Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Frances Stuart (1647-1702), Duchess of Richmond, 1687 

Willem Wissing and Studio (1656-1687)

Portrait of Frances Stuart (1647-1702), Duchess of Richmond, 1687, Willem Wissing and Studio
Oil on canvas
17th Century
48 ¼ x 38 ¾ in (122.5 x 98.5 cm)
Arthur John Bigge Lord Stamfordham, Linden Hall, Morpeth; By descent to his nephew Michael Edward Adeane Lord Adeane; His sale Sale 1 June 1979 (lot 149) as a Portrait of the Duchess of Cleveland; Private Collection, Germany.
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Of the many painters who had studied in the studio of Sir Peter Lely, and who began to emerge as independent portraitists in the period following his death in 1680, Willem Wissing is without doubt one of the most accomplished and original. His practice was tragically brief, since he died a mere seven years later while in the service of the Earl of Exeter at Burghley, but during that period he amply proved himself in a series of sophisticated portrayals of the country’s most prestigious patrons, painting each sovereign from Charles II to Queen Anne, their consorts and many members of their courts.

This portrait of the celebrated beauty Frances Stewart Duchess of Richmond, wife of the King’s cousin Charles Stuart Duke of Richmond is a perfect illustration of Wissing’s elegant manner. The portrait is a three-quarter length variant of the signed and dated full-length of 1687, painted in collaboration with his assistant Jan Vandervaart (1647 – 1721). This painting, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London belonged to the Duchess herself and was left by her to her heir Alexander 5th Lord Blantyre, and hung until recently at Lennoxlove, the house which Blantyre bought for himself with his inheritance. The full-length portrait develops a composition that the artist had employed for other notable female sitters. The portraits of Lady Brownlow (Grimsthorpe Castle), signed and dated 1685, and of Princess Anne of Denmark, the future Queen (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) both show the sitter against a large, circular pillar, resting on the left elbow with palatial buildings in the background. The portrait of the Duchess of Richmond reverses the composition, and repeats the elements of the pose identically in all respects save that of forearm which does not hang down from the resting elbow but lightly supports the sitter’s head. This disrupts the languorous, serpentine curve of the pose, brings the angle of the Duchess’s head upwards, engaging more directly with the viewer. The pose recalls one of Lely’s best-known portraits of Barbara Villiers Duchess of Cleveland (Knole) but the suggestion here is of alertness rather than wistful penitence, and the bold gaze is appropriate to the character of who safely navigated the perils and temptations of Court life in England and France through four reigns with her reputation and her position intact.

In the full-length portrait of the Duchess Wissing sets the figure against palatial architecture, with a colonnade visible immediately beyond the curtain that backs the figure. Appropriate to the statuesque pose and regal setting the Duchess is dressed in a magnificent ermine-lined robe that swirls about her to be lightly held by its hem in her right hand. In the present version the bombast of the larger portrait is toned down; the Duchess is wearing a russet dress and blue cloak, and the palatial architecture, though visible beyond is set further in the distance. Between this and the sitter the artist places a garden or green park whose leafy branches further enclose the sitter and enhance a mood of intimacy and contemplation. The drapery and background are the work of studio assistants, but the expressive quality of the face, and the painting of the gilt coronet with its silver bullion tassel suggest that these elements at least are the work of Wissing himself.

Wissing’s portrait is among the last painted of the Duchess. For a quarter of a century the beauty of ‘La Belle Stuart’ had exercised the court’s principal painters, and the result is a body of portraits that in profusion and variety approaches the portraiture of those ardent self-publicists, the Duchesses of Cleveland and Portsmouth. A large miniature painted by Samuel Cooper (Royal Collection) in 1662 testifies to the beauty that recommended her for employment as one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour, and in Sir Peter Lely’s portrait (Royal Collection) painted in the same year she takes her place as one of the youngest of the so-called ‘Windsor Beauties.’ Barbara Villiers feared her as a rival for the King’s affection, but Frances Stuart remained true to the role of chaste Diana that she assumes in Lely’s portrait, and resisted the King’s advances. The role of that formidable huntress was fitting, not merely for her chastity, but for her self-possession, and successive portraits of Frances Stuart suggest independence, strength of purpose and the ability to exploit her image to her own ends. A later miniature by Cooper (Royal Collection) shows her c.1663 wearing the alluring male riding habit that famously caught the eye of Samuel Pepys1. Jacob Huysman’s portrait as an officer with buff-coat and sword (Royal Collection) c.1664 was probably painted for Charles II, and well expresses her ability to enflame the King’s desire whilst keeping him at a distance. The metaphorical shield by which the Duchess protected herself and her reputation finds figurative form in Henri Gascar’s full-length portrait of the 1670s (Goodwood) which shows the Duchess as Minerva. The goddess’s panoply is, of course, very similar to that of the figure of Britannia, for which the Duchess was
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