Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary of Modena (1658-1718) 1675c.

Simon Verelst (1644–1721)

Portrait of Mary of Modena (1658-1718), Simon Verelst
Oil on canvas
49 1/4 x 35 1/2 inches 125 x 100 cm
Private Collection, France
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Even in his portraiture, Verelst achieves the intensity, the hyper-real, dreamlike quality of his flower paintings that first gained him a fashionable clientele at Court in the 1660s, and recommended him to such patrons as the Dukes of York and Buckingham. His own opinion of his talents knew no bounds, once remarking that the ‘King coud make a chancellor of whom pleas’d but coud not make a Verelst,’1 and it may have been to prick this vanity that the Duke of York suggested that he try his hand at portraiture.

His feeling for lighting and texture crosses the genres, however, and Verelst produced portraits of Buckingham, and other courtiers which were said to have made Lely fear for his business, which the present portrait of James II’s Queen when Duchess of York proves. His greater interest in flowers than faces is apparent, however, and both this portrait and a second also autograph version in the collection of the Paul Mellon Foundation at Yale include a virtuoso still-life of flowers at the top left of the painting. Significantly, although the portrait in each example is the same, the painter’s delight in flowers prevents him from repetition in this element, and the floral still-life in each is different.

This portrait was painted in the mid-1670s, datable as Julia Marciari-Alexander suggests in considering the Yale version of the portrait2 from the Queen’s hairstyle, which is paralleled in contemporary works by Lely. Marciari-Alexander suggests that the portrait commission may commemorate the birth of the Yorks’ son Charles Duke of Cambridge, in November 1677, who tragically died only one month later. If so the portrait records perhaps the last tranquil and optimistic period of her life, since in the following year the Yorks were harried by the proponents of Exclusion, who tried to remove the Catholic Duke from the Succession, whilst the eventual Queen’s successful delivery of a male heir in 1688 was overshadowed by – and precipitated – the Glorious Revolution that brought William and Mary to the throne.

A version of this portrait was recorded in the Royal Collection during the reign of Queen Anne as Verhelst. The late Dutchess of York at ½ length.3 The importance of this particular image to the sitter is shown by the fact that it was copied in two smaller paintings by the Italian painter Benedetto Gennari for transmission back to the sitter’s native Italy. Plainly it was the portrait that most appealed to her own taste and was one in which she recognised qualities of execution that made it particularly appropriate for a discerning Italian audience. Equally, in that the copies must have been destined for recipients who had not seen her for some years, and who needed reminding of her appearance, it must be that she considered it one of the most successful likenesses of herself by any painter.

Verelst was one of the three painter sons of Pieter Harmensz.Vereslt (1618 – 1668), all of whom received their training with their father in The Hague. His brothers, Johannes (1648 – 1700) and Herman (1641/2 – 1700) are known for portrait painting, rather than for the flower pieces that have immortalised Simon, although his passion for the genre descended into monomania. His vanity has been the iceberg tip of a highly unstable personality and at the end of his life, he ‘grew Crasy’4 and painted flowers on gigantic scale.

The Verelsts were an artistic dynasty, and Herman’s daughter Maria (1680 – 1744) enjoyed a successful practice as a portraitist in the next century.

1. George Vertue Notebooks II (Walpole Society XX) Oxford 1931 – 32 p.132
2. Julia Marciari-Alexander in Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II National Portrait Gallery Exhibition catalogue 2001p.161
3. ibid.
4. George Vertue Notebooks II (Walpole Society XX) Oxford 1931 – 32 p.132
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