José María Casado de Alisal was born in Villada, near Palencia, in 1832. He trained at the School of Drawing in Palencia and then at the School of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, where he was a pupil of Federico Madrazo. In 1855 he managed to obtain a pensioner’s grant in Rome, thanks to his biblical subject The Resurrection of Lazarus.
History painting between Palencia, Rome and Paris
Rome, where he stayed for five years, was a fundamental stage in his artistic development. In 1860, he was awarded the first class prize Last Moments of Fernando IV, which tells the story of the strange death of King Ferdinand IV of Castile. Painted by José María Casado del Alisal in Rome, the painting is one of the most significant examples of the influence of Nazarene painting on the artist’s work during his Roman period, which he would soon abandon in favour of a strongly realist interpretation.
This transition took place when the painter decided to move to France, to Paris, where he devoted himself to other history paintings, including The Oath of the Cortes of Cadiz. An elegant formalism and precious colours characterise The Surrender of Bailén, from 1864. In it, José María Casado de Alisal reworks Velázquez’s painting and moves towards a vivid realism that he applies to Spanish historical themes. It depicts the capitulation of Napoleon’s French army to the Spanish troops after the first major defeat suffered by the invaders near Bailén in July 1808. In composing this famous scene, the artist pays clear homage to Velázquez’s The Surrender of Bailén, not only in the theme, but also in the style and distribution of the characters.
Directing the Spanish Academy in Rome
On his return to Rome, he was appointed director of the Spanish Academy of Fine Arts in Rome until 1881, the year in which he exhibited his most important painting, The Legend of the Monk King or The Bell of Huesca, which is also one of the most identifiable canvases of all Spanish history painting, based on the bloody episode in which Ramiro II, King of Aragon, punished the Aragonese nobles who had rebelled against his authority by cutting their throats and forming a gigantic bell with their heads.
To the author’s surprise, the painting was not awarded a medal, but only an honourable mention. This led him to resign as director of the Spanish Academy. He returned to Spain and died there a few years later in 1886. During his French and Roman years, however, José María Casado de Alisal not only devoted himself to historical subjects, but also to genre painting and portraits, mainly of women. Examples are Tirana, Portrait of a Lady with a Cape and Lady with a Fan, which are conserved in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
The Female Portrait of 1878 features an attractive young woman with a slightly recumbent face enhanced by a soft chiaroscuro effect that defines the eyes and lips. What strikes the eye is the background of a bright green damask curtain that makes the Spanish master’s image even more seductive and offers a very elegant contrast to the dress decorated with little roses, which also adorn the dark hair. Casado, playing with the atmospheric lighting of the portrait, skilfully conveys the precious play of light on the cerulean silk of the lace-embellished dress.