Cover image for The Drama of the Portrait: Theater and Visual Culture in Early Modern Spain By Laura R. Bass

The Drama of the Portrait

Theater and Visual Culture in Early Modern Spain

Laura R. Bass


$109.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03304-4

196 pages
7.75" × 11.5"
50 color/14 b&w illustrations

The Drama of the Portrait

Theater and Visual Culture in Early Modern Spain

Laura R. Bass

“Bass has interwoven detailed research in Spanish art history, treatises on painting, and the social history of portraiture with illuminating readings of specific plays to present an enormously valuable perspective on a quintessential art form of the baroque.”


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Winner of the 2010 Eleanor Tufts Book Award Winner of a 2009 AAUP Book Jacket and Journal Show Award for Scholarly Illustrated

Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association

The Drama of the Portrait examines the motif of portraiture in Spanish Golden Age theater, drawing from a wide range of drama and imagery to enrich our understanding of the social functions of portraiture and the importance of the theater as a venue for visual education in the court society of early modern Madrid. Written in an engaging and accessible style, this is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship that deftly interweaves detailed research in Spanish art history and material culture, treatises on painting, and the social history of portraiture with original readings of plays.

The Drama of the Portrait illuminates collaborations among artists whose work crossed boundaries in ways far more complex than traditional scholarship has acknowledged. Dramatists like Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca contributed to a culture of connoisseurship that promoted painters such as Diego Velázquez. Both writers and painters shared in the task of constructing Spain's image of itself. At the same time, they were keenly attuned to the social, political, and economic tensions of their age. The great playwrights and artists of the Spanish Baroque dramatized the crisis points in a society that depended on theater and painting for its own representation but remained deeply ambivalent about both art forms.

“Bass has interwoven detailed research in Spanish art history, treatises on painting, and the social history of portraiture with illuminating readings of specific plays to present an enormously valuable perspective on a quintessential art form of the baroque.”
“Despite the very complex ideas at work here, and the ambitious reach of the project, Bass’s prose is limpid and highly accessible. While The Drama of the Portrait is a tremendous contribution to both visual and literary studies in the field, it will also help disseminate this new and sophisticated approach to the comedia to a broad audience. The richly appealing book, with its over sixty sumptuous illustrations (many of them in color), itself makes a persuasive case for the seductiveness of the visual image.”
“[Laura Bass’s] erudite, innovative, elegantly written, and—it should be mentioned—beautifully illustrated monograph is an essential contribution to studies of classical Spanish theatre and of early modern Spanish culture in general.”
“[Laura R. Bass’s work] explores the drama of the portrait reenacted in seventeenth-century Spanish theater as a historical and cultural chapter of an ideal history of responses to human likeness. . . . Through the study of selected plays interwoven with visual images, crossed with the analysis of specific paintings, understood in the wider context of art theory and of social, political, and economic history, Bass gives a striking reading of the practice and culture of portraiture seen through the lens of theater as shaping the Spanish ideal of monarchy at the same time that it reveals the underlying anxiety about its crisis.”
“Laura R. Bass has written a beautiful and significant book: aesthetically pleasing in terms of the sixty-seven illustrations (a large number in colour) and the comprehensible scholarly style; and conceptually discerning in respect of the historical, material and theoretical readings of select plays interwoven with visual images, the thorough documentation in the accompanying notes, and the exhaustive bibliographical apparatus.”

Laura R. Bass is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Tulane University. She is the co-editor, with Margaret R. Greer, of Approaches to Teaching Early Modern Spanish Drama (2006).


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Dramas of the Portrait

1. Visual Literacy and Urban Comedy

2. Stolen Identities

3. Blood Portraits

4. The Powers and Perils of Doubles

5. Framing the Margins on Center Stage

Concluding Reflections


Works Cited


Introduction: Dramas of the Portrait

Portraits circulate in dozens of dramas of early modern Spain. They serve as tokens of love, objects of jealous passion, and icons of royalty. They are commissioned by lovers and kings, exchanged in marriage negotiations, and manipulated in political plots. Sometimes they are endowed with the uncanny presence of the sitter and overpower their viewers with desire or, often its twin opposite, violent rage. In other instances, they are stripped of transcendent value and reduced to sheer materiality. Occasionally stage portraits take the form of easel paintings visible to audience members. More often, though, they are miniatures, sometimes encased in jewels, sometimes unframed, but either way seen by the audience only indirectly through the reactions and descriptions of the characters among whom they are exchanged (fig. 1).

Rosaura's portrait in Calderón de la Barca's famous La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) is tellingly revealing of how the small physical size of miniature portraits is belied by their importance as the focal point of the larger dramas of desire, identity, and power in which they are embedded (fig. 2). Although he has abandoned Rosaura, Astolfo still carries her portrait with him when he leaves Muscovy for Poland and pursues Estrella, the cousin with whom he intends to assume the Polish throne. In a scene very close to the center of the play, Estrella demands that he surrender this token of a previous love as proof of his feelings for her. Rosaura, who has found employment as Estrella's servant under a new name, walks in at the very moment in which Astolfo agrees to bring her the portrait and replace it with the image of Estrella's beauty in his heart. Rosaura cannot let that exchange take place; she is determined to recover her portrait from the man who betrayed her and keep it from falling into her rival's hands. Played out within the drama of jealousy, passion, and amatory betrayal that comprises the so-called secondary plot of La vida es sueño, the conflict over Rosaura's portrait is not at all incidental to the work's main drama of kingship, good governance, and destiny. In fact, it is where Rosaura's story and the story of the prince Segismundo, long recognized by critics to mirror each other, most emblematically converge. Rosaura's determination to recover her portrait and prevent it from entering into her rival's possession mirrors Segismundo's reclamation of his right to his princely identity, which his father had denied him at birth. That Rosaura's unwitting rival is none other than one of the cousins who plans to usurp his claim to the throne makes the link between the two characters all the stronger. Rosaura succeeds in regaining possession of her portrait, anticipating her twin character's recovery of his stolen birthright.

Dramas of the portrait like the one in La vida es sueño belong to an age-old preoccupation with the powers, pleasures, and perils of the human simulacrum. As books like David Freedberg's Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response and Maurizio Bettini's Portrait of the Lover brilliantly explore, likenesses of the human figure, especially the face, have fascinated, haunted, and consoled people throughout history, and the image of the king, the self, and above all the beloved has fueled the Western and Near Eastern cultural imagination since ancient times. Plutarch relates how the military commander Cassandrus trembled at the sight of the deceased Emperor Alexander's portrait. In classical mythology, the beautiful youth Narcissus burned with desire for his own reflection in a pool until he withered away and died, transformed into the flower for which he is named. Pygmalion fell in love with the ivory-statue woman of his own creation; he loved, caressed, and showered the statue with gifts, and finally it came to life. In the Arabian Thousand and One Nights the son of the Vizier of Egypt falls in love with the picture of a woman he discovers in a book and weeps over it day and night; in the first act of Mozart's Magic Flute Prince Tamino falls in love with the portrait of Princess Pamina, devoting an aria to its enchanting beauty. Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray wishes to remain forever handsome and young, as he appears in his portrait; his wish almost comes true-the portrait ages as he remains seemingly untouched by time, until, alas, death strikes him as he strikes the portrait.

If we were to think of this vast, multifarious history of responses to the human likeness as a book, then the drama of the portrait reenacted again and again on the seventeenth-century Spanish stage comprises one of its richest chapters. It is a culturally and historically specific chapter, and it invites a culturally historicizing approach. The recurring drama of the portrait is to be understood in the context of the social and cultural milieu that accounts for and was, in turn, shaped by the interrelated place of the theater at the center of a newly urban court society and the increasing role of portraiture in urban social commerce.