Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Elizabeth, Princess Palatine; Elisabeth von der Pfalz 1642

Gerrit Van Honthorst 1592-1656

Portrait of Elizabeth, Princess Palatine; Elisabeth von der Pfalz, Gerrit Van Honthorst
Oil on Panel
17th Century
29x23inches, 73.5x58.4cm
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This recently discovered and hitherto unpublished portrait shows Elizabeth, Princess Palatine. The picture had been almost entirely overpainted to conceal relatively minor damage to the background, a process which turned the picture into a darkened, almost unrecognizable image. The sitter’s red dress had been altered into a brown, shapeless costume, and her identity lost. Now, thanks to careful cleaning the clothing, jewels and background are revealed once more, as is the artist’s signature.

Elizabeth, Princess Palatine was the most gifted of the celebrated children of Frederick and Elizabeth of Bohemia, the so-called ‘Winter King and Queen’ who suffered a series of military and political defeats in the 1620s and 30s. This portrait is one of a number of portraits of the Palatine family produced by Honthorst and his studio in the early 1640s, when the sitter’s family was living in exile in the Netherlands. Portraiture became a valuable means of maintaining support amongst relatives and supporters, and works such as the present example would have been distributed across Europe.

Elizabeth led an unconventional life for a royal princess. She was, by virtue of her mother, the grandchild of James I of England, and the niece of Charles I. However, such royal connections did not lead to the life of privilege and luxury that she might have expected, for her parents’ straightened political and financial status decreed relative poverty and low status. Any chance of an advantageous marriage, for example, was ruled out after her father’s expulsion from the family estates in the Palatinate. Instead, Elizabeth devoted her life to intellectual pursuits.

Elizabeth was clearly the most intelligent of her ten siblings, and was even nicknamed "La Grecque" by her brothers and sisters. Unlike the rest of her family, Elizabeth seems to have relished her life in exile in the Netherlands, then the most enlightened state in Europe, for allowing her to meet other intellectuals. She became close friends with Rene Descartes, the French philosopher usually described as ‘the father of modern philosophy’. Some historians have even speculated that the two were lovers, and although Descartes dedicated his “Principia” to Elizabeth, there is no concrete proof of any physical relationship in their extensive correspondence. She was, however, distraught at his death in 1650.

In 1662 Elizabeth, a committed Protestant, joined the Abbey of Herford, in Germany, and within five years became abbess. She played an active role in making the Abbey a centre of religious tolerance and discussion, meeting, amongst others, Quakers such as William Penn, the founder of the American colony of Pennsylvania, with whom she continued a long correspondence. Today, her correspondence with Descartes, in which she challenged his theory of spiritual and physical dualism, is a valuable source to historians.
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