Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady as St Mary Magdalene 1690s

Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723)

Portrait of a Lady as St Mary Magdalene, Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
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Engraved John Smith 1705, inscribed:
Devotion in such looks does Gracefull shine;/ And forces us to own her pow'r divine./ G. Kneller ...pinx. I Smith fec. 1705.

This serene painting is the only surviving example of a lost work by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which was engraved by John Smith in 1705. It is a remarkably accomplished studio version of a painting that shows a young woman as Saint Mary Magdalene. The red gown is traditional to the depiction, a convention dating from medieval representations, and the identifying jar of unguent is visible in the bottom left of the canvas, on which the subject''s book is resting.

It is not yet known who the model for this work was, and it remains possible that it is a portrait in religious guise -comparable to the Portrait of Lady Mary Boyle and her son Charles by Kneller's studio (Historical Portraits)- rather than a purely devotional work. English court taste -even as the late seventeenth and ealy eighteenth century contorted itself over religio-politial questions- embraced the imagery of Catholic religious art for secular portraiture. The borrowings were seldom idle, and the references derived were often to the name or the character of the sitter. The Magdalene was a common guise for portraits of Royal mistresses, but here there can be no slur against this sitter, and the suggestion of quiet piety appears sincere, and perhaps a reflection of the virtuous character of the model.
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