Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady 1657

Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen (1593-1661)

Portrait of a Lady, Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen
Oil on canvas
17th Century
44 x 35 ½, 112 x 90 cm
European Private Collection
Until recently, this picture was thought to have been painted by Cornelius Jonson’s son and pupil, Cornelius Jonson II (1622-1698). An unnecessary layer of over-paint obscured much of the picture’s real quality, and an erroneous identification of the sitter led to further confusion. Recent restoration, however, has allowed all of Jonson’s original skill and dexterity to be seen once more, along with his full signature, “Cornelius Jonson/van Ceulen/ fecit./ 1657”

Jonson was the first English painter (he was born in London of Flemish parents) to leave a substantial body of signed works, and as a result his oeuvre has been relatively easy to identify. He 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, realism and volume proved popular.

The majority of Jonson’s early English portraits are bust-length, and usually display a powerfully rendered head against a marbled, or trompe l’oeil background. Although he did not enjoy the universal patronage of the highest society (the arrival of Van Dyck in 1632 saw to that), he was occasionally employed by the King, and found a ready clientele amongst the gentry and lesser nobility.

Inevitably, Jonson was influenced by the grandeur of Van Dyck’s elegant compositions, and his later works tend to be half and three-quarter length portraits of greater intricacy. But since it is in his later Dutch period works that Jonson truly excels at the large format portrait, it is possible that his more restrained style was ultimately unsuited to the English taste. Despite works such as the ambitious group portrait of the Family of Arthur, Lord Capel [1639, National Portrait Gallery], Jonson eventually left England in 1643, at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Jonson soon settled in Amsterdam, then the most artistically enlightened city in Europe, and where he mastered the elegant, reserved style seen in the present portrait. He experimented with blue and green backgrounds, and perfected the meticulous rendering of lace and costume. Here, the sitter’s finely drawn hands gather dense folds of almost tangible black silk. Because the present portrait follows almost exactly the pose and costume of Jonson’s 1655 ‘Portrait of a Woman’ in the National Gallery, London, it has been suggested that this part of the costume was in fact Jonson’s own, and thus a specially requested feature of his portraits.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.