Maria Verelst (1680-1744)
Sarah was the confidante and close adviser to Princess Anne, later Queen of Great Britain, and acted as her intermediary after her father, James II, was deposed during the Glorious Revolution...
This recently discovered portrait of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the most powerful and influential woman of the early eighteenth century after the Queen, also has the distinction of being by one of the very rare female portraitists active during that period.
Sarah was the confidante and close adviser to Princess Anne, later Queen of Great Britain, and acted as her intermediary after her father, James II, was deposed during the Glorious Revolution. The political influence that sprang from this relationship also benefited the Duchess’s husband, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough who, when Anne became Queen in 1702, was promoted to head the government along with Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin. Towards the end of Anne’s life, however, their friendship fractured, and so severe was their falling out that eventually the Marlboroughs were forced into exile on the Continent. They did not return until after Anne’s death in August 1714.
Sarah earned an astonishing amount of money for her day; from her various royal appointments alone, which included mistress of the robes and ranger of Windsor Park, she received in excess of £6,000 per annum. All of her assets she managed independently of her husband through trustees. Sarah’s power and status were reflected in the magnificence of Blenheim Palace, which under her watchful eye was constructed between 1705 and 1722, one of the outstanding examples of English Baroque architecture.
This portrait is remarkable for its use of colour and a bold architectural setting. The deep saturation of the blues in the dress, and the richness of the red velvet drapery which falls over the carved stone ledge on the right, give the fabrics a sumptuous, tangible presence, whilst the monumental architectural backdrop evokes the splendour of Blenheim, as well as Sarah’s grand ambitions. This portrait was almost certainly painted prior to the death of Sarah’s husband in 1722, and thus before the portrait of Sarah by Verelst at Blenheim, in which she is shown seated in mourning attire.
Maria was the daughter of the Dutch painter Herman Verelst (1641-90), and niece of the better known Stuart court painter Simon Verelst (1644-1710). Maria moved to England at the age of three with her father, after the siege of Vienna in 1683 by the Ottoman Empire and, following her father’s success, later became his student.
As well as being a talented painter, Maria was also well educated and spoke a number of different languages, which no doubt helped her secure patronage. According to an anecdote published in 1729 Maria was once at Drury Lane theatre when she heard some gentlemen nearby discussing various artists in Dutch, she then turned to them and began conversing in the same language before they switched to Italian and then to Latin, Maria quickly responding in each language, so impressed them that they subsequently visited her studio to commission their portraits, and through their connections supposedly helped her establish a wealthy clientele.
 J.C. Weyerman, De levens-beschryvingen der Nederlandsche konst-schilders (1729), vol.3, p.54