Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)
Lely’s skill for portraiture meant he assumed the mantle of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (whom he admired to such an extent that he owned Van Dyck’s last Self-Portrait) with ease...
This recently discovered portrait by Sir Peter Lely was painted in c.1670 when he was at the height of his artistic powers. The subject, who is currently unidentified, is shown in the finest dress and seated in a rocky outcrop with a romantic autumnal landscape beyond.
Sir Peter Lely’s character and talent dominated the art world in the second half of the seventeenth century in England. Though Pepys famously described him as ‘a mighty proud man and full of state’, Lely’s skill for portraiture meant he assumed the mantle of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (whom he admired to such an extent that he owned Van Dyck’s last Self-Portrait) with ease. Despite sharing the stage with many accomplished painters, the particular brio of his technique and his considerable personal charm guaranteed him the most prestigious patronage – and for nearly twenty years royal patronage from his position as Principle Painter to King Charles II. Everyone of consequence in his age sat to him, and it is in his portraits that we form our conception of the cautious solemnity of the 1650s and the scandalous excesses of the years following the Restoration.
Until recently, the quality of this work was obscured by many layers of dirt and discoloured varnish which visually flattened the subject’s features and disguised areas of artistic ingenuity. Now these layers of disfiguring dirt have been removed, one can observe passages of great spontaneity, most notable in the subject’s right shoulder which is daringly constructed of little more than a web of bold, confident brushstrokes.
Close inspection of the portrait post-cleaning also indicates that Lely changed his mind several times throughout the painting process. The subject’s right arm which delicately clasps the floral garland, for example, was originally placed horizontally across her lap, but was subsequently changed to an upright position. The fingers on the subject’s left hand were also shortened as evinced by the pentimento visible on the tip of the left index finger.