Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a lady called Nell Gwynn 1670s

Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of a lady called Nell Gwynn, Studio of Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
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The portraits of royal mistresses produced by Sir Peter Lely and his studio in the 1660s and 1670s have helped to define our image of the lazy hedonism of the court of Charles II. It is clear that the inspiration for these images is the Arcadian portraiture of van Dyck some thirty years previously, but the sense of the voluptuous possibilities of flesh is new. Even in a studio work such as this, a remarkable standard of execution has been achieved in depicting the sitter's creamy skin and English Rose complection. Her draperies, which in common with much female portraiture for the next hundred years represent no true costume, are suggested in a broad yet highly effective manner. The background - which, though easily dominated by the sitter - contains fine passages, such as the play of light on the underside of the clouds. It is also, as Van Dyck far more rarely suggests, very plainly an English landscape, as this is very plainly an English idyll. The church spire and houses visible in the distance are plainly not of Antiquity or Italy.

The identification of the sitter as the celebrated and popular royal mistress Eleanor Gwynn (1650-1687) rests on her similarity to the likeness preserved in various acknowledged paintings. The pose in this portrait is a further -if more general- clue to her identity, since it seems to have been reserved by Lely and his studio for the portraiture of courtesans. A faint memory of this was preserved in an eighteenth century identification of the sitter as Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester, whom our sitter resembles not at all. Conversely, the National Portrait Gallery's Catherine Sedley, in an identical pose to our sitter, was until comparatively recently published as a portrait of Nell Gwynn.
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