This portrait is a full-length likeness of Philip II’s third wife, Queen Isabel de Valois. She wears a black gown with pointed sleeves and a long train that is curled around her body and billows at the back. Poking out from beneath her hanging sleeves, held in place with ruby and diamond buttons and lined in white fabric, are silver and gold undersleeves. The one-piece gown is decorated with applied velvet in different textures and shades of black and is fastened in the front with pearl toggles, which were given to the queen´s chief lady-in-waiting, the 3rd Duchess of Alba, after Isabel died. Her headdress consists of many jewels intertwined with her hair – which, according to reports, was styled this way almost on a daily basis. She also sports a necklace and a belt of diamonds and pearls.
The queen holds a miniature of her husband of the kind she commissioned from Alonso Sánchez Coello (c. 1531-1588) shortly after arriving at the Spanish court, such as one on silver that was sent to France. These miniatures were sometimes decorated with gold and coloured enamel in the manner of precious metal frames, like the one in the French queen’s hand. In it the king wears a black cassock adorned with buttons and the badge of the Golden Fleece hangs from a red silk ribbon around his neck – an image that recalls his portraits of the period as King of England. The inclusion of the miniature of Isabel’s husband in court costume has led some historians to associate the portrait with the role the queen played at the Conference of Bayonne in June 1565, where she held talks with her mother Catherine de´ Medici and her brother Charles IX, King of France, on behalf of Philip II. Sofonisba had previously painted the queen in 1561; that work, which may have been similar to the bust-length likeness executed during her Genoese period, now in Vienna, was held to be the finest of all of Isabel’s portraits.
Beside the young queen is a polychromed jasper column that is characteristic of these state portraits and alludes to her husband´s lineage. There also seems to have been a window -another portraiture device for evoking palace interiors- behind the queen. Still visible at the sides of the painting is the wooden frame with trompe l´oeil moulding that paired it with the portrait of Philip II at the Battle of Saint-Quentin executed by Anthonis Mor (c. 1516-1576) in 1557, which was moved to Valladolid in 1600 and is now lost.
The present portrait was attributed to Sánchez Coello until only recently. However, details such as the lead white ground have inclined scholars to ascribe it to Sofonisba. The X-radiographs also show pentimenti in the position of Philip II´s portrait and at the base of the column. There may originally have been a curtain in the background.
When Philip II died in 1598 it was described as being in the treasury of the Madrid Alcázar, protected by a blue taffeta curtain, as was common practice with many paintings in the royal collection. When Philip III moved the court to Valladolid, it was hung on the north wall of the gallery overlooking the garden in the royal palace in that city. In June 1606 Bartolomé Carducho (1560-1608) attributed it to Sánchez Coello. In 1636 it was chosen to decorate the Buen Retiro palace; its presence is documented there until after Charles III´s death and the number in white in the lower left corner relates to the 1794 inventory. At the time it appears to have still preserved the whole fictive wood frame, which was subsequently cut down at the upper and lower edges, possibly when it was restored in the nineteenth century. It entered the Royal Museum of Paintings in 1857.
Pérez de Tudela, Almudena, ‘Atribuido a Sofonisba Anguissola. Isabel de Valois sosteniendo un retrato de Felipe II’ En:. Historia de dos pintoras: Sofonisba Anguissola y Lavinia Fontana., Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado,, 2019, p.140-142 nº. 24