Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, 1560s 

 English School 

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, 1560s,  English School
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Oil on wood panel
16th Century
10 3/8 in. (26.4 cm.) diameter
 
Provenance:
Walter Kaiser (1931-2016), New York; Thence by descent
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This intimate, jewel-like depiction of Elizabeth I derives from the ‘Hampden’ portrait, painted in the 1560s when Elizabeth was forced to address the issue of her marriage during the first serious test of her reign – the succession crisis of 1562/3.

When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558 the universal expectation was that she would marry. An amusing letter written by Baron Breuner in 1559 to the Emperor Ferdinand II describes Elizabeth as: 'somewhat dejected. She told me that she was daily pestered with petitions from her subjects desiring her for her honour’s sake and for the welfare of her Kingdom … to marry'. Elizabeth was not only a woman, but the last of the Tudor line. This was also the time of John Knox, and his infamous Blast against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. A well-negotiated marriage, therefore, was seen as crucial to cement her hold on the throne.

History, however, tells us that Elizabeth was famously averse to the idea of marriage. Early in 1559 the new Queen told Members of Parliament that she had no wish to marry. She preferred to remain in 'the kind of life in which I live'. She would never marry against the kingdom's interest. Even so, she entertained, at least diplomatically, numerous suitors from England and abroad. 'Here is a great resort of wooers and controversy among lovers', wrote Sir William Cecil in October 1559. Philip II of Spain, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, even suggested himself, but Elizabeth declined, reminding him, somewhat bluntly, that he was ‘a heretic’. The suits of two of the Emperor Ferdinand II’s sons, Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles, while earnestly promoted by Secretary Cecil, also foundered on the question of religion. The most persistent foreigner was Erik XIV of Sweden, who promised endless riches and protested his love for Elizabeth. He wrote extravagant love letters, signing them 'Your Serenity’s most loving Eric'. His suit was somewhat diminished when it was found that the gold coins scattered freely in London by his embassy, in a bid to win public support, were fake.

It was against this backdrop that the ‘Hampden’ portrait was painted, and although there has been much debate as to the identity of the artist responsible, a possible contender, as argued by this gallery in 2008, is Steven van Herwijck (c.1530 – c.1565), an Anglo-Flemish painter active in England around his date.

A number of bust-length likenesses of Elizabeth inspired by the ‘Hampden’ portrait exist in private collections, however the present work is distinguishable by its reduced-scale, circular format. Circular portraits from this date are rare, and the examples that exist have, more often than not, been cut-down from larger rectangular panels. That the present work was always intended to be circular is evident by the artist’s use of the panel support. The panel itself is composed of two oak boards, and when painting a rectangular portrait an artist would always use the panel in its upright position, with the joins running vertically from top to bottom. The artist here, however, positioned the panel with the joins running diagonally, an approach more consistent when painting in a circular format.

The reduced-scale of this work draws greater attention to the exquisite detailing of the costume. Elizabeth is shown wearing a finely embroidered black dress with ‘pulled out’ or ‘tuffed’ white sarsenet on the sleeves and shoulders. An intricately designed white gauze covers her upper body and around her neck Elizabeth wears, as Sovereign of the Garter, the Lesser George on a blue ribbon, which hangs slightly off centre at her chest. Elizabeth’s headdress is equally fine, with small floral spray fastened to a pearl-edged headpiece comprised of twisted white gauze decorated with pearls and precious stones.
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