The Painted Ceiling of the Queen’s Dressing Room. Aranjuez. Patrimonio Nacional.



The Painted Ceiling of the Queen’s Dressing Room.

Mural Decoration with Allegories.
Author: Antonio García Suárez.
Date: Ca. 1850-52.
Technique as per the source: Fresco (PN catalog)
or tempera (paper catalog).
Room 26: Queen’s Dressing Room, Royal Palace of Aranjuez
(Madrid, Spain). 

February 2024.

The aim of this text is to contribute to the study of this interior space from the Isabeline period as a “speaking element” within the palace. It serves as a microcosm of the Isabeline world, imbued with symbolic and affective values, rigorously structured with mythological decorations, decorative elements (some new until the present: veils, photographic portrait, rocking chair) explicitly serving a representational purpose.

In contrast to the royal protocol of earlier periods, this room in the Royal Palace of Aranjuez reveals relational uses previously unseen, such as private life, family environment, and comfort. The symbolic decorations help us identify the protagonist of this chamber: the Queen as a woman, within the social image demanded of her at the time.

It constitutes a unique space within the entirety of Aranjuez, a true “boudoir” or 19th-century “gynaeceum”. It represents the space of feminine intimacy, with its contemporary counterpart for masculine privacy found in the Smoking Room. In both spaces, windows are closed to limit the view outside the palace, and access for visitors or servants is restricted, creating an isolated place where feelings, ideas, rituals, and intrigues intertwine.

This study focuses exclusively on the iconographic roots and interpretation of the painted ceiling of the room, attributed to Antonio García Suárez 1. An artist who, alongside the Madrid painter Vicente Camarón Torrá (1803-1864), worked on another room of the Royal Palace of Aranjuez: the medallions, shields, and emblems of the painted ceiling of the Throne Room. García Suárez, a little-known artist, painter, and restorer, possibly a disciple of the architect Matías Laviña y Blasco (1796-1868), has only sparse mentions of occasional works in Madrid churches: Descalzas Reales and San Martín de Tours. García Suárez was possibly a student or artist associated with the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid or with the Liceo. This association with circles of artists and scholars of academic neoclassicism may explain the knowledge and use of engravings that would constitute the iconographic sources of this painted ceiling.

The work is described as part of the Isabeline renewal of palace decorations, in a style closer to 19th-century or Victorian tastes. Indeed, while other rooms during the reign of the queen featured original painted ceilings, in this case, during its transformation into the Queen’s Dressing Room in the mid-19th century, a painted vault by Salvador Maella between 1803-1805, which was once Carlos IV’s alcove, was intentionally replaced by the tempera or fresco colors of Antonio García Suárez.

The result is essentially a large decorative painting “among intricate arabesques and friezes, shells, and sphinxes”. In its corners, we recognize four cherubs/cupids within shells, depicted holding a quiver, a candle, drawing a bow, or observing a bird’s nest respectively. In the center of the ceiling, surrounding the hanging lamp, three cherubs hold allegorical objects typical of a royal dressing room, such as a necklace, a ring, a crown, a palm, and perfume.

The main theme of the iconographic program, painted by Antonio García Suárez, is found in the four mythological scenes painted within oval frames. These works speak or praise attributes specific to a feminine and intimate space, such as a noblewoman’s or even the queen’s dressing room, as was the case.

They depict “female virtues of goddesses” allegorically, which, according to 19th-century thought, women should aspire to, such as chastity, tranquility or peace, seduction, and purity or beauty.
Another interpretation could formulate the journey of Woman during a symbolic day, starting with the dressing room (birth of Pandora, the first woman), followed by the creation of Love, or the birth of Cupid, with the figure of Venus being taken to Mars by Iris, profane love defeated by divine love as a metaphor for feminine maturity, and ending the day or the woman’s life as a pacifying mother goddess.

Three of the panels replicate engravings by Flaxman, from “The Iliad” by Homer and “Works and Days” by Hesiod, reproduced and disseminated in Spain by the Catalan engraver Joaquí Pí y Margall (1831-1891) in “Complete Works of Flaxman” (although published in 1860), brother of the Catalan politician Francesc Pí y Margall, member of the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. And the fourth panel is based on a canvas by Angelika Kauffmann: “Etiam Amor Criminibus Plectitur”, possibly known in Spain in its reproduction as an engraving by the Englishman William Wynne Ryland (1777). 

In addition to the possible interpretations of this pictorial program, what stands out is the erudition shown in the selection of images depicted on the ceiling. The four panels copy with variations works by significant neoclassical authors such as the English artist John Flaxman (1755–1826) and the Swiss painter Maria Anna Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807), both rare in Spanish art.

 “The Pandora’s Dressing Room”

Based on Flaxman’s engraving “Pandora Attired to Peitho, the Graces and the Hours” (a, b), depicting the scene described by Hesiod (“Works and Days”) of Pandora, the first woman, adorned with gold necklaces by the Graces and the hours alongside Peito or Pito (in ancient Greek: Πειθώ, Peithó, meaning “persuasion”), the goddess or daimon who personified persuasion, seduction, charm, or temptation. Notably, in the Anacreontic it is said that Peito’s lips only produce kisses. She was part of the Erotes as a companion and personal herald of Aphrodite.

In Antonio García Suárez’s version, the position and gesture of one of the Graces have been changed, and we observe how the figures of the Hours and Peito have been removed, in addition to a dressing table being added to the left.

 “Juno Commands the Sun to Cease Shining”

A variation on “Juno ordering the sun to stop shining to halt the battle”, an illustration from Chapter XVIII of the Iliad by John Flaxman (b) or Pí y Margall (a). The Mother/Goddess appears as synonymous with peace against bellicose men. 

“Venus Snatched by Iris”

The last of the three images taken from Flaxman’s work, the Iliad (e). This image causes more doubts in its interpretation within the decorative ensemble. We have found a contemporary example with appreciable formal similarities in one of the neoclassical reliefs known as the Labyrinth of Horta in Barcelona, which would narrate a scene from a highly represented myth: Cupid and Psyche. (f)

“Cupid Tied to a Tree”

A copy of “Etiam Amor Criminibus Plectitur, two nymphs deride cupid who is tied to a tree at right, another kneeling on the ground in the centre twists his bow while looking to the front. Engraved by William Wynne Ryland, 1777 in the United Kingdom (h), based on a work by the Swiss painter Maria Anna Angelika Kauffmann (g) with the theme of chastity and virtue or how “Divine Love conquers profane love”.

Gender segregation map of Elizabethan relational spaces:

This gender-by-gender breakdown illustrates the changes in internal distribution during the reign of Queen Isabel II, which demonstrate a heightened awareness of privacy within the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, almost akin to a “retreat.” Celebrations were intimate, although the Banqueting Hall (formerly the Conversation Room) was appropriately furnished.

Visitors were no longer received in private cabinets or bedrooms but in a salon; gentlemen had their Smoking Room (18), and ladies had a Dressing Room (26). Both rooms were smaller and more intimate than in the past, no longer communicating with the exterior (garden) and thus ensuring their autonomy of use.
The isabeline palace served as a place for leisure time. It was the era of conversation, intrigues, gossip, and the ritual of visits, or domestic games where men played billiards, women embroidered, and everyone played cards together. Dances, dinners, and theatrical or primarily musical performances by amateurs were organized -King’s Music Room (13) and Porcelain Cabinet (28)-.

The palace during the Isabel II reign was a social but also private place: it was an isolated world where only the chosen few were allowed to enter. |

1 Ossorio y Bernard, Manuel, Galería biográfica de artistas españoles del siglo XIX [1883-1884], Madrid, Giner, 1975, pp. 304-305.

2 . El palacio isabelino: la atracción del refugio, Begoña Torres González. Museo Romántico, Madrid.  2017.