Laura Connor

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When wandering through the nineteenth-century galleries of Spanish museums such as El Prado in Madrid and the Reial Acadèmia Catalana de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi in Barcelona, the viewer might be struck by the proliferation of history paintings that feature dead, dying, or gravely injured monarchs who played major roles in shaping Spain and its regions: Eduardo Rosales’ Doña Isabel la Católica dictando su testamento (1864), the Catalan artist Claudi Lorenzale’s Origen de l’escut del comtat de Barcelona (1843-44), and Francisco Pradilla’s Doña Juana la Loca (1878) are but a few examples. Such paintings may seem puzzling when one considers that the nineteenth century, in Spain as elsewhere, was a period of intense debate that played out in literature, visual art, and political discourse on what constituted “the nation.” Such nation-building projects often involved mining the country’s history and legends to argue for a model of government that would and should shape the nation’s present and future. How, then, do images of death point towards a model of national rebirth? In the case of Rosales’ Isabel la Católica, the painter selected his theme only after deciding that a scene of the dying Catholic Queen was a more historically “transcendent” subject than the others he had considered, including the one immortalized, twelve years later, in Pradilla’s work, to which I will return at the end of this study. In the following article, I argue that Rosales’ work uses the circumstances of Isabella I’s death to meditate on her eponymous successor Isabella II’s role in contemporaneous politics. As such, Rosales’ work offers spectators a deeply ambivalent view of the monarchy in its modern form, inviting the public to participate in both political debates and artistic consumption.