|Vicente López y Portaña (Spanish, 1772-1850)
Portrait of Richard Worsam Meade, 1815; Oil on canvas
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas.Museum purchase with funds generously provided by Linda P. and William A. Custard; Jack and Gloria Hammack; Richard and Gwen S. Irwin; Natalie H. and George T. Lee, Jr.; Mildred M. Oppenheimer; and Catherine B. Taylor.
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Surfacing on the art market in 2010, this monumental Portrait of Richard Worsam Meade by Vicente López y Portaña (1772–1850) is an unpublished work, and is arguably one of the most important portraits by the Spanish painter in his long and productive career.
Painted in 1815, the year that López was appointed Primer Pintor de Cámara to Ferdinand VII (r. 1808; 1813–1833), this portrait evidences López’s mastery of detail. His fastidious attention is visible in the intricately woven rug, the precisely replicated sphinx mounted on the writing desk, or through the articulation of the complex folds and textures of the sitter’s clothing. Together with López’s restraint of texture—altogether different from Goya’s impastoed surfaces—the emphasis on draughtsmanship and details displayed in this portrait speak to López’s Neoclassical bent.
Having served, before the reign of Ferdinand VII, as honorary court painter to King Charles IV (r. 1788–1808) alongside Goya, López was one of the greatest artists of the Spanish Enlightenment. Adept at painting a variety of subjects in diverse media from miniatures to fresco, López was best known as a portraitist. As this work shows, it was precisely the painter’s careful, almost hyperrealistic attention to detail and his sophisticated palette—in this portrait, the refined balance of the blue jacket, the saffron kerchief, and the gold chair cushion, all tonally echoed in the patterned rug—which made López such a highly sought-after portraitist.
Richard Worsam Meade (1778–1828) was a distinguished businessman with the means to secure a sitting with López, Spain’s premier portraitist. Following in the footsteps of his father, George Meade (1741–1808), who ran a trading business in Barbados, Richard Worsam Meade developed his own business of international trade around 1800 in his native Philadelphia. His business flourished, and he moved shortly thereafter with his wife, Margaret Coats Butler, to the Spanish port city of Cádiz, where he also served as U.S. Naval Agent and Consul. In this portrait, Meade’s thriving export business is implied by an abundance of books about commerce and history on his writing table and in a disheveled pile on the rug. The titles embossed on the bindings of some of these volumes are legible. For instance, two books on the rug are histories of Spain and America, symbolic of Meade’s international business endeavors and of his erudition; on his desk, a Tratado de Comercio [Commercial Trade Agreement] is stacked atop the Órdenes de Bilbao [Orders of Bilbao]. One of the papers on Meade’s desk appears to bear the image of the so-called Pillars of Hercules, which represent the cliffs of Ceuta and Gibraltar. The Pillars of Hercules were part of Spanish royal heraldry since the time of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–1556). The pillars were accompanied by the maxim Plus Ultra, meaning “further beyond,” implying the idea that the Spanish kingdom should expand beyond its boundaries into the New World. The emblem’s inclusion in López’s painting points not only to Meade’s symbiotic working relationship with Spain, but perhaps also suggests that Meade’s export business expanded beyond Gibraltar, historically considered to mark the Western boundary of the Old World.
In addition to his business endeavors, Meade assembled what was known as one of the greatest art collections in Spain at the time. Meade sometimes satisfied debts owed him by accepting works of art to add to his holdings, which included paintings by Titian, Correggio, Veronese, Rubens, Van Dyck, Velázquez, and Murillo. Meade was, in fact, the first American collector known to have owned a painting by Murillo. Caritas Romana, known through an engraving by López Enguídanos, was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1845 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where it had been on exhibit since at least 1814.
Unfortunately, Meade’s generosity ultimately led to his demise. Meade allowed Ferdinand VII and the Spanish Loyalist government to use both his ships and his wealth from his export company in support of the Napoleonic Wars. In the end, however, although Napoleon was defeated, Spain’s national treasury was left bare. When Meade requested his money back from the government to pay his own debts, Ferdinand VII placed him in the Castillo de Santa Catalina, a waterfront fort then used as a prison. Left destitute, his wife took their children back to Philadelphia to stay with relatives. In prison for two years, Meade turned to powerful contacts in the United States, who then placed the matter of his imprisonment before Congress. Speaker Henry Clay took up Meade’s cause, and at the threat of war, Ferdinand VII liberated Meade on 26 June 1818. While the United States gained Florida from the situation with the American businessman imprisoned in Cádiz, Meade was never able to recuperate his wealth. He died at the age of fifty in Washington, D.C., and was buried in his native Philadelphia.
In spite of the unfortunate financial circumstances in which Margaret Coats Butler Meade and her children were left, the Meade legacy of patriotism and pioneering spirit lived on through generations. Among Richard and Margaret’s eleven children figure naval Captain Richard Worsam Meade II (1807–1870), and Union General George Gordon Meade (1815–1872), both of whom were born in Cádiz, Spain. General Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, led the Union troops at Gettysburg (1863), one of the most important battles of the American Civil War.
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LOCATION: Meadows Museum, 5900 Bishop Blvd., Dallas, TX 75205
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