Michelle Vaughan’s GIFs are part of Backcross the Empire, an ongoing project exploring the court portraits, history and genetics of the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties.
The grand court paintings of Titian, Mor, Coello, Rubens, VelÃ¡zquez, Mazo and CarreÃ±o extolled the strength of Europe’s monarchies, but in reality the families all had a fatal weakness: Their intermarrying during the 16th and 17th centuries, strategically designed to consolidate power across Europe, was ultimately self-defeating.
In two successive papers, published in 2009 and 2013, Spanish geneticists Gonzalo Alvarez and Francisco Ceballos found that these Habsburgs showed perhaps the highest inbreeding levels in European history. Some had levels higher than if a brother and sister produced offspring. Consanguineous marriages not only doubled the rate of infant and child mortality, but also, in the case of King Charles II, was unable to produce an heir and too weak to properly rule as king. He died at age 38, ending Habsburg power in Spain forever.
Diego VelÃ¡zquez was the primary court painter for King Philip IV (1605-1665); his apprentices, Juan CarreÃ±o de Miranda and Juan Bautista MartÃnez del Mazo, followed after his death. Their portraits of the family served many different purposes: they were symbols of power, political propaganda, gifts to family members, neighboring courts, and the families of potential spouses. Some have become timeless, iconic portraits.
What happens when we look at these works through a new lens? If we pair each sitter with an inbreeding coefficient, do we see the portrait in a new light?
In her comprehensive project, which includes also digital prints and drawings, artist Michelle Vaughan revisits these deeply familiar portraits. In Backcross The Empire in The Window at 125, Vaughan examines the iconography and physiognomy of the Habsburg court portraits through rotating GIFs made from images compiled from the web, where sizes vary and images are invariably copies of copies.
The series begins with Spanish King Philip II and his fourth wife (and niece), Anna of Austria. The portraits combine unions of uncles, nieces and first cousins. For example, the GIF of Infanta Margarita and Charles II, who are siblings, share the same inbreeding coefficient which potentially could be the second highest number in European history.
Without an heir, Spanish King Charles II was the last of the Habsburgs to rule in Spain. The final GIF overlaps the Bourbon French King Louis XIV with his grandson, Philip V, who would become the next king of Spain. With his ascension to the throne, the Habsburg line of Spanish monarchs was forever ended.
Michelle Vaughan is a visual artist and received her BFA at UCLA in 1994. She was born in 1971 in Anaheim, California and lives in New York City. In addition to her studio work, she has produced temporary installations in public settings surrounding topics such as science, history and politics. Solo shows have been exhibited at Dumbo Art Center and the South Street Seaport, where she was awarded fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation of the Arts for Sea Warriors: A Public Art Project, in 2009. She is currently producing a portrait series on the Spanish Habsburgs.
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The Window at 125
The Introducing Series, Season 6
Presented by Blair Brooks
125 East 47th St