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Zoomable Image of Portrait of a Lady, traditionally identified as Lady Herries

Portrait of a Lady, traditionally identified as Lady Herries

John Michael Wright (1617-1694)

Portrait of a Lady, traditionally identified as Lady Herries

John Michael Wright (1617-1694)

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Price:

Price on request

Materials:

Oil on canvas

Dimensions:

50.8 x 42.8 in (129 x 108.7 cm)

Provenance:

English Private Collection

The sitter has been traditionally identified, according to an inscription on the stretcher, as ‘Lady Herries’. The Lady Herries of that period was Lady Lucy Douglas, daughter of William Douglas, 1st Marquess of Douglas.

John Michael Wright was one of the most successful native English artists of the seventeenth century. Along with earlier contemporaries such as Robert Walker and William Dobson, he was one of only a handful of English painters to find favour amongst the top echelons of society. At the height of his fame, he styled himself ‘Pictor Regius’ [The King’s Painter] and, in his depiction of a crowned Charles II on his throne [Royal Collection], is responsible for one of the most magnificent Royal portraits in English art. His career was all the more remarkable in an era when patrons continued to exercise their traditional preference for foreign artists, as they had done from Holbein to Van Dyck, and would do from Lely to Kneller.

Until the later twentieth century, scholars knew relatively little of Wright’s life, and even referred to him incorrectly as ‘Joseph’ Wright. The 1982 exhibition ‘John Michael Wright – The King’s Painter’ [Edinburgh, Catalogue edited by Sara Stevenson & Duncan Thomson] led to a revival of interest in his work, and rewrote what we know of his history. Newly discovered works continue to add to his reputation. His oeuvre had previously been eclipsed by the more prolific Lely, and countless works suffered the indignity of being miscatalogued. However, recognised together, Wright’s paintings stand out from the occasionally pedestrian repetitions of seventeenth century portraiture. If Lely was the most accomplished painter of the genre – or fashion – of later seventeenth century Britain, it is Wright whose actual likenesses have stood the test of time. When placed next to Lely’s work, for example, Wright’s lively and realistic characterisations tend to reinforce Pepys' critique that Lely’s portraits were ‘good but not like.’

Wright’s success as an artist lay in his uniquely diverse artistic background and training. Although born in London, he first trained in Scotland as an apprentice to George Jamesone. He then left for Italy and stayed in Rome for a decade from 1642, working amongst contemporaries such as Poussin and Velazquez. Records show that his own private art collection included works then attributed to Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, whom he appears to have copied assiduously. In 1648, he became a member of the Academy of St Luke. He finally returned to London in 1656, after having spent time in France and Flanders. No other English artist before Wright had traveled and studied so extensively on the continent.

This portrait probably dates from the 1660s. It is in an unusually good state of preservation, being unlined and thus on its original canvas. As a result, the delicate impasto and brushwork has not been flattened by a relining process, as is so often the case, and all the bright colours and fine handling of the drapery, at which Wright excelled, are still apparent, as is the complex and well-observed landscape background. The sitter has been traditionally identified, according to an inscription on the stretcher, as ‘Lady Herries’. The Lady Herries of that period was Lady Lucy Douglas, daughter of William Douglas, 1st Marquess of Douglas. She was the wife of Robert Maxwell, 4th Earl of Nithsdale (1628-1683). The 4th Earl of Nithsdale was also, before he inherited the Earldom from his father, John in 1677, known as Lord Herries, a subsidiary title of the Maxwell family.

Strengthening Lady Lucy Douglas’ identification as the sitter here is the fact that she was an ardent Catholic, and Wright is known to have been frequently patronized by Catholics at court, from the Dukes of Norfolk to the Poet Laureate, John Dryden. In this portrait, the Catholic faith of the sitter appears to be alluded to in the classical imagery of her portrayal, which, owing to the pouring out of the water from a classical urn, has been suggested to be the Nymph of Egeria, a water nymph who dispensed advice and prophecies from outside the city of Rome, and who is most commonly associated with female wisdom and counsel. The motif appears to be repeated on the cameo brooch. Wright, thanks to his education in Italy, would have known such legends, and being (almost certainly) a Catholic himself would have been well aware of their potential to be used to convey subtle messages of faith and politics in an era when overt religious symbolism was politically ill-advised, and even dangerous. Equally, the round temple in the background is perhaps an allusion to the sitter’s virginity – temples of the goddess Vesta were usually circular.

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