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Spanish Gold, Piracy, and an English Portrait

/ July 25, 2019

The 1580s were an interesting time for the small, poor island country of England: threatened on all sides by mighty Spain, and ruled by a mere woman, a “virgin queen” no less. But Queen Elizabeth had a plan: use England’s excellent sailors, make piracy legal, get her ambitious countrymen to fund pirate fleets, and rob those Spanish treasure ships coming from the New World!

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This is the era of the NCMA’s Portrait of a Gentleman, or “Mr. Fancy Pants” as he is affectionately known inside the Museum. Fancy Pants is perhaps the most striking, yet enigmatic, of our early English portraits. The painting of an unknown sitter, once thought to be Sir Reginald Scott, invariably provokes discussion among specialists and the viewing public because of the bold costume and somewhat odd mix of painting materials and style. What is this flamboyant man’s story? Where does he come from, where is he going, and what is he trying to prove?

Elizabethan-era portraits are meant to project status and are strong on symbolism. The gentleman is shown in his best tournament attire, perhaps for one of the annual Accession Day tilts in honor of Queen Elizabeth. His extraordinary transparent sash, probably a very expensive lady’s favor, includes decorative motifs of the Tudor rose, pomegranates, snails, and insects. The yellow areas are rendered with real gold leaf and other details in silver.

The use of gold and silver leaf has confounded every specialist who has inspected the painting. Although it was common a generation or two earlier, the use of gold and silver had largely been left behind by the date of this work, circa 1590. Even though a sitter might be draped head toe with gold clothes, weapons, or jewelry, painters had learned to realistically and more cheaply depict that look with paint alone, as seen in the NCMA’s Portrait of a Man, possibly Sir Edward Stafford. Why would these old-fashioned materials and techniques be on the portrait of a fashion-forward man? It doesn’t make sense. Add to this the depiction of yards of red cloth, which is painted using cochineal. Cochineal, a dye from the Americas, was new to European artists and very expensive, but its color and intensity were unparalleled. The best painters and dyers in Europe were quickly putting it to good use, supplanting similar Old World dyes.

What do gold, silver, and cochineal have in common? They are the treasure the Spanish ships were bringing back from the New World. What a coincidence that all three are in our painting! But wait! Is it possible that the gold, silver, and cochineal are in our painting because they are the very things the English were stealing from the Spanish? Is it possible our painting contains pirate booty? Is our unknown gentleman a pirate captain or a pirate investor?

England’s pirate fleet was largely made up of privately owned armed ships funded by investors. They were made quasi-legal by a letter of marque from the Queen, with the profits split between the crown, investors, and crew. The ambitious elite of England, including our own city namesake Sir Walter Raleigh, competed to invest in ships with the best captains, such as Sir Francis Drake, to feast on the fat Spanish galleons. Many failed, with ruinous financial losses, but enough succeeded to make the dream of vast returns worth the risk.

If an investor or captain made the big score, wouldn’t he want everyone to know it? What better way to proclaim his status than through the well-established device of clothes and portraits to illustrate his success as a sea captain or investor, able financial supporter of England, and defender against Spain—and of course, to win the favor of Queen Elizabeth.

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