Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Courtesan 1675c.

Mary Beale (1633-99)

Portrait of a Courtesan, Mary Beale
Oil on canvas
17th Century
18 x 15 inches 45.7 x 38.1 cm
Tabitha Barber Portrait of a Seventeenth-century painter, her family and her studio 1999
This portrait is thought to be one of King Charles II's mistresses. A court beauty no doubt, she forms an interesting addition to a series of portraits by Mary Beale of notable court beauties. Mary ''Moll'' Davis and Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine are other known compositions distinguished by a reduction in scale, usually to the present dimensions of c.18 x 15 inches and by the employment of a more meticulous technique and often costlier pigments than found in her larger canvasses.

The English Court fashion at the time of the Restoration was unchanged by the arrival of Charles II's Portuguese wife in 1662. The King was a great admirer of the opposite sex and the prominence of women at court led to a great demand in their portraiture and company. This unknown lady is seated in the languid pose typical of the sensual and idealised beauty captured by Sir Peter Lely in his Post-Restoration style. She may have been a maid of honour to the Queen, a position most suited to a pretty, unmarried, well-born young lady. This portrait and others in the set might have been painted from Sir Peter Lely's original before its collection by the client, or, according to a further theory concerning these small pictures, from the client's painting as a duplicate to hang in a townhouse whilst the large paintings went to the country.

Following the Windsor Beauties series, there was a great fashion in the second half of the seventeenth century in the collection of portraits of prominent women famous for their beauty and scandalous behaviour. As well as the eleven portraits listed in 1674 from the Windsor Series there were other recorded sets, most prominent among them belonging to Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland and another by Baptist May, Keeper of the Privy Purse and otherwise referred to as the Court Pimp. Charles Beale recorded in his diary how Baptist May had portraits depicting Royalty, Ladies and Mistresses in his collection giving us a first hand account of the popularity of female portraiture at this time. Such a fashion encouraged the practise of reproducing images after well-known portrait compositions of these notorious beauties.

Beale's oeuvre is best known for its scale-of-life portraits of her friends and contemporaries and for the informal pictures she produced of her immediate family ''for study and improvement.'' Works such as the present painting represent a third and further aspect of her work, in which she produced copies of paintings by Sir Peter Lely with a mind both to an understanding of his technique as well as to the marketability of such a fashionable set.
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