Portraits of Spaniards and the Independence of the United States

The fine arts have always provided an excellent means of popularizing historical events; in that sense, Spain’s contribution to the independence of the United States and the war with England in the reign of Charles III has left a substantial gallery of Spaniards – of varying ranks and backgrounds – who deserve to be remembered for their role in helping the American rebels of the Thirteen Colonies to achieve their aims. These figures are immortalized, for the most part, in somber formal portraits, many in the Neoclassical style that emerged in Europe around 1750, underpinned by a new aesthetic order which sought to reflect Enlightenment principles and portray the sitters as moral exemplars. Such portraits were usually commissioned from painters trained in the new official Academies, a practice which continued throughout the 19th century, although aesthetic preferences changed over the years, tending at first towards Romanticism and later towards Realism. In other cases, artists opted to prioritize the documentary function of their paintings, and focused on producing solemn history paintings which provided a visual narrative of major political or military events.

The Museo de Pontevedra is home to a small canvas entitled Declaration of War on England in 1779, painted by Gregorio Ferro Requeijo in 1788. The artist, a native of Santa María de Lamas (La Coruña), moved to Madrid as a young man, to study at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, of which he would later be appointed director. Despite training under Anton Raphael Mengs, a leading Neoclassical painter and a favorite of Charles III, Ferro’s works sometimes convey a lightness of touch and a sense of atmosphere far removed from his master’s teachings; both features are particularly apparent in this small cabinet picture, in which the ministers of War and the Navy – the Count of Ricla and the Marquis of Castejón – are shown receiving the king's orders to declare war on England. Ferro painted four further small-format pictures that year, depicting scenes from the American War of Independence. These five war paintings constitute the first, if not the only, example of a series in this genre in eighteenth-century Spain.

War was something that José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca and the first Spanish Secretary of State, had always been anxious to avoid. The minister, a key figure in Spanish foreign policy, had secretly been channeling aid to the American rebels for some time, hoping by such discretion to avert a direct confrontation with England. His efforts, however, proved futile, and on 22 June 1779 Spain declared war on England; the conflict ended in 1783 with the signing of a peace treaty at Versailles, which recognized the independence of the Thirteen Colonies as the United States of America.

That same year, Francisco de Goya was commissioned – twice – to paint Floridablanca wearing the sash and grand cross of the Order of Charles III, awarded on 28 March 1783. These were Goya’s first official portraits, and gave him an early entrée to the royal court, through the good offices of the Secretary of State. Both paintings are in Madrid, one in the Bank of Spain and the other in the Prado Museum. In the first, Floridablanca is wearing a formal costume in red. To his left, Goya has included a self-portrait – a young artist seeking his client’s approval for a sketch of the commissioned work, a practice customary in many commissions. The figure standing behind the Count is thought to be Francisco Sabatini, and a portrait of Charles III hangs on the wall. The painting has sometimes been seen as an allegory of Good Governance, a reading which would certainly account for the presence of the king alongside a minister surrounded by attributes, including the clock, a symbol of temperance. In the Prado portrait, the Prime Minister is again formally attired, this time in shades of blue and silver, and holds a paper alluding to the founding of the Bank of San Carlos, one of the financial innovations of the Enlightenment. The document is in fact a report by the king’s advisor, Cabarrús, whose portrait we shall be looking at later.

The Floridablanca portraits, albeit early works, provided the starting point for Goya’s successful career in Madrid. From that moment on, his prestige as a portrait painter grew daily; he is, indeed, among the painters who produced most portraits of figures sympathetic to the American rebel cause. Although Goya began his training within the eighteenth-century tradition, he always favored a highly-personal interpretation of Neoclassical principles, which reflected his keen interest in conveying not only the sitter’s physical appearance and social status, but also his character and personality. Shortly afterwards, Goya’s mastery of this personal approach was displayed in his portrait of the Minister of Finance, Miguel de Múzquiz y Goyeneche, who back in 1779 had advocated the creation of a national bank as a means of ensuring financial support for the State during the war against England. Múzquiz had met Goya before the Floridablanca portraits were commissioned, and may himself have chosen Goya to produce this official portrait, though perhaps on the advice of the minister.

The Bank of San Carlos, founded in 1783, was the first Spanish national bank to issue paper money printed in Spain. Afterwards, thanks to Floridablanca’s support, Goya was commissioned to paint portraits of several of the bank’s directors, the last in the series being his 1788 portrait of Francisco de Cabarrús, the first director. Cabarrús’ financial skills had put him on good terms with both Floridablanca and Aranda. Once Spain had entered the war, Cabarrús openly supported the American rebels: in 1780 he issued Royal Bonds backed by the first Secretary of State, together with other public debt securities, with a view to defraying war expenses. In Goya’s portrait, Cabarrús is placed against a dark, undefined background reminiscent of Velázquez’s work, in a pose widely associated with public speaking; he is wearing a bright costume in green silk with gold highlights, colors traditionally symbolizing money and wealth. Watch charms hang from his waistcoat, and a rapier hilt is visible under his jacket. One hand is thrust into the jacket, a gesture defining him – according to the portrait iconography of the time – as an intellectual.

Another leading Spanish figure who lent support and aid to the American rebel cause was Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea, 10th Count of Aranda. In 1769, the young Aragonese painter Ramón Bayeu was commissioned to paint his portrait – later to be hailed as one of his finest works, now on permanent loan to the Museum of Huesca. Aranda was then fifty years old, and was president of the Council of Castile. Four years after the portrait was painted, the king appointed him Spanish ambassador to Paris, a posting that coincided with the rebellion of the Thirteen colonies in America. His support for the rebels was never less than explicit: first through indirect aid channeled discreetly through private traders – after all, he had no wish to see rebel ideas spreading to Spain’s American colonies – but later through vocal support for Spain’s involvement in the war against England. After the war, he took part in drafting the peace treaty, and signed it on behalf of Spain.

In Bayeu’s composition, despite echoes of the French Baroque – especially apparent in the ornate background drapery – the drawing and use of color point to the nascent influence of Mengs, with whom Bayeu had been working since 1765 on tapestries for the Real Fábrica de Santa Bárbara. Aranda poses in an interior setting, against a background of columns and drapery opening onto a landscape. He is dressed in the uniform of a captain general, with half armor under his blue coat, and wears the ribbon of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The objects placed around him allude to his various occupations: the cannon, shell and bullet identify him as an artillery officer, while the fortification plans, books, pencil, ruler and compass refer to his prowess as a military engineer. In the background, a globe symbolizes his role as ambassador to various European nations, and the legend below summarizes his virtues.

Before Spain declared war on England, the Minister of the Indies José de Gálvez y Gallardo, alert to the potential consequences of an uprising in the English colonies for Spanish foreign policy, instructed the governor of Havana to set up a network of strategically-placed agents to report on all developments. He also appointed his nephew Bernardo de Gálvez as governor of Louisiana; as we shall see, Bernardo was to play a vital role in the conflict, and one of his duties as governor was to channel secret aid to the Continental Army. Mexico’s National History Museum holds a portrait of José de Gálvez by an unknown artist, painted in 1785. Portrayed with all the neoclassical solemnity of the period, he stands in his study, wearing the Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III and pointing to a map. The map itself is referred to in the letter he is holding, which reads: “My lord, I am pleased to enclose for your lordship’s attention a plan of the fortified settlement of Panzagola, Surrendered to the King’s Arms on 8th inst., which cheering news \[…\] to His Majesty. I am, Sir, your humble servant. PLAN of the Port of Panzagola, scale in miles.” That same year, the king granted him the title of Marquis of Sonora.

Logistical aid to the American rebels was greatly facilitated by the Basque merchant Diego María de Gardoqui, who arranged for the secret shipment of arms and supplies through his company Gardoqui e Hijos, whose boats operated between Bilbao and the American coasts. After the war, Gardoqui was appointed the Kingdom of Spain’s first official envoy to the United States, a post he held from 1784 to 1789; as the King’s envoy, he was able to attend the swearing-in of George Washington as the first president, at a ceremony held in New York in April 1789. During his stay in Philadelphia, he is known to have sat for a portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, now lost. However, his descendants have preserved a superb miniature portrait, painted in 1795 on a later visit to Turin. Portrait miniatures, though recorded in Spain as early as the 16th century, became very popular during the latter half of the 18th century, because they showcased the sitter and could be enjoyed in private; seen as luxury items, they were regarded as highly-prized gifts in court and diplomatic circles. From 1760 onwards, coinciding with the accession of Charles III, the most sought-after miniatures were painted on ivory, although they could also be made on vellum, copper, paper or porcelain.

The Army Museum in Toledo holds a small-format likeness of another leading Spanish figure in the American War of Independence: a miniature equestrian portrait of Bernardo de Gálvez against a landscape background, his horse trampling a red flag captured from the British. This anonymous portrait, painted in around 1781, came to Spain with one of the flags captured by Gálvez during his campaigns. In 1776, Gálvez had been made colonel of the Fixed Regiment of Louisiana, stationed at New Orleans; one year later, as newly-appointed Governor of Louisiana, he organized a military force aimed at countering the potential British threat against Spanish territories and at helping the American rebel cause; in 1780 and 1781, he led campaigns against British troops in the Gulf of Mexico, where the taking of Mobile and Pensacola contributed to the successful outcome of the Revolution. The Historic New Orleans Collection boasts another, larger, portrait of Gálvez, whose remarkably natural pose suggests that it may have been painted from life. In this almost half-length foreground portrait by an unknown artist, Gálvez is wearing the field-marshal’s uniform he used in the American campaigns.

On his return to Spain in 1784, Gálvez was summoned by the government to advise on issues relating to American boundaries and free navigation on the Mississippi. During his stay in Madrid, he sat for a portrait now attributed to Mariano Salvador Maella or his workshop. At the time, Maella – then a keen advocate of the Neoclassical style – had just completed one of his finest pieces, Portrait of Charles III in the Robes of his Order, and was among the most sought-after Spanish painters of the time. The portrait shows Gálvez dressed in his new uniform of Lieutenant General and wearing the cross of the Order of Charles III. Both his military promotion and the distinguished decoration came in the wake of his victories in the Gulf of Mexico. He holds a letter from his father, Matías de Gálvez, congratulating him on his American success, but at the same time reminding him that every victory achieved is due first to God, and then to the king. The bicorne lying on the table bears the red cockade of the Spanish army. The painting belongs to a Spanish private collection.

In 2014, Bernardo Gálvez was made an honorary citizen of the United States, the highest distinction awarded to a foreigner, and a copy of the portrait attributed to Maella – painted by the Málaga artist Carlos Monserrate – now hangs on the wall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee room, thus implementing a resolution passed on 9 May 1783, that a portrait of Gálvez be displayed in the Capitol in recognition of his heroic feats, which made a crucial contribution to the United States’ victory over Britain.

In the 21st century, to showcase Gálvez’s legendary achievements in the American Revolution, the contemporary Spanish artist Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau recovered the old tradition of history painting, producing two highly-realistic large-format war scenes, in which uniforms, equipment and weapons are handled with a remarkable attention to detail. In these paintings, action, movement and landscape are strongly highlighted.

The first, entitled For Spain and for the King, depicts a British attack on Spanish positions around Pensacola in 1781. Bernardo de Gálvez, in the uniform of a field marshal, stands at the center of the composition, surrounded by his troops, right in the firing line. In the background, British soldiers flee the battlefield, leaving their dead – and their flag – behind them. With this victory, Spanish forces gained control of Florida and weakened the British presence in America.The painting, produced in 2015/16, now hangs in the Army Museum in Toledo. The second war scene, Gálvez’s March, was painted in 2018 for the Recovered Memories exhibition, organized by Iberdrola in New Orleans. It records an event that took place in 1779, when Bernardo de Gálvez led America’s first multiracial army – made up of Spaniards, free African Americans, Choctaw Indians, Canadians and American volunteers – in an attack on British defense posts along the Mississippi. The army faced a difficult march over swampy riverside terrain, pushing gunboats loaded with cannon which were used, weeks later, to capture the forts at Natchez and Baton Rouge. The artist admirably conveys the dampness of the setting.

Gálvez’s achievements involved other figures, who have also been immortalized on canvas. They include the naval officer José Solano y Bote, whose squadron provided offshore protection for military operations during the siege of Pensacola; as a reward for his valor, he was promoted to lieutenant general and received the title of Marquis of Socorro. A portrait in Madrid’s Naval Museum shows Solano in the uniform of lieutenant general, wearing the insignia of a Knight of the Order of Santiago; in the historical scene providing the background to this narrative portrait, Solano’s squadron is shown entering Pensacola Bay. It was painted, by an unknown artist, in the late 18th century.

The Artillery Academy in Segovia houses a portrait of Gálvez's chief advisor in America, the Navarre-born army officer José Ezpeleta Galdiano, who – at the head of the Navarre Regiment – took part in the West Florida campaign, in which the settlements of Mobile and Pensacola were recaptured from the British. In the portrait, he is seated in an undefined interior, beside an elegant escritoire. The picture, produced by Valencia artist Eduardo Carceller in 1879, was modelled on a portrait of Ezpeleta painted years earlier by a fellow Valencian, Agustín Esteve. Carceller trained at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Carlos in Valencia, and later moved to Madrid to study under Federico de Madrazo, a leading exponent of the official Romantic style. After settling in Navarre in 1870, he began to play a prominent role in the local cultural scene, both as a teacher and as a painter, becoming the official portraitist of Pamplona society between 1880 and 1920. It was during this period that he was commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of Ezpeleta, who had died in 1823. Given his nineteenth-century academic training and his teaching work, he never abandoned the rigid academic conventions of the time, remaining steadfastly loyal to the figurative, realist tradition.

Francisco de Saavedra was another Spaniard who helped to secure the independence of the American colonies. Appointed Charles III’s special envoy to America, he was entrusted with the task of providing resources for Gálvez’s campaigns, and later supplied considerable economic aid to the French fleet, essential for the final victory at the Battle of Yorktown. In 1798, 15 years after the war, Francisco de Goya painted what was to be hailed as one of his finest portraits, now hanging in the Courtauld Gallery in London. That year, Goya was completing a series of small-format paintings for the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, and at the same time working on the frescoes in the chapel of San Antonio de la Florida, a royal commission which may have been facilitated by his friendship with Francisco de Saavedra, by then at the height of his power as Minister of Finance and later as Minister of State. The work was actually commissioned by the Minster of Justice, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, himself a shrewd art collector. The portrait shows Saavedra in his study, seated in a natural pose, at a table covered with papers and an inkstand; he is dressed in a blue frock-coat and matching waistcoat, white shirt, velvet trousers and silk stockings. He wears the cross of the Order of Charles III, awarded in 1782. There is another contemporary version of the portrait at the Royal College of Sacromonte in Granada, whose records show that negotiations with Goya regarding the commission took place in Granada, with a view to creating a gallery of portraits of illustrious members of the College. The Sacromonte version would appear to be a workshop replica, in which the color of the clothing has been modified. The extent of Goya’s involvement in this second portrait remains unclear, although he was paid from Granada for an autograph work.

Admiral Luis de Córdova y Córdova was appointed director general of the Spanish Navy on 7 February 1780, at the height of the American War of Independence. A few months later, commanding a combined Franco-Spanish squadron off Cape Santa Maria, north of the Azores, he captured an English convoy of more than fifty-five ships carrying supplies bound for the Indies. The following year, in the English channel, he captured another English convoy of twenty-four ships headed for America. These two defeats caused serious logistical problems for the British army in America. A portrait in Madrid’s Naval Museum, painted in the late 18th century by an unknown artist, shows Luis de Córdova in the dress uniform of a Captain General, common to the army and the navy; he wears the cross and insignia of the Order of Calatrava, as well as the sash and grand cross of the Order of Charles III. To the sitter’s left, a vignette lists his achievements. This is a formal, academic, direct portrait of a high-ranking career officer, and conveys the solemn air reserved for figures enjoying high social status.

In bringing to a close this gallery of portraits of Spaniards who contributed to the independence of the United States, it should be stressed that by no means all the sitters were politicians or high-ranking officers. The Denver Art Museum holds an anonymous painting with a rather unusual format: the canvas is mounted not on the traditional stretcher but on two gilt wood rods, like a parchment scroll, enabling it to be rolled up for travel. Thanks to his uniform, the subject of this oil painting, produced in around 1783, has been identified as Antonio Clemente Aróstegui, a captain in the Aragon Infantry Regiment, who sailed from Cádiz to take part in Gálvez’s Pensacola campaign. He is holding a letter addressed to Gálvez, described as: “General of the Operational Army, at the F\[ort\] of La Cabaña \[Havana\]”. The cross of the Order of Santiago is embroidered on his jacket, with a matching pendant, while his belt buckle bears the royal insignia of the Order of Charles III. The Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans has a portrait of Salamanca-born Ignacio de Balderes, a second lieutenant of grenadiers in the Second Battalion of the Fixed Regiment of Louisiana, who fought with Gálvez in the Mississippi and Florida campaigns. The portrait, painted in around 1790, has been attributed to José Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza, a Yucatán artist who trained at the Academia de la Ciudad de México. It retains Salazar’s distinctive reddish background layer, and the formal, rather inexpressive pose characteristic of colonial portraits, which prompted a degree of psychological detachment. Salazar moved to Louisiana in 1784, and over the next eighteen years painted almost fifty portraits of leading figures in Spanish New Orleans society, army officers, merchants and their families. Today, he is widely regarded as the best 18th-century Spanish portraitist in America; most of his work is to be found in American collections.


Floridablanca, la sombra del rey, exhibition catalogue (Murcia, 2019). Palacio Almudí, Sala Verónicas, Murcia. CENDEAC. Guerrero Acosta, J. (coord.) Recovered memories, Spain and the Support for the American Revolution, exhibition catalogue (New Orleans, 2018). The Cabildo (Louisiana State Museum). Iberdrola, S.A. José M.ª Muruzábal del Solar. El pintor Eduardo Carceller: contribuciones al estudio de su figura y de su obra. Príncipe de Viana,Año nº 75, Nº 259, 2014. Institución Fernando El Católico. Goya y su contexto. International Seminar, Zaragoza, 2011. Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale. Sellers, C., & Peale, C. (1952). Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 42(1)

La Habana George Washington Arthur Lee Fernando de Leyba Marblehead John Jay Bilbao Oliver Pollock El Conde de Aranda José Solano y Bote El Conde de Floridablanca México Francisco de Miranda Nueva Orleans José Antonio George Farragut Pensacola Bernardo de Gálvez Mobile Juan Miralles San Luis Bárbara de Arias Macharaviaya Diego Gardoqui Nueva York