Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, was the favourite mistress of Charles II and one of the most influential courtesans of the Restoration period.  It was in 1670, whilst Louise was in England as a Maid of Honour to Charles’ sister Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orléans, that Charles became entranced by the French heiress, and when later asked by his sister which jewels she should leave behind as a souvenir of her visit, Charles II romantically requested that she leave Louise de Kéroualle as ‘she is the only jewel I covet.’[1] Following Henrietta Anne’s unexpected death in 1670, at the tender age of twenty-six, Louise was taken into the service of Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza and is said to have become Charles’ mistress the following year after a court visit to Newmarket.  In 1672, Louise gave birth to her only son by the King, whom she named Charles. Acknowledged as the King’s chief mistress, she was...

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Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, was the favourite mistress of Charles II and one of the most influential courtesans of the Restoration period.



It was in 1670, whilst Louise was in England as a Maid of Honour to Charles’ sister Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orléans, that Charles became entranced by the French heiress, and when later asked by his sister which jewels she should leave behind as a souvenir of her visit, Charles II romantically requested that she leave Louise de Kéroualle as ‘she is the only jewel I covet.’[1] Following Henrietta Anne’s unexpected death in 1670, at the tender age of twenty-six, Louise was taken into the service of Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza and is said to have become Charles’ mistress the following year after a court visit to Newmarket.



In 1672, Louise gave birth to her only son by the King, whom she named Charles. Acknowledged as the King’s chief mistress, she was created Duchess of Portsmouth in 1673 and in 1675 her son was created Duke of Richmond. Drawn into Anglo-French politics, she exerted considerable sway, but on 6 February 1685 Charles II died, leaving Portsmouth without influence or status at court. She returned to France the following year and was provided for by Louis XIV who granted her an allowance, after her English pensions were retracted following the revolution of 1688. Portsmouth founded a convent in Aubigny and died in Paris on 14 November 1734.



Portraits of Charles’ glamorous and influential mistresses were in constant demand at the Restoration court. Sir Peter Lely was by far the dominating court painter of the period, with a studio that produced high-quality repetitions of his popular works on a significant scale. Although Portsmouth did sit to Lely in her early years in England, she soon sought the services of foreign artists including Henri Gascars, whom she reputedly encouraged to come to England in order to paint her portrait.[2]



Gascars painted a number of portraits of Portsmouth between 1672 and 1675, all of which evoke a sense of intimacy seldom seen in the more outwardly flirtatious works of Lely. Although shown in an elaborate setting, as befitted Portsmouth’s famously lavish tastes, her pose, as seen here, tends to be more intimate, as if she were caught off-guard in her summer retreat. The little dog she supports with her right arm is a King Charles spaniel, a breed which both Charles and his sister Henrietta Anne were very fond of, and is almost symbolic of that generation of Stuarts.



This particular composition, with varying backgrounds, was clearly very popular and was reproduced in mezzotint within Portsmouth’s lifetime [see British Museum, P.6-188]. A few versions by Gascars exist in private collections, including one in the collection of Lord Cobham[3] and one that was sold several years ago at auction.[4] These variants, which differ in size, are oval in format, and it is unclear whether the present work was a rectangular variant produced on request, or was perhaps reduced in size at a later date to suit a particular interior setting.

[1] C. MacLeod and J.M. Alexander, Painted Ladies Women at the Court of Charles II (London, 2001), p.136

[2] B. Buckeridge, ‘An essay towards an English school of painters’, in R. de Piles, The art of painting, and the lives of the painters (1706), p.421

[3] Recorded in the collection of Lord Cobham in 1955.

[4] Christie’s, London, 23 May 2008, lot 10 (£46,850)

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500 Years of British Art