Attributed to John Greenhill (c.1644-76)
This portrait was almost certainly intended to be a visual celebration of the sitter's betrothal, as evinced symbolically by the red carnation she holds...
This exceptionally tender example of baroque child portraiture bears the compositional and stylistic hallmarks of an artist working in England in the late-seventeenth century, and may well have been painted in celebration of the subject’s betrothal.
The positioning of the left hand, which delicately grasps the folds in the girl’s dress, is reminiscent of the stylistic idiosyncrasies associated with the Flemish baroque painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, whose influence on English portraiture, as epitomized here, had been immediate following his arrival in 1632. Furthermore, the broadly painted, atmospheric and open backdrop suggests an artist influenced by continental painting. One candidate for a work of these attributes and this quality is John Greenhill (c.1644-1676), an English born portrait painter whose initial training is unknown but who rivalled the leading London artists of the seventeenth century.
The Restoration of King Charles II (1630-85) stimulated an upheaval within the cultural sphere, in particular artistic patronage. Portrait painters such as Sir Peter Lely quickly found favour amongst the highest ranks of society, and as a result many continental artists migrated to England in a bid to win the patronage of the monarch, prosperous courtiers and powerful statesmen. Greenhill was amongst very few English artists able to compete with the popularity and skill of foreign artists and just one month before his premature death, he was still considered one of the most talented portrait painters of the age.
Of all the artists to emerge from the studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) – the dominant artist in England in the late seventeenth century – John Greenhill was, as George Vertue noted, “the most excellent.” He is known to have joined Lely’s studio by 1662, but seems to have left fairly soon afterwards to establish his own practice. Vertue claimed that Lely was jealous of his pupil’s ability. He was commissioned to paint a number of leading figures of the court, including Anne, Duchess of York, and even the King. However, his dissolute lifestyle led to the end of promising career – he died barely into his thirties, after falling into a gutter, drunk, in Long Acre, leaving a wife and young family behind.
Greenhill was at the centre of the artistic scene in London after the Restoration, and he painted most of the leading actors of his generation. He was a pioneer of coloured chalk portrait drawings in England at that time, and his depictions of actors such as Thomas Betterton and Henry Harris are considered to be amongst the most notable post-Restoration portraits.
Although the identity of the young girl is at present unknown, this portrait was almost certainly intended to be a visual celebration of her betrothal, as evinced symbolically by the red carnation she holds in her right hand. It was quite common for children to be betrothed and married at a young age, especially if their family viewed the partnership as strategically advantageous – this was especially common with royalty and wealthy aristocracy. Areas of pentimenti around the young girl’s head suggest that at some point in its early history, perhaps even during the process of painting, the patron (or maybe the artist) decided to change the design of the girl’s hair, and substitute an elaborate cluster of red bows with the simpler, single bow we see there now. It is difficult to speculate on the reason behind these adjustments, though perhaps the fashion for hair decoration had changed prior to its completion, or maybe the original design distracted from the composition as whole. Either way, it allows an unusual glimpse into the type of social and artistic deliberations that would have featured high in such commissions.