My Sister Elizabeth Valois

Put your hands on the wall, or on a canvas.

Cave Art from Spain with signatures, painted 41 thousand years ago.

Cave Art from Spain with signatures, painted 41 thousand years ago.

Speak of the Art of Portrait Painting – Pictures of real people, coming alive from the past, when experienced especially before the advent of photography, it was usually necessary to depend on someone else to create a portrait… unless the subject saw themself in a mirror…

or with petroglyphs, painting around the artist’s hand as a signature and proof that this person was actually there, or see Werner Herzog’s film a of French cave art

Before and during the European Middle Ages, a picture of a human figure was rarely personalized – some individuals in those times were superstitious, thinking an artist could “steal the soul.” At that time, most Art was religious, created for the purpose of teaching a lesson; most of the populous was illiterate so they couldn’t read their lesson.

The Middle Ages morphed into the Renaissance, with the 1400s, and the discovery and redevelopment of North and South America, by Europeans. This drastic change brought new natural resources, and new money for Royals, as well as a nascent merchant class.

Using Art as an a vehicle, we can follow one particular member of royalty – Elizabeth of Valois – from both France and Spain – two countries that were often enemies of the other – and how her life both influenced and demonstrated the culture of her time.

Elizabeth Valois was born on April 5, 1525. As a Princess of the blood in France, she became Queen of Spain by marrying King Philip II, as part of a treaty with the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, Bohemia, Etc.).

liz-beth by juan pantoja de la cruz 1565  

Elizabeth in Red by Anthonis Mor - more attention to the dress than to the character of the lady.

Elizabeth in Red by Anthonis Mor – more attention to the dress than to the expression of the lady.


That is where the concept gets tricky. At that time, artists personalized their work. The subject of the portrait could be styled to be beautiful or only barely handsome depending upon the artist’s prerogative – flattery was only by degree. In most of Elizabeth’s portraits, we see a sweetness, gentleness coming through.

If the portrait subjects were political, having followers (or not so many), the portrait  might reflect the artist’s politics and ambitions.

The artist can create their subject.


This portrait of Elizabeth is not as flattering as it could have been. Was it the style of the particular artist or the message he wanted to offer. Only extensive further research might offer a clue.

Elizabeth was married early – got out of the house, so to speak; she was older than most of her brothers. Her sister Margot (Margarite) was not so lucky. From a book she wrote, several of her brothers practiced sexually on her, as was sometimes common, though her brother Henry III was a trans-dresser. Margot became Queen of France and Navarre,  and was said to be prettier than Elizabeth, but her portraits don’t generally show that. Perhaps because in many situations, Margot was flirtatious, wild and outspoken.

Marguerite, Queen of France and Navarre

Marguerite, Queen of France and Navarre







With the portrait of Elizabeth as The Lady in Fur, one gallery source attributes her to the painter,  El Greco, but in truth she greatly resembles her  daughter, Princess Catalina (Catherine) Micaela. Also, El Greco’s style was iconic; his usual subjects were religious with elongated and mysterious body forms, while this woman is more human, than regal or religious.

By El Greco - not likely

Said to be by El Greco – not likely, but she is exceptionally beautiful

This “Elizabeth of Valois” could be a very modern woman; she might be wearing makeup, and contemporary jewelry with her fur coat. Ermine traditionally has been a symbol of royalty. The ermine is a short-haired animal, rare and expensive. This fur wrap worn by the Princess more resembles a lynx because of the longer fur… or was more drama encouraged by the artist. Her rough head scarf seems very spontaneous, not staged like most royal portraits. Here she looks as if she just stepped out of a red convertible.

Elizabeth played by Marina Poplavskaya in the Met performance

Elizabeth played by Marina Poplavskaya in the Met performance

Lot’s of red could be found in one of my favorite operas – Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Red, gold and black – black was very fashionable in the Age of Valois, as the color of mourning and red for blood. The truth of Elizabeth’s life remains in conjecture. We know for sure she did not marry her true love, Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna in the opera), but was married to his father, King Philip. In the opera it was suggested there might have been a liaison with her real love – Elizabeth died tragically at an early age, in childbirth.

A Modern Diva Queen

A Modern Diva Queen

Here is the current Elizabeth – Marina Poplavskaya, as a blonde, but with a slight Valois resemblance.

Send comments to …….. I am presently working on a portrait of Elizabeth Valois; which historic portrait will I use as an example, maybe all of them.