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What Lies Beneath: Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, clothed by Juan Carreno de Miranda

Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, clothed by Juan Carreno de Miranda Oil on canvas, c. 1680. Museo Nacional del Prado


Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, clothed by Juan Carreno de Miranda

Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, clothed by Juan Carreno de Miranda

Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, clothed by Juan Carreno de Miranda

In Agatha Christie's The Hollow, though a dead body by her swimming pool disrupts Lady Angkatell's luncheon party, she looks forward, later, to Cook's pudding, Ni**er in His Shirt, a chocolate and whipped cream concoction. No asterisks.

Back in 1946, did anyone think the term outrageous? The politically-correct, 21st Century ear and eye are so fine-tuned that it wouldn't happen today.

This strange, insensitive portrait by Spanish artist Juan Carreno de Miranda is another regrettable example of what was once acceptable.

In 1680, a six-year-old girl, Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, from Barcenas in northern Spain was brought to Madrid as a curiosity and her appearance caused astonishment at court.

She weighed 70kg and proved such a fascinating spectacle that two portraits of her were commissioned by Charles II - one clothed, one naked

Both paintings hang today, side by side, in Madrid's Museo del Prado, just two among the 7,600 paintings in its collection. The museum's most famous work, Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas (1656), also unsettles for its inclusion of the achondroplastic dwarf Maria Barbola as a curiosity.

In 16th and 17th Century Spain, people with physical and mental differences were seen as interesting oddities. Las Meninas was painted during the reign of Philip IV who had more than 100 dwarves among his retinue.

In contemporary accounts of Eugenia's portrait we're told that the king "has ordered that she be attired decorously, in the style of the palace, in a sumptuous dress with red and white brocade and silver buttons". In the nude portrait, there are discreetly placed vine leaves and the grapes in her hand and in her hair portray her as Bacchus, god of wine.

Another description of her from 1680 tells us that her thighs were "so very thick and fleshy that they ride upon the other and conceal from sight her private parts".

The clothed version has her looking unhappy and uncomfortable. The poor kid.

Someone thought it a good idea that she should hold an apple in her left hand. Its rosy colour matches the ornate dress - but her awkward hold on it adds to an overall feeling of discomfort. Eugenia suffered from what we now call Cushing's or Prader-Willi syndrome. That no monarch today would commission such a portrait of someone so unfortunate proves we've come some way,

In 1827 the clothed portrait -cruelly known as La Monstrua/The Monster - in the royal collection was given to the Prado. The nude version joined it in 1939.

Juan Carreno de Miranda, creator of both portraits, was born in Aviles in Asturias, not far from where Eugenia was born. His father, also called Juan was a painter and the family moved to Madrid when Juan the younger was nine.

In 1671, aged 57, he was appointed court painter but refused a knighthood, declaring that "painting needs no honours".

He painted many church frescoes, many portraits of the royal family but his images of Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, painted when she was six, when he was 66, just five years before he died in 1671 still cause a stir.

As she stood there and posed, Eugenia never imagined that she would be stared at, never imagined that she would one day adorn T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, phone cases, shower curtains, bath towels, duvets and yoga mats.

The viewer passes by many works in the Prado but will stand before these two showstoppers and wonder why.

Sunday Indo Living