Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady in a red dress 

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Portrait of a Lady in a red dress, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 in (127 x 101.2 cm)
Private Collection, Laguna Beach, CA.
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Sir Godfrey Kneller dominates our understanding of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century British portraiture. With Van Dyck, Lely and Reynolds, his name has become synonymous with the visual interpretation of British history – not least because he painted almost every person of prominence in forty years of British public life. Every reigning British monarch from Charles II to George I sat to Kneller.

Even after his death, the careers of accomplished disciples such as Charles Jervas (1675-1739) extended the limits of his influence into the 1740s, while his influence on later greats such as Reynolds is incontestable. It was, too, Kneller’s style and technique, perpetuated by engravings, which helped shape the idiom of Colonial American portraiture. And yet, for all the glories of his artistic legacy, Kneller’s reputation suffered in later generations as taste and technique changed. His bold use of impasto, and almost rough brushwork – as in this example, and as befitted a pupil of Rembrandt – was at odds with those eighteenth century artists who preferred the fine finishes of neo-classicism. Finally, his prolificacy was held against him, and his portraits of a succession of important sitters constrained by the dictates of fashion and decorum were considered to be dominated by an augustan stiffness.

Although the sitter in the present work is not known, the composition bears a striking resemblance to a portrait of ‘Mrs Morley’ from 1708 and is thus dateable to this period. Kneller was at the height of his career when the present work was painted, having received great acclaim for his famous series of the ‘Hampton Court Beauties’ in the 1790’s followed shortly by a knighthood. The free and exuberant handling of paint is typical of Kneller’s style during this period, seen particularly in the blue drapes where applied with such rapidity that Kneller once said in defense of any close scrutiny of is work ‘My paintings were not made for smelling of…’.
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