My favourite painting: The Duchess of Wellington

'The man’s identity and date are much discussed, but, for me, it isn’t necessary to know more than that he was intelligent.'

Portrait of a Man (possibly José Nieto), about 1635–45, by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660), 30in by 26in, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London. Bridgeman Images.

The Duchess of Wellington says:
This painting hangs in the Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House, surrounded by the grandeur of the great collection of paintings in their extravagant late-Georgian frames. The man’s identity and date are much discussed, but, for me, it isn’t necessary to know more than that he was intelligent. He looks out from the half shadows, dressed in black save the crisp, white sweep of his collar, still and watchful while the agonies of religion, the swagger of royal portraiture and the noise of Flemish taverns jostle for space in the great gallery. He fixes the viewer with his enigmatic stare; the observer observed.

The Duchess of Wellington is Chairman of the Royal Ballet School and a Fellow of Eton College.

John McEwen comments:
It was said that the 1st Duke of Wellington’s superb collection of pictures and other artefacts, the greatest in modern times, was won at Vitoria in 1813. this was not entirely true, but certainly the majority of the pictures were, including this Velázquez.

The defeat of Joseph Bonaparte’s French army on June 21 at the battle of Vitoria, 85 miles from the French border, ended the eldest brother of Napoleon’s brief and usurped reign as King of Spain. Bonaparte’s captured coach contained state papers, love letters, a silver chamber pot and more than 200 paintings, packed as rolled canvases in a trunk. The paintings, with others used as tarpaulins for the baggage train, were sent to London. The Duke noted they ‘were not thought of any value’, but, in London, they were estimated at a colossal £40,000.

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When the Duke discovered they had been stolen from the Spanish royal collection, he offered to return them to the restored King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, who, with equal grace, waived his right. Eighty-one of the paintings, not all from the Spanish royal collection, are now in the Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London W1, which has been extended, enlarged, redecorated and sumptuously re-carpeted to mark the Waterloo bi-centenary.

José Nieto, if he is the subject, was Queen Mariana of Austria’s chamberlain and appears in the background of Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

Napoleon described Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844) as ‘too good a man to be a king’. From happy New Jersey exile, the amiable, hedonistic—he had a teenage American mistress and the largest library and wine cellar in America—self-styled comte de Survilliers (Mr Bonaparte to the Americans) visited London in 1832 and was shown round Apsley House by his former enemy.