Historical Portraits Picture Archive

King Charles II (1630-1685) 1680c.

John Riley (1646-91)

King Charles II (1630-1685), John Riley
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x101.5 cm
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The portraiture of John Riley is most frequently associated with an assured and characterful depiction of middle class and minor gentry sitters, or with his remarkable Scullion (Christ Church) and Bridget Riley (Royal Collection), in which he brings an almost anachronistic humanity. He is less known for grandiose treatments, although examples such as Elias Ashmole (Ashmolean Museum) and the present portrait show his mastery of the full-blown Baroque.

The Riley portrait was produced from sittings c.1682, and versions exist in the Ashmolean Museum, which were presented by the founder. These are an oval bust variant and a three-quarter length portrait similar to the present example but with simplified armour. The present portrait would seem to be the original of the composition, on account of the quality of the execution of face, and through the pentimenti, which show the artist changing his mind during the course of execution. The King's armour, for example, which in the Oxford portrait is straightforwardly contemporary, is here of a more fantastic and Roman character, and a stage of evolution from one to the other is still apparent in this painting.

The King's celebrated remark on seeing his face through the eyes of the portraitist was occasioned by this image. The story was transmitted to George Vertue (Diaries IV 28) by the painter Thomas Murray, who had been taught in Riley's studio, that the King on seeing the Riley portrait remarked: ''Is this like me? Then oddsfish I'm an ugly fellow.'' Riley, who was always extremely sensitive to the reception of his work, is said to have been unable ever again to look on the painting, which was later bought not by the King but by an unnamed nobleman. This last may be apocryphal, however, as the portrait exists in several autograph versions.

The martial, almost imperial, image of the King is an interesting characterisation. It affirms the King's royal power and personal valour at a time when his prerogatives were coming under increasing threat from Whig politicians. In particular the period during which this portrait was painted are marked by the Exclusion Crisis (1677-1682), in which the Whigs under the Earl of Shaftesbury attempted to bar the Catholic Duke of York from the Succession. Whatever his reservations about his brother''s political ineptitude, Charles refused to allow anyone to dictate the Succession, and displayed in the face of this opposition the resolve that is suggested in the face of this portrait.
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