Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69) 

Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69), Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Oil on canvas
17th Century
47 ½ x 36 ¼ in (121 x 92 cm)
By descent in the Ashburnham family, at Ashburnham Place, Sussex; Sotheby’s, London, 15th July 1953, lot 156; English Private Collection
Country Life, January 22nd 1916, p.117, illus., as by Van Dyck; Barnes, Millar et al., Van Dyck, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London 2004, p.635, under no. IV.A19.
The Stuart Exhibition, London, 1889, no.82.
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This portrait is a fine studio replica of Van Dyck’s lost original of c.1636. It belonged to the Ashburnhams, a fiercely royalist family during the civil war who were also patrons of Van Dyck. John Ashburnham, grandfather of the 1st Baron Ashburnham, and his wife were painted by the artist in about 1637. John Ashburnham both fought for the King and lent him considerable sums of money, for which he was viewed with great suspicion during the Commonwealth. He spent five years “in close imprisonment at London, and three banishments to Guernsey Castle, the cause being for sending money to his majesty”.

The present portrait has been enlarged, probably in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, to fit a frame of the more standard portrait format of 50 x 40 inches. However, these additions have now been removed, and the portrait returned to its original, narrower dimensions that Van Dyck favoured, especially for three-quarter length portraits. Van Dyck’s first autograph version of this portrait was referred to by Charles I as ‘My Wives Picture in blew, sitting in a Chair’. It was one of those royal portraits which, in a ‘Memoire’ presented to the Queen, was listed as still awaiting payment to the artist, a situation Van Dyck often found himself in given the royal household’s perennial shortage of money. The original variant is presumed to be lost, with good quality studio versions in the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego, and the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, which are closely similar to the present portrait. A variant with a cherub carrying a crown over the Queen’s head, possibly a later addition, is at Syon House.

Firmly installed as “Principal Painter in Ordinary to their Majesties” by 1632, Van Dyck is known to have created at least eleven primary portrayals of his royal patron and patroness, and for much of his time as the King’s painter, Van Dyck’s studio was consumed with the output of royal images for court supporters. It was the artist’s sensitivity to the sitter’s image which placed him in great favour with his patrons, both royal and otherwise. As with all Van Dyck’s portraits of Henrietta Maria, however, the modern viewer is left wondering at the extent to which they depict the ‘real’ Queen. Van Dyck’s conception of female portraiture tended in any case to flattery, and while the Queen appears here to be almost modest and reserved, there is a clear attempt to impart a sense of beauty to the composition. Such portraits were widely disseminated throughout Europe, and it was Prince Rupert’s youngest sister, Sophia, who, readily familiar with such images, was surprised to find that in reality the Queen was a small, badly-postured woman with “teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort”. A later drawing by the French court artist Daniel Dumonstier, recently discovered by Philip Mould Ltd and taken while the Queen was beginning her long period of exile in Paris, is perhaps the most faithful likeness of her in later life.

Born in 1609 as the youngest daughter of Henri IV of France and Marie de Medici, Henrietta Maria was proposed as a suitable candidate for a match with the future Charles I from an early age. Married by proxy in May 1625, she landed in England the following month and began her life as Queen of England at the age of sixteen. As a devout French Catholic in a self-consciously Protestant English court, the Queen’s first years in England were not happy ones, and the unprecedented union of a Catholic Princess with the heir to a Protestant throne was greeted with considerable trepidation on both sides of the Channel. Her religious convictions, coupled with Lord Buckingham’s attempts to turn Charles against her made relations with her husband increasingly uncomfortable until Buckingham’s death and their subsequent reconciliation in 1628. The birth of the future Charles II followed soon after in May 1630. She subsequently became the mother of Mary (1631), James, Duke of York (1633), Elizabeth (1636), Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1640), and Henriette Anne, Duchess of Orleans (1644).

The Queen’s role in her husband’s court proved to be a complicated one. The combination of her frivolity and her emotional influence over the King concerned courtiers such as Lord Wentworth, eager for favours. Her continuing devotion to her religious beliefs, and her increasingly successful attempts to gain Charles’ sympathies for the Catholic faith, created an even greater conflict. Emissaries from Rome and English Catholics formed a large segment of her court circle, and she kept an open chapel at Somerset House, where she employed the services of a private confessor. Coupled with her involvement in court intrigues, many viewed her unwavering sense of Catholic piety as incompatible with her role as Queen. This opinion gathered force as the King began to act without Parliament, and germinated in a climate of political unrest, so that at the outset of the Civil War Henrietta Maria became a widely disliked figure.

During the War, she became actively involved in raising funds and troops in support of the King. The events of her life at this war-torn period read like that of a fictional heroine. She arranged mercenary marriages for her children, pawned the crown jewels, and organised landings by munitions ships. Her most courageous act was the arrival in

York in 1643 with a large army, following a brief period in Holland, where she had begun negotiations with her brother, King Louis XIII of France, and the King of Denmark. Styling herself as ‘her she-majesty generalissima’, she marched south at the head of the army to a joyous reunion with Charles II in Oxford.

But Henrietta Maria’s success was short-lived. Realising that she was pregnant, the Queen decided to seek a safer refuge to give birth to her last child, Henriette Anne. She left Charles and Oxford in April 1644 to travel to Exeter, where she gave birth in June. A Parliamentary force under the Earl of Essex, however, laid siege to the city, and the Queen only narrowly managed to escape further west into Cornwall, before sailing for France in mid-July 1744.

The Queen was by now constantly ill, and her frail appearance was commented on by those who hosted her slow progress through Brittany to Paris. But despite her frail health, the Queen maintained a constant effort to support Charles’ increasingly dire position in England. She was generously supported by Anne of Austria, the queen regent, with a pension of 30,000 livres a month (much of which she sent to the King) and was permitted to stay in the Louvre while at Paris, and St. Germain during the summer. Although she was later joined by some of her children shortly before the execution of her husband, Henrietta Maria never fully recovered from hearing the shocking news of Charles’ death in 1649. Thereafter, she became solely dependent upon the good will of others for her livelihood, having alienated many of her children, not least the future Charles II, by her constant attempts to convert them to Catholicism. She had greater success with James, Duke of York, but with ultimately disastrous consequences. Henrietta Maria returned to England until 1660, but, amidst failing health and what she perceived to be an English indifference to her sufferings, she returned to France in 1665, and died in 1669 near Paris after ingesting too much opium.

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