A portrait of Catharine de’ Medici and her children
Strawberry Hill House
by Silvia Davoli
Catharine de’ Medici and her children, workshop of François Clouet,
1561, 198 x 137,2 cm © Strawberry Hill House / Matt Chung
The French version is available here.
Strawberry Hill House, the 18th century gothic villa built by Horace Walpole, is situated in Twickenham and is open to the public to visit. Until 1842 its rooms were filled with art objects and splendid portraits, but the collection was sadly dispersed at auction in 1842. Fortunately, some of Walpole’s treasures eventually found their way back to Strawberry Hill like the imposing portrait of Catherine de’ Medici and her children that has recently returned to the Museum thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, administrated by the Arts Council.
The portrait depicts a widowed Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89) dressed in black and holding the hand of Charles IX (1550-74), her third son, who was crowned King of France on the 5th of December 1560, aged ten, and for whom she acted as regent during the first three years of his reign. The inscription at the base of this painting: ANN AETA SUAE XI (‘in his eleventh year’), indicates that the boy had already ascended the throne in his minority. Beside Charles are his brother, next in line to the throne, the future King Henri III, pictured on the same level as Charles; his sister, Marguerite de Valois, future Queen of Navarre (1553-1615), set back from her brothers; and François-Hercule, Duc d’Anjou and Alençon (1555-84), lower left, separated by his age and status. Catherine’s gestures are highly symbolic, as she simultaneously presents the young monarch and protectively keeps him close to her.
Catherine de’ Medici never ruled in her own right, but she was perhaps the most influential – and controversial – figure at the center of French politics. The combination of her lack of official authority, her being a woman and a foreigner, and the difficulties created by religious civil war have shaped responses to Catherine since her lifetime. Catherine was immediately identified as responsible for the massacre by the Huguenots who were looking for someone to blame. But it was only from the 18th century onward that a black legend was shaped around her name. Catherine de Medici for almost three centuries has embodied all the most unpleasant human characteristics: cold, cruel, calculating, treacherous and evil. She was a monster of selfish ambition, who scarified everything in order to satisfy her own desire for power. Walpole himself shared this belief and saw Caterina as a Machiavellian wicked Italian Queen. More recent and accurate historical research has shown that many of the charges against Catherine are completely false and without any historical basis. However, the myth of the evil queen is hard to die and a new TV series dedicated to Caterina de Medici is tellingly titled: The Serpent Queen.
Our portrait was clearly commissioned with the agenda of promoting the sovereignty of the Valois, and must surely have been a royal commission. However, the quality of the painting is not comparable to that of other oil paintings by François Clouet. Another obstacle is that as yet no archival evidence, including the extensive inventories drawn up at Catherine’s death, records such a painting. This lack of concrete evidence to date will continue to intrigue academics. Technical analysis confirms that this work was painted in the 16th century, and the inscription dating it to 1561 is therefore the likely year of its execution. It depicts the last members of the Valois dynasty, whose rule of France -as we have seen – was defined in the 16th century by the French Wars of Religion. The painting is both historically unique – as the only surviving contemporary portrait of Catherine and four of her twelve children – and artistically rare – as very probably the first full-length composition of its type, pioneering a genre that would become something of a standard in royal portraiture.
Horace Walpole was an avid collector of historic portraiture and was deeply interested in French History and visual culture. Surprisingly, there is no reference to this particular painting in Horace Walpole’s copious correspondence. The first mention of the painting we find is in Walpole’s Description of the Villa and its contents published in 1774 and I quote: “A large piece of Catharine de’ Medici and her children, Charles 9th. Henry 3d. the duke d’Alençon, and Margaret’s queen of Navarre; whole lengths, by Janet. (69)”. It is only in the new edition of the Description published in 1784, that Walpole clearly states the provenance of the painting: it was bought from Mr. Byde in Hertfordshire. While from Walpole’s book of accounts we learned that he paid £25 for it. Quite a large amount of money for the time.