Isabella Clara Eugenia, painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1615, wears mostly fashionable attire for the early 17th century.

About the Portrait


eter Paul Rubens was a Flemish painter, as well as diplomat, who excelled in the Baroque era of painting (Vlieghe). He became so influential that an entire style of painting was formed and named after him called “Rubénisme” (Vlieghe). At the time of the painting Rubens resided in Antwerp as the official court painter for the governess and her husband, creating numerous works for them ranging from spiritual to recreational (Vlieghe).

The sitter is the daughter of Spanish King Philip II, Isabella Clara Eugenia. She was both Archduchess of Austria and the joint Sovereign of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands after her marriage to Archduke Albert (National Gallery). Her relationship with Rubens was more than that of a commissioner as he went on to become a trusted adviser to her after the Archduke passed away in 1621 (National Gallery).

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640). Portrait of the Infanta Isabella, 1615. Oil on canvas; 120.5 x 88.8 cm (47.4 x 35 in). London: National Gallery, NG3819. Bequeathed by Richard C. Jackson, 1923. Source: National Gallery

About the Fashion


he gigantic needle-lace platter-style ruff is the first and foremost element of Isabella’s outfit that pops out at the viewer. This intricately made collar is a callback from the 16th century that had carried over well into the 1640s, eventually evolving into flatter and softer variations (Hill 408). This applies to most fashion of the early 17th century according to fashion historian Daniel Delis Hill, who writes in The History of World Costume and Fashion (2011) that “at the beginning of the seventeenth century, women’s clothing retained many of the contours and design elements from the end of the previous century” (406). Both Margherita Gonzaga (Fig. 1) and the noblewoman in Serrano’s painting (Fig. 2) share this similar large, bulky collar design.

Companions of the lace ruff, the needle lace cuffs, are seen here as well. Their thin plate-like appearance doesn’t appear to be present in the current fashion however, only showing up in late 16th century outfits such as the one worn by Elizabeth I (Fig. 4) and a younger Isabella (Fig. 5). The preferred appearance seemed to be one that bent the cuffs back onto the forearm of the wearer, as demonstrated in Larkin’s painting (Fig. 3).

Isabella’s hair is curled and pulled back into a hairband which is decorated with floral elements. Similar hairstyles are seen in the portraits of Margherita (Fig. 1) and the noblewoman (Fig. 2), and the decorated hairband is a close match to the one worn by Margherita. Additionally all three women wear a pair of what appear to be teardrop shaped pearl earrings.

A few more prominent accessories of note are the cross, the lace-edged handkerchief, and the fan. The onyx and gold cross is also worn by the noblewoman (Fig. 2) and lines up with the religious environment in which Isabella lived. She and her husband commissioned several religious pieces from Rubens, who in turn was frequently commissioned by other wealthy patrons of the area for similar themed artworks (Vlieghe). As for the fan and handkerchief, these two seemed to be popular accessories to pose for paintings with and can be observed being held by the woman in Larkin’s painting (Fig. 3).

Margherita Gonzaga, Duchess of Lorraine

Fig. 1 - Frans Pourbus the Younger (Flemish, 1569 – 1622). Margherita Gonzaga, Duchess of Lorraine, 1606. Oil on canvas; 102 x 78 cm (40 3/16 x 30 11/16 in). Private Collection. Source: Alaintruong

Portrait of a Noblewoman

Fig. 2 - Bartolomé González y Serrano (Spanish, 1564-1627). Portrait of a Noblewoman, 1608-1623. Oil on canvas; 66 x 51 cm (26 x 20 in). Private Collection. Source: Tumblr

Lady Anne Sackville, Lady Beauchamp (1586–1664) or Frances Prynne or Prinne, Lady Seymour of Trowbridge (d.1626)

Fig. 3 - William Larkin (English, 1585 – 1619). Lady Anne Sackville, Lady Beauchamp (1586–1664) or Frances Prynne or Prinne, Lady Seymour of Trowbridge (d.1626), 1615. Oil on canvas; 211.5 x 132.1 cm (83 ¼ x 52 in). London: Petworth House and Park, West Sussex, NT 486187. Source: National Trust Collections

Portrait of Elizabeth I of England

Fig. 4 - Artist unknown. Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, 1595. Oil on panel; 89 × 63 cm (35 × 24.8 in). Private Collection. Source: Wikimedia

The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633), Archduchess of Austria

Fig. 5 - Frans Pourbus the Younger (Flemish, 1569 - 1622). The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633), Archduchess of Austria, 1598-1600. Oil on canvas; 217.5 x 131.0 cm (82.6 x 51.5 in). London: Queen's Gallery, RCIN 407377. Source: Royal Collection

Diagram of referenced dress features.
Source: Author

The gown Isabella wears is heavily decorated with what looks to be gold metallic lace. It also features Spanish hanging sleeves which were another element that withstood the test of time (Hill 406). Margherita (Fig. 1) is shown wearing her own pair of hanging sleeves and likewise has similar intricate lacing woven into her gown. It is also likely that underneath the gown Isabella wore a Spanish farthingale which could have been seen as slightly archaic compared to the newer and wider tilted-wheel farthingales which, as Valerie Cumming notes in A Visual History of Costume: The Seventeenth Century (1983), “encased the lower halves of their bodies like enormous cages.” (14)

While Isabella’s ensemble generally suits early 17th century fashions, that wouldn’t be the case for the majority of this time period. Costume, both male and female, would soon go through numerous changes in appearance, as François Boucher explains in 20,000 Years of Fashion: the History of Costume and Personal Adornment (1987):

“The essential characteristics of Baroque – disdain for restraint and an accentuated taste for liberty, a search for oppositions and movement, abundant details – are to be found in clothing, which abandoned its former symmetry and balance and, escaping to a greater or lesser degree from Reformation and Counter-Reformation coldness, was attracted by experiment, singularities and exaggerations which went as far as the preciosity of cannons and petticoat breeches.” (251)

Indeed the later invention of garments like the mantua, a loose gown that has its roots in informal nightgowns (Cumming 14) supports the above statement. In other words the rigidity of Isabella’s gown, collar, sleeves and farthingale would soon pass out of fashion in the second half of the 17th century.