Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Courtesan 1660s

Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of a Courtesan, Studio of Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
21 x 17 inches 57 x 41 cm
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This portrait is a small-scale version of a typical portrait type produced by Sir Peter Lely and his studio in the 1660s, and similar to a number of portraits of royal mistresses and courtesans. The painting shows a typical concern with the character of the sitter, and the gaze with which she peers into the world of the viewer is frank and appraising.

Her gown is of the brown-gold colour particularly fashionable at Court during this period, whilst her jewellery reveals her as a person of high status or particular favour. Pearl importers were first established in London at Hatton Gardens in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, whose prerogative it was to be dressed and portrayed in pearls of the greatest size and profusion. A cursory examination of the portraits of Van Dyck and Lely in the following century show that this admiration for the pearl had not lessened, and above all jewellery they are the most frequently displayed by portrait sitters. Their continuing popularity rested not only on their beauty and value, but on their allegorical interpretation as an emblem of purity and virtue.

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