Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Courtesan, thought to be Nell Gwynn c.1670s

Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of a Courtesan, thought to be Nell Gwynn, Studio of Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas laid onto board
17th Century
30 x 24 5/8 inches 76.2 x 62.5 cm
Lord Burgh, Northcourt, Isle of Wight, by whom sold, London 1938, as ‘Nell Gwynne’ by Sir Peter Lely.
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This compellingly brazen, but gently characterised, portrait was painted in Sir Peter Lely’s studio in the 1670s or 80s. The sitter has been traditionally identified as Nell Gwynn.

The iconography of Nell Gwynn is, however, notoriously confused. Her increasing fame, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw portraits of dull and innocent ‘beauties’ transformed, with the addition of a new label, into the most famous mistress in British history. In reality, however, there were relatively few portraits of Gwyn painted during her lifetime, for her fame as an untitled courtesan of lowly status did not translate, amongst her contemporaries, into a desire to hang her portrait on their walls. There were, for example, no portraits of Gwynn in Lely’s posthumous studio sale – but there were thirteen of the Duchess of Cleveland.

This portrait, however, stands out from the usual canon of mis-identified ‘Nell Gwynsn’. Although the sitter seems assured of herself, she carries none of the aristocratic confidence – or even dignity – that one would usually find in a Lely portrait. Here the emphasis is on the sexual availability of the sitter. The formality of costume and contrived postures found in Lely’s more usual compositions has been replaced by the most revealing full frontal appearance that this format will allow.

The bared breasts are of great significance for purposes of identity. Though it may seem odd to base an attribution not on physiognomy but flesh, we must remember the importance of symbolism in Stuart iconography. A related example would be Richard Thompson’s print of Gwyn with her two sons (after a now lost painting by Lely) which studiously emphasizes the boys’ physical resemblance to their father the King, the implication being not only that Charles II was virile, but that Gwynn was a Royal mistress. Each portrait, therefore, was designed to send an unmistakable message, be it of sexual availability, wealth, power, or any other whim of sitter and patron.

Catherine MacLeod notes in ‘Painted Ladies, Women at the Court of King Charles II’, that portraits by Lely showing bare breasts ‘seem exclusively to depict mistresses.’ Though it is an inexact science, the level of décolletage in Stuart portraits tends to increase in proportion to the sitter’s sexual availability. This, in turn, was dependent on a complex combination of class, politics, and, of course, looks. Such a brash gradation (or degradation) of sexual worth can be seen in Lely’s portraits of royal mistresses such as Mary Davis, and that formerly called the Duchess of Portsmouth, now thought to be Mrs Hughes, mistress of Prince Rupert. The present portrait, therefore, must relate to a mistress. The fact that it is a studio copy confirms that it represents one of the more popular – Royal – mistresses.

It is extremely rare to see a portrait in such a state of undress. Only a sitter relaxed about her status, and unconcerned about both her class background and received social etiquette, would consent to being painted in this manner. That Nell Gwyn was one of very few subjects thus painted can only help to reinforce this portrait’s traditional identification. Gwyn seems to have been one of only two sitters portrayed by Lely with both breasts bared, when, in about 1675 he painted Gwyn as Venus with a Cupid “at the express command of King Charles 2nd. Nay he came to Sr Peter Lillys house to see it painted, when she was naked on purpose.” Gwyn is depicted full length, and entirely naked, save for a strategically placed drape. There is, furthermore, a half-length portrait of Gwyn, similarly décolleté, by the Dutch artist Simon Verelst (c. 1675) – a pose he too very rarely repeated.

The few contemporary prints from Gwynn’s accepted iconography also assist with identification in the present example. That by Gerard Valck (after Lely) shows Gwynn seated full-length with her right hand resting on a lamb’s head – a popular pose. But, again, Valck’s portrayal is distinguished from all others by the open shirt and revealed right nipple. There is, finally, a head and shoulder engraving by De Blois (seemingly after a lost original by Lely) that replicates the pose of the present example, and to a similarly revealing extent.

Though Pepys’ famous criticism of Lely’s portraiture – ‘Good, but not like’ – rings true when first examining his oeuvre, facial comparisons between this and other Lely portraits again lead us to Nell Gwyn. In all the accepted Gwyn portraits we immediately notice the style and colour of the hair, held up in bountiful curls, a fashion with which she was popularly associated . This immediately distinguishes her from those Royal courtesans with lighter coloured hair, such as Mary ‘Moll’ Davis and Frances Stuart. We can, too, discount the more rounded features of Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth.

‘The Protestant Whore’
‘Pretty witty Nell’ was, according to Samuel Pepys, ‘brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong water to the guests.’ That she became Charles II’s most famous mistresses is testament to her achievement in overturning convention, taste and class rigidity in a court system famed for its inflexibility. Though she admittedly became the priapic King’s mistress at a time when ‘whoreing was in fashion’ – as she herself reportedly put it – Gwyn helped establish the acceptability of mistresses amongst royalty, a tradition that has never entirely been discarded. Nell Gwyn bore the King two children, the Duke of St Albans and Lord Beauclerk, and died in her mid thirties, probably at the age of 36.

Sir Peter Lely’s character and talent dominated the art world of the second half of the seventeenth century in England. Though Pepys famously described him as ‘a mighty proud man and full of state’, Lely’s skill for portraiture meant he assumed the mantle of Sir Anthony van Dyck with ease. Despite sharing the stage with many accomplished painters, the particular brio of his technique and his considerable personal charm guaranteed him the most prestigious patronage. Everyone of consequence in his age sat to him, and it is in his portraits that we form our conception of the cautious solemnity of the 1650s and the scandalous excesses of the years following the Restoration.
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