Posthumous portrait of Princess Maria Louisa (1870–1899), commissioned by Prince Ferdinand and painted by Ivan Mrkvička, the Bulgarian artist of Czech origin.
Princess Maria Louisa was the daughter of Duke Robert I of Parma and Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. On 8 April 1893, she married Prince Ferdinand at the Villa Pianore, Italy. Maria Louisa died on 30 January 1899 after the birth of their fourth child, Nadezhda, and was buried inside the Catholic Cathedral of St. Louis in Plovdiv.
Ivan Mrkvička created an impressively large, ceremonial portrait depicting the Princess as successor to and bearer of the Bulgarian medieval royal tradition. She is seated on a majestic throne, wearing medieval regal robes. Behind her, the Virgin Hodegetria (‘she who shows the way’) is portrayed as if simultaneously blessing her and accepting her into the bosom of the Holy Church. The irises arranged on both sides of the throne also bear a symbolic message. In the Christian tradition, the iris, together with the lily, or even instead of it, embodies hope, faith, and renewal, but also sorrow and pain. Its stylised colour was also widely used in medieval heraldry, the best-known example being the lily of the House of Bourbon. In this portrait of Maria Louisa, the irises unite faith, renewal and grief, and also allude to the connection of the new Bulgarian dynasty with the glorious royal family of France.
The ‘Portrait of Maria Louisa’ was conceived as a kind of political message confirming the continuity of the medieval Bulgarian kingdom and the new dynasty, which became related through marriage to the Bourbons.
The message is reinforced by the grandiose picture frame specially made for this portrait by Boris Schatz, one of the founders of Bulgarian sculpture. He combined Bulgarian decorative elements in twenty reliefs, depicting grieving angels, St. Cecilia, patron saint of the Princess, and different ethnicities of Bulgaria—Bulgarians, Jews, Turks, Greeks, Gypsies… The frame bears the inscription: “I am dying, but, from Heaven, I will always watch over Bulgaria”.
The ‘Portrait of Maria Louisa’ was displayed at the Paris World Fair of 1900, where Ivan Mrkvička was awarded a gold medal and, after that, at the 1904 World Exhibition in St. Louis , the Jubilee Exhibitions of the State School of Drawing in Sofia (1906 and 1921), the 1934 Posthumous Exhibition of Boris Schatz, and the Jubilee Exhibition of Ivan Mrkvička in Prague in 1937.
The Art Department of the Bulgarian National Museum (now the National Gallery) received the painting in 1947 as a gift from the royal collection. In 1996, following restoration of both the painting and its frame, it was shown in the National Gallery exhibition entitled ‘140th. Anniversary of the Birth of Ivan Mrkvička’. In 2012, the artwork was included in the Bulgarian contribution to the ‘Paris 1900’ exhibition organised by Le Petit Palais, and was also put on display at the National Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia.