Degraded portraits of royals reflect their obsessive inbreeding

It is commonly known that the in-marrying of families was an aristocratic trait used to ensure the purity of a monarchy or empire’s bloodline. Unlike the infamous incestuous relationship between Cersei and Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, these relationships held significant political power, and weren’t considered subversive, but rather the norm. Michelle Vaughan explores this idea through the Spanish-Austrian Habsburg royal family in the exhibition Generations.

the idea of degradation through the pursuit of improvement

In these works, Vaughan works conceptually with the idea of degradation through the pursuit of improvement. Hyperallergic likens this, aesthetically, to our modern pursuit of perfecting digital images, and in the process, losing touch with the original image. Whether it be compression of an image through over-saving, or sharpening to the point of pixelation, we are often familiar with this idea of accidental degradation without realizing it. Anyone who has spent a large portion of time editing images is likely to know how, the longer one works with an image, the harder it is to tell whether the image is indeed looking better or worse.


Vaughan uses archival images and manipulates them to highlight the similarities between the Habsburg line. In doing so, the seeming absurdity of this historic lineage and practice shines through. Indeed, Vaughan mentions how the similarities among the Habsburgs has meant that art historians often cannot tell them apart. From this perspective, the absurdity of both the historic, and our attempts to legitimately study it from our own context in an objective way, comes to the fore.

Through adapting archival prints into GIFs , and then using these as reference points, Vaughan duplicates the images in colored pencil. Through this duplication and manipulation of the archival, the process of portraiture and how portraits were made, reproduced, and distributed is mirrored. Historically, this was a means of affirming the legitimacy of the royal family’s rule and marriages in an aesthetic way. Vaughan’s artistic process appropriates this for the inverted means of undermining that legitimacy. Which is only fitting, since this strategy of in-marrying was the very thing that lead to the extinction of this royal line.

You can learn more about the exhibition on Theodore:Art‘s website, and follow Michelle Vaughan on Twitter.