Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Venus Attired by the Graces 

Anne Killigrew (1660-1685)

Venus Attired by the Graces, Anne Killigrew
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
44 x 37 1/3 inches, 112 x 95 cm
The artist’s brother, Admiral Henry Killigrew; His sale, December 1727; Collection of Mr Stenhouse, Folkestone, Kent by 1915; English Private Collection.
‘Vertue Note Books’, Volume II, Walpole Society Volume XX, 1931-2, pp4 & 58 C. H. Collins Baker, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 28, no. 152 (Dec 1915) p112 & 114 illus.; Carol Barash, ‘English Women’s Poetry, 1649-1714: Politics, Community and Linguistic Authority’ (Oxford 1996) p.157.
This important painting, last recorded in 1915, is one of only three extant works by Anne Killigrew, perhaps the most celebrated female English prodigy of the seventeenth century. A poet and artist of great beauty and repute, Killigrew died of smallpox at the age of just twenty-five, prompting the Poet Laureate John Dryden, among others, to pen one of his best known homilies; “to the accomplished young Lady… excellent in the Two sister-arts of Poesy and Painting”. ‘Venus Attired by the Graces’ is the largest and most significant of Killigrew’s surviving pictures, the two others, a self-portrait [Berkeley Castle] and a portrait of James II [Royal Collection] being small full-lengths.

Recent conservation has revealed a signed work of exceptional quality, full of the many varied influences that shaped Killigrew’s brief artistic career. The overall conception of the work appears to be derived from the classical scenes of Poussin, as does the background landscape with its bright warm tones. The figures in the foreground are clearly mannerist productions with their elongated limbs, and one can see echoes equally of Italian mannerists such as Parmigianino, and the more idiosyncratic Fontainebleau school. Other details, such as the fountain on the left, are no doubt taken from the work of Sir Peter Lely. The naked figure of Venus had been over-painted with a yellow drape, probably in the early nineteenth century. This prudish addition has now been removed.

Unfortunately, little is known of Killigrew’s life, particularly her literary and artistic upbringing. A daughter of a staunchly Royalist Chaplain, and niece of the roguish playwright Thomas Killigrew, we can assume that she had access to a first class education, and was immersed from an early age in an artistic milieu. It was claimed after her death that she was fluent in Latin and Greek. The few details we do know of her life come from her poems, which have become well known for their classical elegance, and betray an accomplishment well beyond her years. Her collected poems were published soon after her death, and quickly established her literary reputation.

Killigrew’s artistic influences must stem from her time at court. In 1683 she is listed as being one of Mary of Modena’s six maids of honour, and given her many links to the Royal Household, it must be that she was able to study at length the Royal art collection. We can also assume, given that she appears to have sat to Sir Peter Lely [Sothebys 25th November 2004, lot 22] that she had opportunity to study that artist’s collection of Old Masters. John Dryden, in his Ode to Killigrew’s memory, describes her painting as nothing less than an incredible adjunct to her literary skill, “one would have thought, she should have been content” with her poetic endeavours, he wrote;
“But what can young ambitious souls confine?
To the next realm she stretched her sway,
For Painture near adjoining lay…”

It is clear also that Dryden saw the present picture of Venus being attired by the Graces, for he describes it thus;

“Of lofty trees, with sacred shades,
And perspectives of pleasant glades,
Where nymphs of brightest form appear,
And shaggy satyrs standing near,
Which them at once admire and fear.”
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.