Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady believed to be the Countess of Lindsay 1655c.

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of a Lady believed to be the Countess of Lindsay, Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 126 x 102 cm
Sir John Leslie Bt., Castle Leslie, Glaslough Co. Monaghan, Ireland; Sir Shane Leslie Bt., his son; His sale Sotheby''s December 9th 1981, lot 149; Sotheby''s British Pictures July 11th 1990 (lot 23) 64,000 (hammer price)
Possibly R. B. Beckett Lely 1951 catalogue no. 300
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This portrait is an excellent example of Lely's portrait style of the mid 1650s. This has rightly been regarded as his finest period, in which he shows the fullest development from the small-scale works of the previous decade and Dutch burgher character of his larger compositions towards a more lyrical and personal conception of the Baroque portrait. It is also a period of his work immune to the criticism -though often made unjustly- of repetitious and mechanical execution, the natural consequence of his expanded patronage in the later 1660s and 1670s.

The composition is straightforward, with the sitter at three-quarter length, slightly to the right of centre before a landscape, suggesting a debt to Van Dyck, but the tonality and the pensive glance of the sitter invest the whole with a remarkable intensity. The painting abounds with ingenious flourishes and demonstrations of the painter's skill that are not always to be found in the later works. A remarkable care is exercised, for example, in the painting of the sitter''s hands, and in the delineation of nails and fingers. The foreshortening of the right hand and wrist is an ambitious exercise, whilst the manner in which that hand holds the silk of the sleeve adds an unexpected note of sensuality.

The lemon is a bright note that enlivens the rich brown and violet of the draperies, and gives the whole a remarkable tonal harmony. Its purpose is not merely to suggest opulence, but, as a contemporary audience would have recognised, to convey other less explicit allusions. In Christian art it is traditionally associated with faithfulness in love, and as such portraits were commissioned before a marriage the symbolism may be heightened by the prospect of imminent betrothal. In the Old Testament the lemon is associated with the harvest, which again might be read as an allusion to the sitter''s hoped-for fertility.

Elizabeth Wharton was the elder of the two daughters of Philip Lord Wharton, the great connoisseur and patron of Van Dyck. Indeed, Elizabeth Wharton's first appearance in portraiture is in the double portrait Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton painted by Van Dyck in 1640 (Hermitage). Lord Wharton had been a central figure in the court of King Charles I, but politically his sympathies lay more with Cromwell by the 1650s. Disfavour and imprisonment came as a consequence of his pronounced Whig views, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution of 1688. His daughter's career was more moderate. The first wife of Robert Bertie Earl of Lindsey died without issue in 1655, perhaps at around the date of this portrait, and the Earl took Elizabeth Wharton as his second wife. The Countess died in 1669, having given birth to a son, Robert, who would succeed his father in 1701.
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