Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Act of the Portrait

To sit is to Act
Dress in the 16th and 17th century was loaded with meaning. We all have heard of, or seen, the images of Elizabeth I which functioned as one of the most important means of propaganda for her reign as well as a treasure chest of symbolic imagery. Portraits, then, were vehicles to convey meaning first and foremost. Not only the (royal) status of the sitter, but also her or his heritage, property, material wealth, knowledge or wisdom, geography, and future aspirations were all contained in embroidery, accessories, and fashion. The sitters face, however, was less important and once a general likeness was created, the drawing of it was often use as a template for many more portraits in the future.
Elizabeth I, Armada Portrait at Woburn Abbey
The tailoring of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean dresses was nothing spectacular. Skirts, sleeves and other parts were usually pinned or tied together on the body.
This provided flexibility as one could choose to wear a bodice with or without sleeves but it was also responsible for the enormously time consuming task of getting dressed. Artists did not focus so much on the tailoring of the dress but on depicting the rich layers of decoration as they were more interested in getting a message across than in painting darts and pleats. A huge amount of money was spent on fabrics however, and artists were interested in getting as high as possible realism in their works, as the illusion of the materials will give the viewer the allusion of the sitter's position. So if a painter can paint silk or lace in such a way that it seems like we can almost touch it, it will give the contemporary viewer an instant sensation of the status of the sitter. The clothes of the sitter, after all, were often more expensive than the painting and can be compared to owning a Ferrari nowadays. It is something to show off, to cherish and it will send a message out about your financial (and therefore social) status in life.
Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Margaret of Austria,
Queen consort of Philip III of Spain, c. 1605. (detail)
Royal Collection

A painted portrait, therefore, is an act of theatre. The sitter wants to sit, he or she wants to play the part of the person he or she wants to send out into the world. The world is a stage, after all, and having your portrait painted is, assuming the sitter has a big hand in the design, a way to carefully manage and compose your message to the world. Whether it is nonchalance or deep intellectualism, wealth or wisdom, whatever you choose to wear, whatever pose you take on and accessories you hold in your hand, will help create that message. Artists and sitters in Tudor and early Stuart times were very aware of this.
Hendrik Golzius, Portrait of Jan Goverts van der Aart, 1603
Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Speaking Textiles
One way of conveying your message is through textiles; texiles in the clothes you wear, the accessories you hold, the background, the room you are painted in. In the early days of this period bobbin lace, for example, was slightly cheaper than needle lace and therefore needle lace was depicted in many portraits to show wealth. In the 17th century the price differences vanished and bobbin lace tried to imitate needlelace and the other way round (quite successfully and so often in paintings it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two). Silks came from Italy, velvet was the most costly fabric and fine white linen was imported from The Netherlands. A black cloak in the first half of the 17th century often referred to the fashionable mode of 'melancholy' (although black was also worn for mourning and was popular in Spanish and Dutch fashion). Yellow lace was made fashionable by Anne Turner, the Lady in waiting of Lady Somerset but executed in 1615 for her role in a murder plot, after which yellow lace quickly disappeared from the fashion scene.

Prince Frederick Henry, Flemish School, 1616.
royal Collection.
An apron and bib made from non-functional but
hugely expensive reticella lace.

Sensuous whites and seemingly modest Blacks
Another fascinating fashion was for a pale white skin for which (as nowadays for a tanned skin) women went to extreme lengths to achieve it. Strange mixtures of plant extracts and other ingredients (lead!) were turned into pastes and creams and applied to face and chest. To accentuate their pale skin contrasting black ribbons and patches were used as accessories.  The fashion desired a transparent skin and often blue veins were painted onto a white-pasted chest. Examples can be found in many portraits, like in William Larkin's portraits. 

Recently re-dsicovered portrait of Lady Anne Clifford, by William Larkin
1618. Weiss Gallery.

On the opposite side of the show-pale-flesh portraits from England there was the fashion for black clothing in The Netherlands. This now famous tradition had its roots in Spain that ruled The Netherlands for so long. Even after the 80-years war where the Dutch gained their independence the Spanish fashion for high collars and almost prudish black clothing had taken hold and was appreciated by the upcoming rich merchants who could show off their wealth in a non-flashy (and non-royal) manner. Black fabrics were extremely expensive to make (black dyes would often fade and a good quality black fabric would cost a fortune) and portraits show a rich variety in black textiles combined in a misleadingly plain outfit that showed velvets, silks and embroidery all in black. The Dutch were famous for their production of very fine white linen, then known in Europe as 'Holland' which was used for collars, cuffs and undergarments such as smocks. The linen was so fine, no such quality is made nowadays anywhere in the world. The black outfits of rich Dutch merchants is usually finished off with a white linen and lace collar and cuffs, again showing wealth and worldliness in a proper and modest manner.

Frans Hals, portrait of a woman, 1633
National Gallery of Art Washington

Intimate Portraits
Besides royal portraits and the merchant portraits from the Netherlands, many English portraits of aristocrats show a surprising intimacy. Images that we would nowadays only consider to hang in private homes and in private rooms (or not have portrayed at all!) would hang in the best rooms in aristocratic homes and even copied for others. It is interesting to see (this is a rare example) of a girl getting dressed, combing her hair with all her pins and jewels ready on her dressing table. Her hair is loose (we are definitely in private session then).
Anyonymous, Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton,
circa 1600. Duke of Buccleach and Queensberry collection

Another private category of portraits is the portrait of a pregnant woman, often created in Tudor and early Stuart times to commemorate the joyous event of the pregnancy, but also as a potential last portrait of the woman, as death rates in child birth were of course high. These portraits are fascinating for that alone, and it is interesting to note that in 2013 we don't see portraits of pregnant women that often in (semi) public places.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, woman in red
1620. Tate Gallery
Sources and more info:
Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England, Yale University Press, 2005
Anna Reynolds, In Fine Style: the Art of the Tudors and Stuart Fashion, Royal Collection Trust, 2013
Hanneke Grootenboer, How to become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits, in: Caroline van Eck, Stijn Bussels, Theatricality in Early Modern Art and Artchitecture, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
Weiss Gallery, London, wikipedia, and various other online sources.


  1. Infinitely fascinating subject, Sophie, I can see why you would wish to study it. So much I had no idea of even in tis short passage.......

  2. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post Sharon, I am glad it was interesting for you!

  3. So well written and full of interesting information. I thank you for taking what must have been quite a considerable time, to put it together.
    I enjoyed your choices. Some pieces were new to me and that is always stimulating.
    I am also a big fan of your work.

  4. Really interesting, Sophie. My degree is in early modern history - Tudors and Stuarts being my main focus (Mind you - it was many, many years ago!!). Elizabeth I really understood the importance of effective marketing.

    I saw your painting at the PB portrait prize today. Bravo!

    I think last year's travel prize winner has set a very high standard, so it's good to see you working hard from the get go.

    (By the way, this is Jools - I have no idea what profile I need to use to get this posted. I have had a training session on social media, but I guess that wasn't enough :) )

  5. Thanks Julie! Really glad you liked it.
    Jools, you can use a google ID or an 'open ID" (flickr, gmail, yahoo etc etc), but leaving an anonymous message with your name at the end works too! Thanks so much! Yes last year's winner, Carl Randall, has some truly amazing work this year. I absolutely love it. Will try my best to come anywhere near his level.


Hi, Please leave any comments here. Thanks, Sophie.


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