Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), c.1650 

Circle of Robert Walker (1599-1658)

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), c.1650, Circle of Robert Walker
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
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The execution of King Charles I in 1649 left a vacuum both in politics and portraiture, both of which were to be filled by the person and image of Oliver Cromwell. Though he was not to be proclaimed Lord Protector until 1653, it is clear from portraits such as this, which is of a type executed in 1649, that in terms of broadcast image the Cromwellian regime began to employ royalist iconography from an early date.

The sombre head and shoulders portrayals of Parliamentary leaders were clearly felt insufficiently dynamic for the new order, and here the pose and manner of Cromwell is inspired by an earlier work by Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Earl of Strafford c.1636. A larger (50 x 40) variant in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery includes a Van Dyckian page tying the general's sash, which in conjunction with the marshal's baton confirms his status. Walker has been criticised as unoriginal in finding no new idiom to replace the courtly manner of Van Dyck. He is recorded as saying ''if I could do better I would not do Vandickes'', but this must be seen as testament to the all-pervading influence of Van Dyck whose shadow stretched over English painting for over a century after his death. It is worth remembering that Mary Beale, who is believed to have been Walker's pupil was a puritan and in no sympathy with courtly self-indulgence, and yet regarded Van Dyck as the most important of masters and was considered his most accomplished copyist. Too little, even now, is known of Walker''s life and method to be certain, but this softened and idealised image of Cromwell -to be compared to the uncompromising visage in the miniatures of Samuel Cooper- was most likely the product of a single sitting or series of sittings around 1649, but continued to be the source of a number of autograph and studio works produced up to 1656.
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