1877. Oil on canvas, 340 x 500 cm.
Padilla painted this, his absolute masterpiece, at the age of twenty-nine, and it directly led to his international fame as an artist. It is the most superb visual presentation of a subject with which he was obsessed throughout his life and in its capacity to sum up all of the ingredients of its genre, it may well surpass all other 19th-century history paintings. In effect, the canvas offers the most beautiful romantic view of the figure of Queen Joan I of Castile (1479-1555), a figure whose life combines the dignity of her condition as a queen with aspects particularly attractive to the 19th-century mind, including the gripping passion of unrequited love, insanity provoked by lovesickness, boundless jealousy and necrophilia. Painted in Rome as the third work to justify Padilla's pension at the Spanish Academy there, it was publicly exhibited in that city in May 1877, garnering a degree of acclaim that was only the beginning of its subsequent triumph. Painted with the extraordinary mastery that Pradilla demonstrated throughout his career, it is undoubtedly one of the most captivating and striking works of its genre, which largely explains its deserved fame and resounding success at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1878.
The young queen powerfully dominates the scene from the center of the composition. She stands in front of an unadorned folding chair that is covered with a cushion, dressed, as corresponds to her condition as a widow, in a thick black velvet dress and a headdress that hides her hair. Her gaze is completely mad and her presentation in profile shows that her pregnancy with the infanta Catalina de Austria (1507-1578) is quite advanced. Her small and fragile left hand bears the two wedding rings that allude to her widowhood. Unaffected by the extreme cold in the desolate setting where she has stopped with her retinue -the smoking fire behind her does little to reduce it- she watches over the casket of her beloved husband, who died on September 25, 1506. The casket bears the imperial coat of arms and rests on a simple stretcher whose handles are so worn that they shine. Two large mortuary candles burn at the head of the casket but they are practically extinguished by the wind that also carries the smoke from the fire as it blows across the barren landscape. A young lady in waiting sits beside the coffin with an open prayer book on her lap. She carefully watches the queen with patient resignation while a monk in white robes and a hood that practically covers his bearded face reads a prayer and holds a smaller candle. To the right of the queen, huddled around the fire or alongside a naked tree trunk, the courtiers that accompany her on this funereal journey attempt to assuage their weariness. Their faces reflect a mixture of fatigue, boredom and compassion for their queen's madness. Two standing courtiers and a lady wearing in a luxurious brocade dress watch her expectantly. The monastery in the background to the right is where the queen expressed her ire when she discovered it was run by nuns. And on the left, the rest of her retinue approaches from afar as night makes its initial appearance in the completely overcast sky.
In this painting, Pradilla demonstrates his absolute mastery of outdoor settings and his rhythmic and perfectly balanced sense of composition. Here, he structures the composition as an x, enveloping it in the full atmosphere of an outdoor scene. His development of this scenario and his special decorative instinct for depicting its different accessory elements reflect his youthful studies with set painter Mariano Pescador. That same decorative instinct is present in his treatment of the clothing, and even more so, of the landscape and atmosphere that reinforce the narrative's emotional tension, which is also underlined by the figures' expressive intensity. The highly realistic presentation is rendered with a confident, vigorous execution marked by an exact and accurate touch that pays close attention to its defined and rigorous drawing. And yet, the technique is free and rich in paint, reflecting a fully pictorial and eminently personal language that came to be known as the Pradilla Style in its time, but actually belongs to the international realism then in vogue in history painting throughout Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century and unconditionally followed by most history painters in those years (Text drawn from Díez, J. L.: El Siglo XIX en el Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2007, pp. 238-244).