Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady 

Henri Gascars (1634/5Ė1701)

Portrait of a Lady, Henri Gascars
Oil on canvas
17th Century
21 x 17 in (53.4 x 43.2 cm)
This superbly detailed portrait is probably one of Gascarís series of portraits of the Ladies of Charles IIís court. A number of very similar pictures exist, painted in about 1675, including a portrait of Charlesí mistress, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland [Private Collection, formerly with Philip Mould Ltd]. The present sitter is unfortunately unidentified, but the picture is a relatively rare example of the French influence on English art in the later seventeenth century. Gascarís paintings are immediately noticeable for their vivid colouring and attention to detail, and a tendency to focus on decorative aspects of his subjectís dress or setting occasionally at the expense of accurate drawing or likeness.

On his arrival in England, Gascar brought a considerable knowledge of European art and style. Born in France, he is thought to have studied mainly in Italy. He is recorded in Rome in 1659, but evidently moved back to Northern Europe to seek patronage, as evidenced by a portrait of the diarist Nicolas Delafond painted in Amsterdam in 1667 (Hermitage, St Petersburg). Having failed to establish a successful practice in France, he left for England, probably at the behest of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, Charles IIís favourite French mistress, in about 1672.

Gascarís elegant finesse proved immediately popular, contrasting as it did with the more sombre formality of the mainly Dutch court painters. The showy, flamboyant and mannered composition seen here was the perfect expression of the French taste in opposition to English stolidity, and suited the frivolous mood of the times. Even Sir Peter Lely, whose genius had dominated English painting since the Restoration, felt threatened by Gascarís success, which was heightened by the popularity of his novel mezzotint reproductions. The Frenchman painted almost all the leading women of the court, including the Duchess of Portsmouth and Nell Gwyn, in a picture that is now lost, and known only through an engraving.
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