The mystery of Velazquez's 'Lady with a Fan': was she a fugitive French duchess?





With 13,000 advance tickets sold, the first substantial exhibition in Britain of the 17th-century Spanish master Velázquez, which opened yesterday, is certain to be a bigger draw for the National Gallery than any of its previous blockbusters - including Vermeer, Titian and Caravaggio.

But the work that is absorbing devotees of Spain's greatest painter and pre-eminent exponent of baroque is to be found a short distance across London, in the former French embassy building which houses the Wallace Collection. Here resides Velázquez's work Lady with a Fan (c1630-1650), which has been the source of long arguments over the identity of the elegant sitter who betrays the faintest hint of décollete.

The received wisdom is that she is one of the many Spanish courtesans painted by Velázquez during his 43 years as court painter for King Philip IV of Spain.

But a British art historian, Zahira Veliz Bomford, has presented a robust challenge, claiming the subject is an intelligent and feisty French aristocrat, Marie de Rohan-Montbazon, the Duchess of Chevreuse who was forced to flee France on horseback over the Pyreneesdisguised as a man after her volatile clashes with Louis XIII's minister Cardinal Richelieu endangered her life.

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