Painted in the early 1630s, this small portrait is wholly characteristic of Jonson’s work at the zenith of his career in England, and probably represents a woman from the gentry or the wife of a wealthy merchant.

This small oil on copper is typical of the oil painter Cornelius Jonson’s work ‘in little’, demonstrating his ability to reduce his distinctive technique to a wearable treasure for his clients. His technique contrasted with the portrait miniature artists (or ‘limners’) working in England at this time, who were painting not in oil but in watercolour on a vellum support. Most small portraits painted in oil on metal in England at this date were commissioned from the community of Dutch artists resident in the major cities. Jonson probably learned his technique abroad as his application of paint and use of materials follow this Dutch, rather than English, tradition.

Jonson was known during his time in England to produce such works, with George Vertue stating that he has seen such works alongside his large oils and noting; ‘it might have been a custom much used with him to do both great and small’.[1] Jonson is thought to have begun his...

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This small oil on copper is typical of the oil painter Cornelius Jonson’s work ‘in little’, demonstrating his ability to reduce his distinctive technique to a wearable treasure for his clients. His technique contrasted with the portrait miniature artists (or ‘limners’) working in England at this time, who were painting not in oil but in watercolour on a vellum support. Most small portraits painted in oil on metal in England at this date were commissioned from the community of Dutch artists resident in the major cities. Jonson probably learned his technique abroad as his application of paint and use of materials follow this Dutch, rather than English, tradition.

Jonson was known during his time in England to produce such works, with George Vertue stating that he has seen such works alongside his large oils and noting; ‘it might have been a custom much used with him to do both great and small’.[1] Jonson is thought to have begun his independent practice in London in about 1618, after having trained in Holland, an unsurprising move given the lack of suitable masters in Stuart England. As a result, even Jonson’s earliest pictures display a level of continental sophistication not often seen in the works of English Jacobean artists. And in a society that relished ‘conspicuous consumption’, and thus the display of expensive costumes, Jonson’s Dutch realism and sense of likeness proved popular.

In 1632, the same year Van Dyck arrived in England, Jonson was sworn as the King’s Painter and his portraits after this point show reluctant influences from his Flemish colleague, especially in his large full lengths which gained greater elegance and power. Ultimately however, Jonson’s straight-talking style and clear refusal to conform with the flashy swagger-portraits of Van Dyck, worked against him, and in 1643, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Jonson left for Holland where he remained until his death. Painted in the early 1630s, this small portrait is wholly characteristic of Jonson’s work at the zenith of his career in England, and probably represents a woman from the gentry or the wife of a wealthy merchant.

[1] Vertue, ‘Note Books’, IV, p.143

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500 Years of British Art