Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Study for the hands of a commander, c.1700 

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Study for the hands of a commander, c.1700, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Black and white chalks on paper
17th Century
16 ½ x 10 ½ in (42.2 x 26.5 cm)
Bruce Ingram Collection U.S.A.
The British Face Historical Portraits Ltd London p.52 p.53 (ill.)
The British Face Historical Portraits Ltd London 26th November - 6th December 2002 no.24
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This drawing shows how assiduously Kneller practised at this most demanding aspect of likeness, and how interested he was in achieving an accuracy within the confines of elegance that is an achievement equal to his predecessors. That Kneller made a close study of these is shown by drawings such as the Study of the right hand of the Countess of Rochester (Witt Collection) which is copied from the portrait by Sir Peter Lely in the series of Windsor Beauties (Royal Collection, Hampton Court), which shows one of Lely’s most beautiful and plausible hands, poised in a delicate motion of plucking at a rose.

Here the four male hands would appear to relate to an as-yet unrecognised portrait of a military officer, as the two right hands are depicted in alternative attitudes holding a commander’s baton. The plain shirt cuff visible above the lower hand clasping the baton appears to be of a type found in Kneller’s portraits of soldiers. Although it has not been possible to identify these hands – which may, in any case, represent a very preliminary stage in a composition – they may be compared to the hands in Kneller’s Sir Thomas Dilkes and Sir Stafford Fairborne (both National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) which display similar holds on the baton.

This present drawing also demonstrates features of Kneller’s treatment of hands which function as a tool to attribution. A distinctive feature of Kneller hands is the parallel arrangement of the fingers along the knuckles, and the tapering ends to the fingers. This feature, not unknown in the work of Lely, occurs to a greater or lesser degree in all of the painter’s treatments of hands, and would appear to be a distinct mannerism. It is a notable feature, for example, of the Portrait of Hortense Mancini as Cleopatra (Althorp) which bears a Kneller signature, and has been known as the work of Kneller since 1750, but has recently been attributed to Jacob-Ferdinand Voet.

We are grateful to Professor J.D. Stewart for confirming the attribution to Kneller.
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