The son of an obscure portraitist and the younger brother of a history painter, Nattier was elected to the Académie in 1718 as a history painter, but soon turned to the more lucrative practice of portraiture. He quickly became the most sought-after portrait painter in Paris in the middle decades of the 18th century, admired in particular for his beautiful portraits historiques of women. In these ‘mythologizing’ likenesses, the pretty sitters swathed in yards of luminous silk draperies and holding divine attributes are depicted in the guise of Venus, Diana, or Hebe. The artist proved himself equally adept at painting men, where his rendering of lifelike features and blunt character is as direct and naturalistic as anything in the portraits of Aved, Quentin de La Tour, or his own son-in-law, Tocqué.
This portrait of Fernando de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Huescar, 12th Duke of Alba is a remarkable image of virile dignity and modest self-confidence. The young Duke is an imposing figure, yet fully human and little idealized. The unsentimental observation of this strong and striking portrait may seem removed from the sometimes bland facility of Nattier’s ‘mythological’ portraits of women, but there are certain parallels: a fiery battleground in the background serves to allegorize the sitter’s bold military career, and his splendid uniform is itself a kind of costume; even his exquisitely executed hand, turned gallantly against his hip, and the hint of a smile curling across his lips, are rendered with aristocratic élan.
The painting is dated 1749. On 25 May of that year, the Duke was nominated to the Knights of the Orders of the King – the Order of Saint Michael founded by Louis XI in 1469 and the Order of the Holy Spirit created by Henry III in 1578 – in a ceremony in the Royal Chapel of Versailles. Mass was celebrated by the Abbot of Harcourt, but the Duke of Huescar, Ordinary Ambassador of Spain to the Court of France, was not present, having already departed France for his return to Spain three weeks earlier, on 5 May 1749, his ambassadorial mission having been completed the previous month. A formal reception ceremony only took place many years later, in Madrid in 1760. Nattier depicts the 35-year-old Duke at the peak of his diplomatic career, wearing the Order of the Holy Spirit that Louis XV had just awarded him – it appears in the form of a sash draped from the right shoulder to left hip – as well as the medals and ribbons of Calatrava and of the Golden Fleece, which he had previously received from Philip V, King of Spain, in 1746.
The energetic modeling, loose brushstrokes, and intense gaze of the sitter make the present painting comparable to the most beautiful male portraits by Nattier, such as that of Louis Tocqué (1739, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon). Unfortunately, nothing is known of the circumstances surrounding the portrait’s commission. It is likely that it was made to commemorate the induction of the Duke into the Knights of the Orders of the King, and it may have been an official, rather than private, commission, as the painting itself seems never to have entered the collections of the House of Alba. Whether it was commissioned by the King of France or the ambassador himself, the painting might have been intended as a diplomatic gift.
The history of the portrait is uncertain until the end of the 19th century, when it belonged to Baron Arthur de Rothschild and hung in the upper antechamber of his hôtel particulier at 33 rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré. (His wax seal, with the arms and motto of the Rothschild family, is still affixed to the reverse of the canvas.) Born in 1851, Arthur was the fourth child of Nathaniel and Charlotte de Rothschild. When he died in 1903, the house passed to his nephew, Henri, who sold it in 1920 to the Cercle de l’Union Interalliée, which occupies it still. The portrait is presumed to have left the Rothschild collections shortly after the sale of the mansion.
The subject of this superb portrait, Fernando de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo (1714-1776), future Duke of Huescar, was born on 14 October 1714 in Vienna, where his parents, Manuel-Maria-Jose de Sova, Count of Galva, and Maria-Theresa, Duchess of Alba, resided after having backed Archduke Charles and the Imperialists in the War of Spanish Succession. The family returned to Madrid in 1727, and, in 1733, Fernando de Silva became Gentleman of the King’s Chamber, followed by Duke of Huescar in 1739. As a Knight of the Order of Calatrava and Colonel of the Regiment of Navarre, he followed Don Philip, Duke of Parma, to Italy in 1742. The Prince made him Field Marshal and supported his appointment as Commander of the King’s Bodyguard in 1744. An army Colonel General, the Duke of Huescar was sent to France in 1746 as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Minister to present Philip V’s objections to the treaty that France was preparing to sign with Sardinia. Primarily, his mission was to defend the interests of Don Philip of Parma. His first audience took place on 19 February 1746 in Versailles. On 30 May at the Château de Bouchout, he took leave of the King and left for Madrid, where he received the Collar of the Golden Fleece. The Duke returned to France at the end of August 1746 to replace Ambassador Campoflorido and to uphold the Franco-Spanish alliance, which was being undermined by the War of Austrian Succession. His mission lasted more than two years. He had his final audience with Louis XV on 13 April 1749 and was received by the King and Queen of Spain on 5 May.
Enjoying close relations to the Spanish crown, the Duke was appointed Grand Master of the House of Ferdinand VI, Supreme Commander of the Spanish Armies and Grand Chancellor of Navarre. He was temporarily responsible for Foreign Affairs in 1754 and advised the King to remain neutral in the Seven Years’ War. An Enlightened Reformer, he was received into the Spanish Academy, becoming Perpetual Director in 1755. Twelfth Duke of Alba after his mother’s death that same year, he was made Grand Chancellor of India in March 1756, but the ascension of Charles III to the throne in 1759 effectively ended his political career. On 22 July 1760, in St. Jerome Church of Buen Retiro, the Duke of Alba was formally received into the Order of the Holy Spirit, the honor that the present portrait announced eleven years earlier. He offered his resignation to the King in December 1760 and retired to his properties of El Barco de Avila and Piedrahita. In 1771-72, he returned to Paris, where he befriended Rousseau, d’Alembert, and other Enlightenment philosophers, and contributed to financing the monument to Voltaire. The Duke of Huescar died in Madrid, aged 62, on 15 November 1776.