Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady, probably a member of the Randolph family late 1690s

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Portrait of a Lady, probably a member of the Randolph family, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76 x 63.5 cm
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Sir Godfrey Kneller dominates our understanding of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century British portraiture. With Van Dyck, Lely and Reynolds, his name has become synonymous with the visual interpretation of British history – not least because he painted almost every person of prominence in forty years of British public life. Every reigning British monarch from Charles II to George I sat to Kneller.

Even after his death, the careers of accomplished disciples such as Charles Jervas (1675-1739) extended the limits of his influence into the 1740s, while his influence on later greats such as Reynolds is incontestable. It was, too, Kneller’s style and technique, perpetuated by engravings, which helped shape the idiom of Colonial American portraiture. And yet, for all the glories of his artistic legacy, Kneller’s reputation suffered in later generations as taste and technique changed. His bold use of impasto, and almost rough brushwork – as in this example, and as befitted a pupil of Rembrandt – was at odds with those eighteenth century artists who preferred the fine finishes of neo-classicism. Finally, his prolificacy was held against him, and his portraits of a succession of important sitters constrained by the dictates of fashion and decorum were considered to be dominated by an augustan stiffness.

This portrait shows one of Kneller’s more intimate female studies. The sitter is unencumbered by high fashion or a background of stately topography. The emphasis is instead placed directly on the alluring femininity, and enhanced by the loose drapery and falling hair around her shoulder. This looseness of focus is created with a free fluidity of brushstrokes. He has used a Rembrandt-esque technique of subtle tones in the face, and we can see how Kneller often allowed the bluer ground layer to show through when suggesting the darker flesh tones. In both techniques, we should bear in mind Kneller’s own advice, when rebuking those who peered at his works too closely, ‘My paintings were not made for smelling of…’.

The sitter in this portrait has not been certainly identified. An inscription on the reverse, together with a probable former Randolph ownership, suggests the sitter was a member of the Randolph family. The handling and pose are reminiscent of Kneller’s works of the later 1690s, such as ‘Lady Diana Feilding’ [private collection] dated to 1697.
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