Published: November 27, 2001
Painted Ladies at the Court of Charles II Head to Yale in January
LONDON – “Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II” is on view through January 6, 2002 at the National Portrait Gallery. Organized by the gallery and Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., the show can be seen in the Wolfson Gallery.
The exhibition will run at Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., January 25 to March 17, 2002.
The major loan exhibition, the first exploration and reconsideration of Restoration portraiture in 20 years, brings together some of the most beautiful and intriguing portraits from the reign of Charles II. Focusing on women of prominence and influence within the court, from royal brides and daughters to mistresses and actresses, the exhibition considers the ways in which these women were portrayed and their reputations, both during their lifetimes and in later centuries.
Court portraiture was dominated by the paintings of Sir Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter and the most successful and prolific painter of the day. Among the portraits by Lely in the exhibition are loans from the Royal Collection and four important paintings from Althorp, Northhamptonshire, lent by Earl Spencer whose ancestor, the Earl of Sunderland, assembled the largest body of work anywhere by this artist.
Special sections of the exhibition are devoted to Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, and Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, the king’s most important and influential mistresses. Both were made Duchesses in their own right, installed in lavish apartments in the royal palaces, and their children were ennobled.
Barbara Villiers, the mother of six of the king’s 14 known illegitimate children, set the standard of fashionable beauty and was painted many times by Lely, who is said to have put something of her appearance into all his portraits.
Louise de Keroualle, sent from France by Louis XIV, brought French fashions – including portraiture – to court, and promoted French interest. Hated by the people for her nationality and Catholicism, she was the most influential and beloved of the king’s mistresses.
The most famous today of all the women at Charles II’s court is Nell Gwyn, the comic actress-turned-mistress of the king. Ironically she is the most elusive in portraiture; although many portraits have been given her name, very few can be identified as Nell Gwyn with certainty. The few certain images of her and the mythology that grew up around her are considered in the exhibition.
Her fellow actress Mary “Moll” Davies also caught the king’s attention for a while, and the exhibition includes a portrait of her playing a newly fashionable guitar.
The exhibition also includes portraits of women whose reputations were less colorful: Charles’s pious and put-upon queen, Catherine of Braganza, and members of her court; women who were patrons of art or political operators; royal princesses destined for marriages of political expedience.
The portraits range from spectacular full-length oils to exquisite and intimate miniatures. Important medals, including the Peace of Breda golden medal showing the king’s favorite, Francis Stuart, as Britannia, are also included. The flourishing print trade, which disseminated the portraiture of these women well beyond the court, is represented by some of the most striking and skillfully made engravings and mezzotints of the period.
The reign of Charles II is one of the most fascinating, yet neglected, periods in British history. The court that established itself after the violence of the Civil War and the repression of the Interregnum reflected the character of the king – cynical, easygoing, and promiscuous.
Women had a new prominence at court, and the king’s mistresses, drawn from every stratum of society, were the dominant figures. By looking at the context in which their portraits were produced, the life histories of the women and their reputations, the exhibition reassesses long-held assumptions not only about the art of the period but also about cultural and gender politics of the time.
A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with essays by Catharine MacLeod, National Portrait Gallery, and Julia Marciari Alexander, Yale Center for British Art, and contributions from Kevin Sharpe, Sonya Wynne and Diana Dethloff.
The collection of work by Lely can be viewed at Althorp, which will open to visitors from July 1 to August 30.
Gallery hours are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. For information, www.npg.org.uk.
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