Antonio Casanova y Estorach
Oil on canvas
34 3/4 x 51 1/2 in. (88.3 x 130.8 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.65.12
Listen to Daniel Ralston, PhD candidate in art history at Columbia University, discuss this work (2:22 minutes)
Antonio Casanova y Estorach (Spanish, 1847–1896)
Favorites of the Court, 1877
by Daniel Ralston, Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia University
At first glance, it’s hard to know what to make of this wonderfully weird, over-the-top painting, full of glitter and gold.
In a sumptuously decorated room in a palace, we see lounging aristocrats, decked out in medals, and, oddly, we see bullfighters in gleaming trajes de luces, saluting as if they’re in the bullring.
What, exactly, are we looking at? Is this a historical event, or a fiction of the artist’s own devising, a mixing of places and times? If you're asking yourself these questions, then you have the instincts of an art historian. I say that because, in the fall of 1988, four art historians (from the Meadows, the Prado, and the National Gallery in London) stood in front of this painting, where you are now, asking just those questions.
The bullfighters (and the fact that one of the seated men on the right appears to be Fernando VII, king of Spain) initially had them thinking that the room represented was in the Palacio Real in Madrid. But none of them remembered a room quite like this in the palace. The curator from the Prado, an expert on eighteenth-century French art, suggested that the designs on the walls were French in style, and might correspond to a room in Fontainebleau, a royal palace outside Paris.
Hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery, the curator at the Meadows wrote to the curator of the Palace of Fontainebleau, enclosing a photograph of this painting. In his reply, the French curator explained that Casanova was definitely inspired by a particular room at Fontainebleau, the Salle du Conseil. Although he had made it larger, it was a faithful re-creation of the room. It was so faithful because, as the curator explained, he had found a document in the Fontainebleau archives that showed that Casanova had received permission to paint inside the palace in 1876.
The painting, as one curator’s observation and the careful detective work of two more made clear, is a feat of the artist’s imagination. Casanova brought together Spanish bullfighters and aristocrats in a French palace to create a memorably whimsical painting.
Hear Emma Jenevein (SMU Class of 2020) read her original poem written in spring 2020 as part of the Meadows Museum's Poets Laureates program.