A girl with a white face gazes at the audience outside the frame. She has multiple bows attached to the wig she is wearing. It looks excessively decorated and heavy. The girl bearing the heavy weight of the wig is Maria Theresa, a daughter of Philip IV of Spain. Why is the princess wearing such a heavy wig?
Diego Velazquez is a well-known painter of the 17th-century Spanish Golden Age. He served as a royal painter for Philip IV and painted portraits of many royal family members. Theresa, the model of the painting, became a successor to the throne at the age of eight. Spanish royal families often had disabilities or died at young ages, possibly due to intermarriages. Theresa’s mother passed away at a young age and her older brother, the only royal heir, also died suddenly in his teens. Theresa was an official successor to the Spanish throne before her older cousin married her father and gave birth to a son.
The painting was made when she was about 13, getting close to the marriageable age. As royal families of European countries that wished to form marital relationships with the Spanish royal family wanted Theresa’s portraits, Velazquez had to make several portraits of her for her potential husbands. The wig adorned with bows is a tool to promote the princess. While it differs by culture, bows symbolize transformation, hope, joy, love, spirit, and young women. In particular, bows on a wig of a young girl signaled fertility. The original painting was made to feature her from her bust but the bottom part was cut off to emphasize her head.
Theresa became the queen of France by marrying her cousin Louis XIV in 1660. She gave birth to a crown prince and had two sons and three girls additionally but all of her children, except the crown prince, died before the age of five. As Louis XIV had a number of mistresses, she lived a lonely life before she passed away at the age of 44. The heavy wig with bows only symbolized the weight of power she had to endure for her entire life and did not bring love or happiness.