Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman, traditionally identified as Sir George Vane (1618-1679) 

Gerrit Van Honthorst (1590-1656)

Portrait of a Gentleman, traditionally identified as Sir George Vane (1618-1679), Gerrit Van Honthorst
Oil on Panel
17th Century
29ĺ x 22 7/8 in., 75.5 x 58.1 cm.
James Thursby Pelham; Thence by descent.
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Gerrit van Honthorst was one of the pre-eminent Dutch artists of the first half of the seventeenth century. He is best known as one of the foremost proponents of the Utrecht ĎCaravaggistí School, those Dutch artists who combined the chiaroscuro style of Caravaggio with the harder realism of their native manner. Honthorst had studied in Italy in the 1620s, and on his return to the North was acclaimed for his ability to convey a heightened sense of drama with strong, contrasting lighting. Works such as the Procuress [Utrecht, Central Museum] are typical of such works in its use of a candle as the single light source.

Honthorstís greatest financial success came as a portraitist based in the Hague in the 1630s, where he was extensively patronised by the court. Although Honthorstís portraits abandon Caravaggism, and are necessarily much more direct in technique and composition, this example, in which the deep blacks of the sitterís superbly realistic armour contrasts with the bright light of the flesh tones, shows the effects that continued to give Honthorstís work such a distinctive and popular character.

This portrait has been traditionally identified as showing Sir George Vane. Sir George, a soldier, was the younger son of Charles Iís Secretary of State, Sir Henry Vane the Elder, and the brother of the celebrated Parliamentarian, Sir Harry Vane. Honthorst made a great impact during his brief visit to England in 1628, and generated a considerable following among prominent Englishmen such as the Duke of Buckingham. The identification of the present sitter is supported by at least one direct link between the artist and the sitterís family, for when Charles I refused to pay Honthorst for the works he had commissioned in 1628, it was Sir Georgeís father (who had earlier served as ambassador in the Hague) who stepped forward to pay the artist. Furthermore, Sir George, a soldier, is known to have served in the Low Countries with the Statesí Army, alongside his brother Sir Walter (1619-1674), who may also be candidate for the sitter here.

Sir George Vane was born into one of the most politically involved families in England during a period of great political upheaval in English history. In his transition from loyal Royalist to active Parliamentarian, he is a classic example of how the English gentry gradually turned against King Charles I. Vane was knighted by the King in 1640 for his part in the Battle of Newburn, a small skirmish fought against the Scots. Sir George twice led the cavalry charge, and, despite having his horse wounded beneath him, managed to kill one of the Scottish leaders, the Sheriff of Teviotdale. In 1645, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil war, Sir George was appointed High Sheriff of County Durham.

And yet, in the same year, Sir George was to be found valiantly leading the defenses of Raby Castle, his family seat, against repeated Royalist sieges. In his change of sides, Vane was doubtless swayed by the ardent Parliamentary sympathies of his elder brother, Sir Harry, and perhaps even his Puritanical sister Catherine. But this volte face merely reflected the changing political sympathies of the increasingly powerful English gentry, who, by the late 1640s, has become exasperated by Charles Iís autocratic rule. Ironically, it seems that Sir George switched sides again, for in 1651 he was arrested by the Cromwellian regime for suspected Royalist sympathies. But here, too, he was symbolic of the growing, gradual desire for the eventual Restoration of King Charles II in 1660.
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