Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723)
The fact that the picture is a sketch, and thus perhaps intended as a private depiction of someone close to the artist, may further suggest that the sitter is Kneller’s daughter.
Sir Godfrey Kneller dominates our understanding of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century British portraiture. With Van Dyck, Lely and Reynolds, his name has become synonymous with the visual interpretation of British history – not least because he painted almost every person of prominence in forty years of British public life. Every reigning British monarch from Charles II to George I sat to Kneller. This painting, however, is a rare subject picture and shows Mary Magdalene. Even more unusually, the picture appears to be unfinished, and allows us a fascinating insight into Kneller’s technique.
The present painting is one of a handful of religious pictures painted by Kneller. An earlier example of the 1690s, formerly with Philip Mould & Company and now in the Yale Center for British Art, shows a lady in the guise of St Agnes. It is thought to show Catherine Voss, the artist’s daughter by his mistress Mrs Voss. The sitter in the present Mary Magdalene painting bears a close likeness to the sitter in the Yale picture and it is therefore probable that the sitter here is also Kneller’s daughter, who would have been a convenient model for a subject picture. The fact that the picture is a sketch, and thus perhaps intended as a private depiction of someone close to the artist, may further suggest that the sitter is Kneller’s daughter. However, Catherine Voss may also be the model used for another Mary Magdalene picture by Kneller, which is today only known through an engraving by John Smith in 1705 and it is therefore possible that the present painting was a study for the engraved picture. The fact that Kneller signed the present painting on the reverse might imply that Kneller viewed it as somehow finished.
The painterly technique seen here is an excellent demonstration of Kneller’s style. The bold handling of the flesh tones, particularly in the superbly drawn hands, is Kneller at his most emphatic, while the sizeable areas of grey ground we see are indicative of his method of painting quickly, developed by this stage in his career to cope with the many demands of a large circle of patrons. The effect is most evident in the sitter’s headdress, which, despite being merely sketched in with a few quick lines of white on the darker, cool grey ground Kneller habitually painted on, nonetheless conveys a sense of depth and movement in the fabric. The same effect is used for the shadows in the face: rather than paint darker colours on top of the pink flesh tones, as most artists would have done, Kneller instead painted in the reverse order, using the ground layer for his dark shadows and then painting the lighter colours on top.