On his way back to Spain from Rome, Diego Velázquez “stopped in Naples, where he painted a lovely portrait of the Queen of Hungary, to bring to His Majesty” (Pacheco 1649). Francisco Pacheco was referring to the Infanta María of Habsburg (1606–1646), sister of King Philip IV of Spain and wife of the King of Hungary, the future Emperor Ferdinand III of the Holy Roman Empire. The sessions took place between 8 August and 18 December 1630, during the four months the queen spent in Naples on her way to Vienna.
The painting Pacheco mentions has not been securely identified, though it has traditionally been held to be the one that now hangs in the Museo del Prado, which Gudiol and López-Rey also consider to be an oil sketch for larger paintings intended for the European courts, among them the Berlin canvas. In the Berlin work, the queen is represented in the traditional manner of Spanish court portraits: posing without much artifice against a black background that is decorated only with curtains and leaning against a "sillón frailero" (armchair with leather seat and back). This type of composition, which has been intensively studied, dates back to the sixteenth century, especially to the portrait models that were established by Alonso Sánchez Coello, espoused by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz and continued by Velázquez (Cat. No. 413E) and other painters, ending with Juan Carreño de Miranda in the late seventeenth century.
According to López-Rey, the oil sketch in the Museo del Prado may have been kept by Velázquez in his studio until his death, after which it must certainly have passed into the collection of the Duke of Arco and later into the Royal Collection. The Berlin portrait was on view in the Buen Retiro Palace until 1851, when it was given to Andreas von Schepeler (1780–1849), a German diplomat in Madrid. It was subsequently incorporated into the collection of the industrialist Berthold Suermont (1818–1887), whose collection was purchased in 1874 by the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). In the same year the Berlin canvas was reproduced in a print by Léopold Flameng.
Although Gudiol and López-Rey’s theory is the most widely accepted today, it is also interesting to recall the hypothesis ventured by Justi in 1903. The German historian categorically rejected the possibility that the Prado portrait was an oil sketch and suggested that the painting now in Berlin is the one Velázquez began in Naples, sketching only the face – which, incidentally, is of higher quality than the body – and leaving the rest for his studio assistants to complete on returning to Madrid.
It is difficult to doubt that the Berlin painting was executed by an artist close to Velázquez. Although the brushwork is far removed from the quality and fluidity of the master’s, there is a noticeable attempt to imitate it, such as in the ruff and the left hand. As Justi pointed out, the Madrid and Berlin compositions are almost identical, except in the dress and necklace. Although the dress is the same in both, the decoration is much more detailed in the Berlin version, and the richness of the fabric and its embroidery can be appreciated. The necklace, decorated with a pendant with a chalice and Host, is not depicted in the Madrid portrait.
These two distinguishing features, the sumptuous fabric of the dress and the necklace, are nonetheless found in another version of the work preserved in Prague National Gallery. There are other very similar variants displaying differences in the adornment of the dress, the accessories (the introduction of a fan), and the pose, such as the canvas housed in the Hispanic Society of America, that in the Selgas-Fagalde collection, and the one attributed to Frans Luyckx in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in which the queen is accompanied by her firstborn son.| María López-Fanjul y Díez del Corral
1874 Ankauf mit der Sammlung des Bankiers Barthold Suermondt