miranda portrait of Charles II -- this time, as a child -- in the Queen's quarters in El Escorial, I was also warned against picture taking. (I once serendipitously bumped into a Carreño portrait in an art museum in Odessa, Ukraine. Photography, I seem to remember, wasn't an issue. Especially, since I was just about only visitor in the museum and quite alone in the gallery that housed the Russian Carreño).
Like many royal court pictures at the time, some of Carreño's works are not without controversy. In particular, one set smacks of what today could be considered, at best, a pictorial version of child abuse. At worst, child porn.
The subject was a six-year-old girl, Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, who Carreño in 1680 portrays in two companion studies. In one, she's fully clothed. In the other, she's naked, except for some vines that cover her pubic area and which also form a crown headpiece.
Making the portraits, both of which are prominent in the Carreño oeuvre on display at the Prado, even more scandalous is that Eugenia clearly suffers from a glandular ailment resulting in obesity. She weighed about seventy kilos when Carreño was commissioned by crazy Charles to undertake the two pictures. Even at the time, at court, the out-sized Eugenia caused a sensation.
Remarkably, taste in art, at the 17th century royal court, tolerated, even encouraged, portraiture of models with physical or mental handicaps.
Even Valázquez, about the same time, was also exploiting deformed models, midgets and dwarfs. Though these were fully attired.
About 150 years later, another Spanish great, Francisco de Goya, also famously undertook companion works of a naked and clothed female, in paintings known as The Naked Maja and The Clothed Maja. In this case, the anonymous model is at least an adult. And at close inspection, as the pictures demand, hardly deformed.