Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Fortuna, 1670s 

Henri Gascars (1634/5–1701)

Fortuna, 1670s, Henri Gascars
Oil on canvas
17th Century
27¾ x 3 ½ inches, 69.5 x 90.0 cm
This painting depicts the figure of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune, and the personification of luck. She is holding a cornucopia, one of her traditional attributes, and, in front of a palatial background, holds a jeweled crown in her hand. The picture almost certainly dates from Gascar’s time in England in the 1670s.

Gascar, born in France, 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 II’s favourite French mistress, in about 1672. His style 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 Gascar’s success, which was heightened by the popularity of his novel mezzotint reproductions. The Frenchman painted almost all the leading women of the court, including Barbara Villiers [formerly with Philip Mould Ltd] and Nell Gwyn [lost, known only through an engraving].

Gascar’s paintings are immediately noticeable for their vivid colouring and attention to detail, and a tendency to focus on decorative aspects of his subject’s dress or setting occasionally at the expense of accurate drawing or likeness. If this picture is one of Gascar’s English works, it would reflect perfectly the mood of the Restoration court, for it is hard to perceive how a picture celebrating the role of luck in life, as opposed to the pre-determined rule of Divine will, would have been tolerated in the more Puritanical years of the Protectorate.

The picture may also have a deeper iconographic significance. Unusually, Fortuna’s cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is shown here filled with money, rather than the more usual fruit or jewels. We then notice that the cornucopia is wreathed in a red drape decorated with stylised fleur-de-lys, the symbol of France, and that Fortuna appears to hold the fate of the crown in her hand. The symbolism is given further meaning when we consider that Gascar, a French Catholic, was, as Bainbrigg Buckeridge, records, “encourag’d” by the Duchess of Portsmouth, whom Louis XIV of France had hoped would advance French interests through her place in Charles II’s bed. It is possible therefore, that the picture alludes in some way to French hopes of securing influence over the English crown, either by female charms, or by money.

Gascar left England about 1678, possibly owing to strong anti-French and anti-Catholic sentiment sparked by the Popish Plot and Exclusion crisis. By 1680 he had returned to Paris, where he was reçu by the Académie Royale on 26 October that year. In 1681 he left France once again, going this time to Italy, where he lived and worked mainly in Rome. Buckeridge reported that ‘by a prevailing Assurance, customary with his Nation, he … imposed upon the Italian Noblesse, as he did on those of England’. He died in Rome on 18 January 1701, and was buried there in San Lorenzo in Lucina.

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