Portrait of Ferdinand VII

The Fine Art Society and Robert Simon Fine Art

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José Gil de Castro (Lima 1785 - 1841 Lima)
Portrait of Ferdinand VII
Oil on canvas
48 x 36 5/8 in. • 121.9 x 93 cm
Signed and dated 1817, lower left: Fecit me Josephus Gil./ Año milessimo octingentesimo/ desimo septimo
54 x 42 in. • 137.2 x 106.7 cm


Iglesia de Rancagua, Rancagua, Chile; given in 1891 by the parish priest to;
Alejandro Morán y Castillón; by whom given to;
Alberto Arteaga García; by whom given to his brother;
Don Luis Arteaga García, Chile, by 1934; by descent to;
Raúl Arteaga Gómez, until at least 1950; by whom probably consigned to;
Bullrich, Buenos Aires, 3-5 July 1973, lot 179; where acquired by;
Roberto Otero, Argentina; and by descent to his daughter;
Sofia Otero, Argentina, until 2022


Luis Álvarez Urquieta, El artista pintor José Gil de Castro, Santiago, Chile, 1934, p. 16, illustrated, cat. no. 11, fig. 7;

Darío Ovalle Castillo, “Gil de Castro, Su Obra en Chile: II,” in Por los caminos del Abra, Santiago, 1941, pp. 173-174;

Jaime Eyzaguirre, José Gil de Castro, Pinto de la Independencia Americana, Santiago, 1950, pp. XI, 1, 39, cat. no. 1, fig. 1;

Ricardo Mariátegui Oliva, José Gil de Castro (“el mulato Gil”). Vida y obra del gran pintor peruano de los libertadores. Obras en Argentina y Chile, Lima, 1981, pp. 132-134, cat. no. 21;

Ricardo Mariátegui Oliva, Colección Lienzos: José Gil de Castro en Lima, vol. 2, “Gran Libertador Simón Bolívar, Rey Fernando VII, señoras de Larraín y de Montani, señor Campo Redondo,” Lima, 1983, p. 15;

Natalia Majluf, José Gil de Castro: Pintor de Libertadores, Lima, 2014, pp. 8, 9, 23, 103, 151, 180-181, 347 no. 32;

Laura Malosetti Costa, “Los Retratos de Gil de Castro en la Argentina,” Revista de Historia Americana y Argentina, vol. 52, no. 1 (2017), p. 183;</p

Exhibition History

“Exposición Retrospectiva de José Gil de Castro,” Santiago, Chile, 1934

Further Information

José Gil de Castro is one of the most fascinating painters of 19th-century Latin America, occupying several unique positions in the history of painting in the New World. He was both the last Colonial painter of Peru and the preeminent painter of the revolutionaries and leaders of the Independence movement in South America. But perhaps his greatest distinction is being one of the earliest, most successful, and most prolific artists of African descent in the Spanish Viceregal and early Republican eras. However, little of his work and the details of his career, beyond the sobriquet "El Mulato Gil," reveals anything of the artist's race or the way it may have impacted or played a role in his career. The few traces of evidence of his heritage derive from several key documents, principally the 1778 marriage document of his parents. His father, Mariano Carbajal, is listed there as a "pardo libre" (a free man of color) and his mother, María Leocadia Morales, described as a "negra...esclava de doña Nicolasa Santibañes" (a black woman enslaved by Nicolasa Santibañes). Gil de Castro's mother was freed by the time of her son's birth-she is described as "libre" in his baptismal record-but one of the artist's elder brothers is documented as having been born enslaved and later freed. In his own marriage documents, Gil de Castro is described as a "pardo libre."

Gil de Castro has aptly been described as a "retratista sin rostro," a portraitist without a face. Sadly, no self-portraits or other images of the painter have come down to us. And of the roughly 150 known portraits by Gil de Castro, only one depicts a sitter recognizably of African descent. That portrait, which depicts José Olaya, a fisherman and hero of the Peruvian war of Independence, is one of his most remarkable, not only for the sitter's stark all-white garments, but also for being one of the only portraits of a person not of the upper class by the artist (Fig. 1). The majority of Gil de Castro's portraits were members of the creole elite-predominantly monarchists and officials of the Spanish colonial government in the early stages of his career in Lima and Santiago. His artistic career mirrored the significant political transformations of the day, and as the wave of independence swept across South America, Gil de Castro became the de facto portraitist of liberators in Chile, Argentina, Peru, and beyond. Among his subjects were Bernardo O'Higgins, José de San Martín, and Simón Bolívar, creating iconic images of these leaders.

Our painting of King Ferdinand VII of Spain stands out in Gil de Castro's oeuvre, both as a quintessential example of the artist's early work in Chile, where he lived between 1814 and 1822, and in some ways as an outlier in the artist's wider production. This effigy of the king stands an emblem of the waning days of Spain's rule over Chile and its neighboring colonial territories. Prominently signed and dated 1817, Gil de Castro likely painted this image in January, in the month before the Chilean revolutionaries won the Battle of Chacabuco and began to chart the course towards independence. Gil de Castro derived the composition from an 1815 print by the Spanish engraver Miguel Gamborino that clearly circulated in Chile (Fig. 2), placing Gil de Castro squarely in the tradition of New World painters responding to European prints. While Spanish Colonial artists generally directly transcribed printed images into paint, Gil de Castro used this print as a starting point, embellishing and adding to the composition. He has not only given life (and color) to the graphic image of the king, but has replaced the generic monochromatic swag above the fictive oval frame with a brilliant array of local flowers that the artist could study in Chile. Both the print and Gil's painting were conceived as celebratory depictions of the king and his status as monarch of the Spanish empire, as evinced by the banderole above and the monarchical symbols below the frame. These include the ermine-lined royal mantle, sword, lion, Spanish royal coat of arms, globe, and the Pillars of Hercules with the Spanish monarchy's motto "Plus ultra" inscribed on banderoles. The book, laying open on the corbel, is one of the publications of royal decrees by Ferdinand in which he reestablished the absolute monarchy after returning to the throne following the Spanish War of Independence. The king himself wears several symbols of his position and rank, including the Toisón de Oro, or insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, around his neck, golden buttons with the Spanish royal crown at their center, as well as medals of the order of Charles III and of the Inquisition.

Gil de Castro is known to have painted at least three depictions of Ferdinand VII, including the present work, almost certainly the final portrait he made of the king. The earliest example is the portrait of 1815 in the Museo de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú (Figs. 3-4), which is based on an earlier print of Ferdinand as a young prince combined with the king's older likeness and the ermine-lined mantle from Miguel Gamborino's print. Fascinatingly, Gil de Castro's third known portrait of Ferdinand was discovered through technical imaging, as the artist cut down the canvas and reused it for his portrait of the Chilean official Francisco Calderón Zumelzú in ca. 1823-1824 (Figs. 5-7). The depiction of the king is a mirror image of the portrait in Lima, and the original signature and date of 1816 is visible in the X-radiograph. It is unclear whether this canvas was retained by the artist and used in his studio for replicating standard images of the king, or if it might have been hanging in a government seat and later repainted by the artist for the new government.

The survival of each of these portraits of Ferdinand VII is remarkable. In addition to the reuse of the 1816 canvas for the portrait of Francisco Calderón Zumelzú, the existence of the 1815 portrait is likely due to the fact that many monarchists and Spanish colonial authorities abandoned Chile and fled to Peru in 1817, at which time the work was probably transported to Lima by its owner. Our painting has its own noteworthy story. Darío Ovalle Castillo recorded the fascinating account of the rediscovery of the canvas in the late 19th century in the Iglesia de Rancagua hidden behind a painted altarpiece of the Virgin of the Rosary:

"One day after the celebration of mass, a strange noise was heard in what is today the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The priest and sacristan rushed to see what had happened and were surprised to find that the image of the Virgin had disappeared from the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary and was replaced by the figure of Ferdinand VII, smiling as if he were still reigning over the new world. The large painting of the Virgin of the Rosary, which had covered the portrait, had fallen to the ground because the cable that held it had broken, revealing the monarch beneath."

The city of Rancagua was the location of the Disaster of Rancagua of 1-2 October 1814, in which the Spanish Colonial military defeated the Chilean independence forces and effectively ended the Patria Vieja, a short-lived period of self-government in Chile from 1810-1814. The loss in Rancagua marked the beginning of the period of the Reconquista, as Spain reestablished control of Chile and Ferdinand attempted to consolidate his power as absolute monarch both on the Iberian Peninsula and throughout the Spanish empire. It was during this time, between 1814 and 1817, that Chile witnessed a new and intense circulation of images of the monarch both for propaganda and use in official ceremonies. The placement of this portrait in the main church in Rancagua is intriguing in its own right given the city's history, and if not for being hidden, it is likely that it would have shared the fate of many other royal portraits, which were lost to iconoclasm in the newly independent Chile.