Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady as a Saint 

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of a Lady as a Saint, Sir Peter Lely
Oil on Panel
17th Century
12 ½ x 10 ¼ in (31.5 x 25.9 cm)
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At the outset of his career in England, Lely often painted in a reduced scale on panel in works that reflect the influence of Dutch contemporaries such as van Poelenburgh. This picture is a rare example of this early style, and shows a woman in the guise of a Saint, probably Saint Agnes, the patron saint of young women and chastity. The exposed breast, however, clearly hints at a secular, even titillating ambiguity in the subject. The pose is taken from that held by the same model in one of Lely’s most celebrated early works, the Concert [Courtauld Collection, London].

There is an immediate appeal in the elegiac mood of this fresh and delicate landscape, and in the harmony of clear blue drapery and pale flesh. There is much in this painting which seems to suggest not only Lely's larger-scale images of court ladies but to look forward to the rococo portraiture of the next century. The former impression, at least, is deceptive. This painting is unlikely to be intended as a commissioned portrait, and although Lely's later portraits may come to resemble this painting, his manner during this period - the later 1640s - is far more subdued in tone.

With its landscape setting, diminutive scale and mildly-titillating subject this is one of a number of works that Lely produced on his arrival in England, influenced by the work of Dutch contemporaries such as Cornelis van Poelenburgh. This particular painting is closely linked with the most accomplished of Lely's works in this genre, the Concert (Courtauld Collection). The Saint in this picture is, with variations in drapery and positioning of the arms, a repetition of the half-draped woman who is the focus of the Concert. This remains no guide to her identity, since the identification of the Concert as a portrait of Lely's family has long been dismissed.

Since the late Renaissance it was quite common for patrons to commission apparently devotional paintings whose attractive models conveyed an equally secular appeal. The exposed nipple of the present subject - later to become an attribute of the royal mistress- shows that this is plainly a less ambiguous work, and, although women in the guise of saints become a standard element in the repertoire of Baroque portraiture, Lady as a Martyr Saint must be intended as a piece of mild erotica in the manner of Van Poelenburgh.
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