Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait Sketch of a Lady 1690s

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Portrait Sketch of a Lady, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Black chalk on paper
17th Century
12 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches 32 x 20.9 cm
Probably Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727-1788); Dr Smart of Chiswick; His daughter, then by gift to Dr [] of Richmond; By gift to Dr Lloyd October 4th 1886; Purchased from Wilson by Muriel Wheeler; By gift to her husband October 22nd 1943; Lord Rees-Mogg Collection
J. Douglas Stewart Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait Oxford 1983 p.167 Drawings catalogue no.39, ill. Plate 98b verso p.175 catalogue no.79, ill.111a
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Sir Godfrey Kneller's career as Society''s favourite portraitist lasted from his introduction to the Duke of Monmouth's secretary James Vernon (1646-1727) in 1677 until his death in 1723. His rise was meteoric, and in 1678, only two years after Kneller''s arrival in England, the Duke of Monmouth arranged a rather tactless Royal commission, in which King Charles II sat both to Lely and Kneller simultaneously. Observers are said to have admired the speed and the sureness of Kneller's technique and Lely himself praised the likeness and prophesied great things for the young painter.

These plaudits were justified, and from this commission until his death in 1723 Kneller painted each successive sovereign on numerous occasions. In 1688 he was appointed principal painter to William and Mary, jointly with John Riley (1646-1691) until that painter''s death and then as the sole holder of the office. Subsequent monarchs renewed his appointment, and helped to confirm Kneller in a dominance over English painter that proved impervious to the ambitions of any rival. In 1693 he was knighted and in 1715 made a baronet by George I, a remarkable distinction for a ''face-painter.''

Kneller''s technical virtuosity is considerable, revealing a profound study of the Dutch and Flemish masters, which never distorts his distinctive personal style, and a fluid assurance in anatomy and composition. His appeal to a fashionable clientele lay in the way that he applied this to present his subject on canvas precisely as -at their best- they would wish the world to see them. Character is never sacrificed for effect in Kneller's portraiture. There is, for example, bravura in his portraits of Admirals at Greenwich, but underpinning it is a stolid competence and bravery, which make them men under whom one might serve with confidence. In male portraits a sense of the sitter's self-possession and worth fills the canvas. In his paintings of women, as this example shows, he moves away from the drowsy fantasy of Lely's portraits. He shares the concern of other painters with smoothness and regularity of feature, but he introduces an almost insolent air of intelligence and self-possession. Contemporary fashion is acknowledged only in the hair that is pulled back of the sitter''s forehead whence it would fall in a curl over the shoulder. Otherwise the appearance is intended to be timeless and alludes to the classical. Kneller was a keen student of ancient and modern sculpture, and its influence can be detected in his portraits, though overlaid by the conventions of the Baroque. This drawing shows these features fully, with the ''classical'' angle of the head and strong, regular features, as well as Kneller''s emphasis of the large and attentive eyes. This particular also sheet bears an explicit proof of the preoccupation with sculpture, since verso there is one of two known drawings after Bernini's Proserpina.

Drawings by Kneller remain rare in comparison with the volume of his painted portraits. They were, however, an important part of his working process. By the 1690s Kneller received up to fourteen sitters in a day, and the first stage in executing a portrait -although there might be several further sittings- would be a rapid chalk or pencil sketch such as this one, in which Kneller could establish likeness and attitude. As sketches for the portraits of William Congreve (London, Witt Collection) and King George I (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) demonstrate, once artist and sitter were agreed on a format the final painting might reproduce the drawing very closely. No identity for this present sitter has so far been agreed upon; tradition has described her as a Duchess of Marlborough, either Sarah Churchill (1660-1744) or her daughter Henrietta (1681-1733).
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