Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Queen Mary of Modena (1658-1718) 1672c.

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of Queen Mary of Modena (1658-1718), Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
50 x 40 inches 124 x 99.5 cm
Scott and Fowles, New York; Acquired c.1920 by Frank Pratt, New York; Newhouse Galleries, New York 1944; Harry Bockhoff, Richmond Indiana 1945; Gift from Mr Bockhoff to the Richmond Art Museum 1957; Richmond Art Museum; Deaccessioned 2000.
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This painting - published here for the first time as a portrait of Mary of Modena - may be the original of a composition known previously from a number of studio repetitions and depicts the future Queen at the age of sixteen after her marriage in 1673. The Pope had deflected her from her original intention of entering a convent, knowing that she would be of more service to the Catholic Church as a consort to James Duke of York, heir presumptive to King Charles II. The Duke of York already had two daughters by his first marriage-Mary and Anne, both future Queens of England- but no sons, and it was clear that with a Catholic male heir James might, when King, be able to effect the reconversion of England.

This purpose was to drive a great wedge between the Duke and Duchess of York and English popular opinion. Mary's great personal charm was to be of no use in countering the country's suspicion of her husband. The birth of a son, James Stuart, three years after the Duke's accession as King James II precipitated the Glorious Revolution, in which opponents of the King invited the landing of William of Orange to defend the Protestant religion. From then, until her death in 1718, Mary of Modena''s life was spent in exile from Britain, ceaselessly promoting the cause of her husband and, from 1701, her son in their fruitless attempts to regain the throne.

Of all portraits of Mary of Modena, these early examples by Lely are, therefore, among the most engaging, not least because they are very human glimpses of a young girl who only a couple of years before had been expecting to follow her vocation as a nun. The hand of Lely himself can be distinguished in the delicate modelling and flesh tones of the sitter's face, and in the virtuoso handling of the elegantly draped hands, which is a signature aspect of Lely's style. Equally characteristic of a prime version, rather than of an accomplished repetition, is the sense of personality that the artist is able to convey in the sitter's modest glance, which, shyly, only just encompasses the viewer.

The pearls that encircle the Duchess's neck and ornament her costume are, with the well-observed lights and reflections that are particularly noticeable against the sleeve, typical of Lely''s work. The Duchess's dress and mantle too are animated by the vigorous ''scribbled'' highlights that assistants would not emulate.

The iconographic programme of the portrait is straightforward, and designed to hedge the sitter with the emblems of high dignity and personal virtue. The spaniel at her knee of the right is most probably a portrait of a pet -there is a plausible individuality to the pattern of the muzzle that places this beyond an artist''s repertoire of mere motifs- but it is also, in the vocabulary of art, an emblem of loyalty and, therefore, an expression of her devotion to her husband. To the left there is a sculpted relief of a type not common in Lely's portraits -although similar panels do appear in other works around this date, in, for example, The Countess of Abingdon c.1675 and Lady Barbara Fitzroy c.1676- in which playful putti are supporting a swag, their burden eased by the efforts of a winged amorino above. The swag is composed of bound branches of laurel, and as such often forms the pulvinated frieze of the three higher order of architecture. To the hierarchical mind of the seventeenth century -which was only just accommodating itself to the idea of a mere gentleman building a pediment on his house- the allusion is to clearly to the high rank of the subject.
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