Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman, mid-1650s 

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of a Gentleman, mid-1650s, Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Private Collection, USA.
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This portrait by the great English painter Sir Peter Lely, dateable to the mid-1650s, demonstrates the fluency and virtuosity that led to Lely’s long and successful career as painter to the English court.

Peter Lely arrived in London in 1641, previously a master of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlam, and it wasn’t long before the sombre Dutch-influenced colouring of his portraits was replaced by a more flamboyant palette practiced and championed by the late Van Dyck. Portrait of a Gentleman crystallises this moment of stylistic development during the Interregnum years prior to Charles II’s return to Britain. Seventeenth century England saw an increasingly competitive market for portraitists and only the canny survived: it wasn’t simply good enough to imitate the earlier masters, and clients sought portraitists who could improve and create a distinction for themselves in artistic and social manners. Described by Pepys as ‘a mighty proud man and full of state’ Lely could offer this, assisted by pronounced social charm, and subsequently enjoyed the most prestigious patronage, including the Duke of Northumberland whose collection of Old Masters he studied thoroughly. The success of Lely in establishing himself is perhaps best reflected in his prices. In the 1650s he charged £5 for a head and £10 for a half-length but by 1660 he was charging £15 and £25 respectively. His portraits therefore also provide an invaluable glimpse into the opportunities which awaited budding entrepreneurs following the Restoration; Lely himself employed a team of assistants and despite charging more for his work, produced copies and variants of his portraits on a vast scale.

The dynamic composition seen here, with the sitter positioned contra-posto, was repeated by Lely on a few occasions during the 1650s – see for example the portrait of Robert Sidney (1626-68) [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]. As well as suggesting movement, the positioning of the sitter’s shoulder and arm also evokes depth, which is further emphasised by the confidently painted highlights that further punctuate the composition.

Until recently the sitter in this work was thought to be Algernon Sidney (1623-83), although this can be ruled out on comparison with a number of other likenesses of Sidney by both Lely and other portraitists of the period. There is however some logic behind this traditional identification; the Sidneys, along with a number of other prominent English noble families including the Percys, Capells, Dysarts, Dormers and Herberts, were early patrons of Lely and frequently sat to the painter throughout the 1650s.
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