The daughters of King Phillip of Spain, the infantas Isabella and Catalina, had their portraits painted many times throughout their girlhoods, almost always in the same type of dress. In this image by Coello, the sisters almost appear to be twins, with very little variation in appearance. Their costumes are opulent and stiff, clothing for grownups, but made to contain princesses.
These girls had tremendous royal pedigrees and grew up in a time of high intrigue. It is well documented through letters that the princesses had a secure and supportive relationship with their father, which was not typical of the time, when most kings were interested only in their male heirs.
Isabella, although betrothed at age two, ended up marrying her fiancé’s younger brother Albert, and they eventually ruled the Spanish Netherlands together. It was during this time she was painted by the famous peter Paul Rubens. Catarina became the Duchess of Savoy and bore ten children.
As the court painter, it was Coello’s job to render portraits of the Royal family. His talent was rewarded with a long-standing personal friendship with the king. In this portrait of the princesses, it is generally believed that Coello intended to reference the Arnolfini Wedding portrait by Jan van Eyck, which had come into the Spanish Royal Collection.
While there are some visual similarities, (their pose, holding hands and the directions of each sister’s gaze), the meaning has no bearing since these are sisters not newlyweds. He does, however, beautifully capture the stoicism and grandeur expected of princesses whose destinies are planned if not fated.