Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Young Woman 1690c.

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Portrait of a Young Woman, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25inches 76.2 x 63.5cm
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The delicated painted and expressive head of this sitter is characteristic of the work of Sir Godfrey Kneller, and the treatment of the hair, in which dark strokes are freely brushed onto a mid-brown background to suggest the fall of the locks, may be regarded almost as a signature style. From works such as this it is easy to understand why Sir Godfrey Kneller succeeded in dominating British society portraiture from the death of Sir Peter Lely in 1680 (whose position Kneller had begun to threaten from the occasion of his Portrait of Charles II (Royal Collection) in 1678) until his own death in 1723. Indeed, the careers of accomplished disciples such as Charles Jervas (1675-1739) extend the limits of Kneller's influence. Even into the 1740s, it was the style of Kneller, perpetuated by engravings, that shaped the idiom of Irish and Colonial American portraiture.

This reputation was well-deserved, and although Kneller's age embraced many accomplished painters -John Closterman, for example, Jonathan Richardson the Elder, or Michael Dahl- none came close to Kneller in immediate fame, or in such instant association in the popular mind with the exercise of portraiture. Kneller is remembered for having painted ten ruling sovereigns, including every reigning British monarch from King Charles II to King George I, as well as almost every person of prominence in forty years on British public life.

This portrait may be dated most probably to the 1690s -not least because the 30 x 25 inch size almost disappears from Kneller's oeuvre after c.1697. The draperies, displayed in three colours, are stylistically and tonally unusual for Kneller himself, and may suggest the collaboration of a studio assistant. The role of assistants in Kneller's studio is less well understood than once thought, but it is plain that a man who left some five hundred portraits unfinished at his death was not solely responsible for their execution. Certainly in many instances Kneller would complete the sitter''s head and would leave the completion of the rest to assistants, working under his direction.
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