Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Study of a Young Lady, c.1680 

Mary Beale (1633-99)

Study of a Young Lady, c.1680, Mary Beale
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
18 x 14 ½ inches, 45cm x 36.5 cm
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Mary Beale was the most distinguished female portrait painter of the Stuart period, and enjoys a particular celebrity among the portraitists of the seventeenth century. This is not solely because she was a woman in a profession dominated by men, rather it was because she competed so successfully with her male colleagues, and was so prolific a painter. Additionally, through the diaries kept by her husband Charles, a former Clerk to the Patents Office, who became her studio assistant and colourman, we know more of her technique and working practice than that of many of her contemporaries, including Sir Peter Lely.

The precise details of Mary Beale’s training remain obscure: her father John Craddock had been a member of the Painter-Stainers' Company, and had had his portrait painted by Robert Walker in the late 1640s. Walker was then pre-eminent among painters in London, particularly in the puritan circles that included Mary Beale's family, and it is, not unreasonably, supposed that Walker was her tutor in painting. In 1651 she married Charles Beale, a member of a prosperous family of Puritan gentry from Walton. Shortly afterward the painter and her family moved to Covent Garden, and began to associate with an erudite circle of artists, intellectuals and clergymen that was to provide the base of her patronage in later years.

Mary Beale’s painting remained an amateur interest until 1665, when Charles Beale lost his position at the Patent Office. After a five-year sojourn in the country – to escape the plague – the Beales returned to London and Mary established herself as a professional ‘Face-Painter’, and became the chief supporter of her family. The details of her work are familiar – thanks to the writing of her husband, and to the remarkable number of her works that survive.

Beale’s strongest artistic supporter was Sir Peter Lely, Charles II’s court painter. The friendship between Lely and Mary Beale enabled her, famously, to observe the master in the act of painting – a remarkable privilege – in order to study his technique, and she is known to have copied his work upon many occasions. She also enjoyed what appears to be a unique franchise to reproduce his portraits for sale in a reduced format, or, as she called them, ‘in little’.

It seems Beale seldom wasted time, and during periods of quietness in her studio she used to exercise and develop her style through painting a number of works for the purpose of ‘study and improvement’. These works experimented with compositional ideas, as well as technical innovations such as the substitute of canvas for sacking in response to the increasing cost of materials.

The informality of the present example suggests it is most likely one of these conceptual works for self-improvement and probably depicts a family member or close friend. We can tell through studying Beale’s work during this period that she was experimenting frequently with the head positions of her models, most evidently seen in ‘The Young Bacchus’ c.1679 [St. Edmundsbury Borough Council].

Beale was also a gifted and intelligent writer, completing her ‘Discourse on Friendship’ [British Library] in 1667, in which she discusses at great length the meaning of the bond of friendship. Mary and her husband believed strongly in the concept of equality between man and wife, as evidenced by Mary’s ‘Essay on Friendship’. Without such equality, Mary believed, true friendship could not exist; ‘This being the perfection of friendship that it supposes its professors equall, laying aside all distance, & so leveling the ground, that neither hath therein the advantage of other.’
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