Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Neil O'Neill (c.1658-90) 1680c.

John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

Portrait of Sir Neil O'Neill (c.1658-90), John Michael Wright
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Oil on canvas
17th Century
36 x 25 inches 91.4 x 63.5 cm
 
This is a small-scale autograph replica of the monumental portrait of Sir Neil O'Neill now in the collection of Tate Britain. It shows Sir Neil in the traditional dress of an Irish chieftain, with trophies at his feet of Japanese armour, perhaps representing the hoped-for triumph of Catholicism over its enemies, since the Japanese were known as persecutors of the Jesuit missionaries in Japan.

John Michael Wright was one of the most successful native English artists of the seventeenth century, and, along with earlier contemporaries such as Robert Walker and William Dobson, was one of only a handful to find favour amongst the top echelons of society. At the height of his fame, he styled himself ‘Pictor Regius’ [The King’s Painter] and, in his depiction of Charles II [Royal Collection], is responsible for one of the most magnificent Royal portraits in English art. His career was all the more remarkable in an era when patrons continued to exercise their traditional preference for foreign artists, as they had done from Holbein to Van Dyck, and would do from Lely to Kneller.

So it is ironic, therefore, that until recently scholars knew little of Wright’s life, and even referred to him incorrectly as ‘Joseph’ Wright. His oeuvre was eclipsed by the more prolific Lely, and countless works suffered the indignity of being miscatalogued. However, recognised together, Wright’s works stand out from the occasionally pedestrian repetitions of seventeenth century portraiture. If Lely was the most accomplished painter of the genre – or fashion – of later seventeenth century Britain, it is Wright whose actual likenesses have stood the test of time. When placed next to Lely’s work, for example, Wright’s lively and realistic characterisations tend to reinforce Pepy’s critique that Lely’s portraits were ‘good but not like.’

Wright’s success as an artist lay in his uniquely diverse artistic background and training. Although born in London, he first trained in Scotland as an apprentice to George Jamesone. He then left for Italy and stayed in Rome for a decade from 1642, working amongst contemporaries such as Poussin and Velazquez. Records show that his own private art collection included works then attributed to Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, whom he appears to have copied assiduously. In 1648, he became a member of the Academy of St Luke. He finally returned to London in 1656, after having spent time in France and Flanders. No other English artist before Wright had traveled and studied so extensively on the continent.
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