Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King William III (1650 - 1702) 1680c.

Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of King William III (1650 - 1702), Studio of Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
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By the date of this portrait Prince William of Orange was a figure of considerable importance in the politics of Europe. Since 1672 at the age of twenty two he had been Captain General of the Dutch United Provinces in their war against the armies of Louis XIV. This was the beginning of that championing of the Protestant cause on the continent that was to occupy the majority of his time for the next thirty years. It was also more and more apparent to observers in England that he might soon come to have a very direct relevance to their domestic affairs.

The marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Braganza was childless, and it was plain that the king had no intention of divorcing his wife and remarrying. The Protestant succession seemed nonetheless secure in the children of James Duke of York and Anne Hyde, Mary and Anne, the elder of whom was married to Prince William. The Duke's second marriage in 1673 to the Catholic Mary of Modena changed all this, and raised the threatening possibility of a Catholic heir and a counter-reformation in England.

The paranoia excited by this possibility among many protestant politicians and subjects gave rise to the Exclusion Crisis of the mid-1670s, in which Whig peers and members of Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, sought to ensure that neither James nor any Catholic progeny could succeed to the throne. King Charles''s commendable resistance to this pressure is well known, and the crisis was in any case defused by the apparent barrenness of the Yorks'' marriage, but these events had the effect of further thrusting William of Orange into the public consciousness as a great hope for the survival of English Protestantism. It is to this period of interest in the Prince of Orange that the present portrait, and numerous other painted and printed images of William by Lely and his studio, can de dated.

After the accession of his father-in-law and uncle James II William played a difficult game with some tact and skill. During the uprising of the Duke of Monmouth he sent James the three Scottish regiments that were in service in the Netherlands, and this and his (declined) offer to command them personally did much to avert James''s suspicions of William. Events proved otherwise, however, and in 1688 William responded to the entreaties of Protestant courtiers in England, which resulted in the abdication of James II and by 1689 the establishment of the dual monarchy, in which Parliament was persuaded to declare William to be king alongside his wife, whose was, of course, the better claim.

After Mary''s death in 1694 -by which the King was devastated and which caused him to suspend, for example, the magnificent projects at Hampton Court which were being effected largely in her honour- William continued as king, although respecting Princess Anne, wife of Prince George of Denmark, as his successor, who waived her right to the throne during his lifetime. His reign as King of England was marked by a continued struggle against Louis XIV in defence of the interests of the Dutch states, as well as in its initial stage the campaigns against James II who attempted to regain his throne through military action in Ireland, involving most famously his victory over King James''s forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The immediate source for this painting appears to be military portraits of the Prince of Orange produced by Sir Peter Lely and his studio c.1677 (for example, a portrait of William by Lely engraved in mezzotint by Abraham Blooteling in 1678), although the superior characterisation and meticulous treatment of the elaborate gilded armour raises this portrait above the usual run of studio versions. Stylistically this painting has much in common with the work of the Dutch émigré painter Willem Wissing. Wissing arrived in England in 1676 and worked in the studio of Sir Peter Lely for the next four years before beginning an independent career after that painter''s death. As with many of the better studio assistants - who might better be described as associates - independent work is identifiable by Wissing from early in his career in this country, and it is reasonable to attribute this painting to him, as it demonstrates much of the lightness, grace and subtlety of his technique. Both before and after 1680 he produced independent paintings of Prince William and Princess Mary (examples Royal Collection; National Portrait Gallery) and may have had some particular affinity with William on account of their shared nationality.

The boldly moulded cartouche that surrounds the portrait is probably the work of a different studio hand, and recalls the contemporary work of Mary Beale (1633 - 1699), an independent portraitist and copyist of Lely, whose portraits are similarly enclosed by such cartouches, often painted by her sons. Heavy trompe l'oeil framing such as this would appear to have been a particularly English taste, and was added after the completion of the portrait likeness and draperies.
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