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: Mr. McKnight Gives Lely Portrait


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute's gallery of British portraits, which illustrates so admirably the lavish and decorative style of portraiture established in England by Van Dyck, has gained another notable figure in Lely's portrait of Henrietta Boyle, Countess of Rochester, recently presented to the museum by Sumner T. McKnight. Apart from its value as an example of Lely's graceful and elegant style, the painting has a particular interest for the Institute in view of the fact that it reunites in the permanent collection two members of the Hyde family, which played such a prominent part in the political and social life of the Stuart period. Henrietta Boyle became, through her marriage to Lawrence Hyde, later Earl of Rochester, the sister-in-law of Henry Hyde, 2nd Earl of Clarendon, who was Lawrence's brother and whose portrait by Lely was purchased by the museum in 1915. The brothers were sons of the great Earl of Clarendon, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Privy Councillor to Charles I, who became a victim of court intrigue and was banished in 1667. Henrietta herself was a celebrated figure under Charles II, and was considered beautiful today—and it is probable that she would not—she was a great success in the eyes of seventeenth century courtiers and her fame has been perpetuated in the portraits Lely painted of her.The portrait now to be found in the Institute is typical of the sumptuous manner which had already become traditional in English portraiture. The pose is somewhat theatrical, with the left arm resting on a pedestal topped by a massive urn and the right hand stretched out to pluck a flower. Henrietta, like the subjects of other feminine portraits of the time, was on parade when she sat to Lely and it is undeniable that she makes a very good showing. She is depicted in a landscape that is partially obscured by a heavy drapery behind her head. Her voluminous gown of light blue satin is ornamented with brooches of double pearls at the low décolletage and on the full slit sleeves, and she wears the ubiquitous strong of pearls and pearl drops in her ears. Flung over her left shoulder and sweeping down to her left hand is a satin scarf that shades from pale to darker grey. This lavish and somewhat overwhelming costume lends an air of voluptuousness to a woman whose greatest charm now appears to lie in her beautiful shoulders and her elegant and expressive hands. The oval head, with its elaborately curled hair, slightly bulging eyes under strong marked brows, and prominent nose, is not a type which measures up to current standards of beauty.Nevertheless, Henrietta was a leading member of the group of women which created such admiration at the Court of Charles II and whose charms were recorded by Lely in the portraits depicting the Hampton Court Beauties. The portrait presented by Mr. McKnight is very similar to the one in the Hampton Court Collection. It is interesting to note that the idea for Lely's portraits of this group of beauties did not, surprisingly enough, originate with the King, but with the Duchess of York. She is said to have suggested that a series of portraits of the most beautiful women at the Court would provide a fascinating record of posterity, whereupon Lely painted those who were considered outstanding beauties of Charles II's time.The McKnight portrait of Henrietta Boyle was formerly in the collection of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough and is noted as one of the items in the Blenheim sale. Two other portraits of her are known to have been painted by Lely. One of these, according to Mr. R. B. Beckett of London, was originally in the Clarendon Gallery and came up for sale at Christie's in 1919. The second was last known to be in the Italian Embassy in London with portraits of three other beauties of Charles' Court: Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, who was most notoriously known as Lady Castlemaine, Jane Middleton, and Nell Gwynn. These portraits were commissioned by Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who apparently believed, with his contemporaries, that if one could not gaze upon the beauties themselves the next best thing was to have their portraits at hand. The four paintings were sent to the Duke, probably toward 1670, and remained for an unspecified period in the possession of his house. Later they turned up in the Uffizi Gallery, where they had been stored as copies, and it was not until the late eighteenth century that they were authenticated as Lely originals by an Englishman. In 1935 they were returned to England, temporarily, at least, and installed in the Italian Embassy.Such portraits as that of Henrietta Boyle now in the Institute's collection, and of other Court beauties and distinguished women, brought Lely international fame. From 1641, the year of Van Dyck's death and of his own arrival in England, he filled the place of his celebrated predecessor to everyone's satisfaction. His genius was not comparable to that of Van Dyck, but he was an able successor and one whose personal sense of color and brilliant decorative effects appealed strongly to his clients. He succeeded admirably in conveying a sense of the spirit of his time, and his portrait of Henrietta Boyle is thus a doubly interesting addition to the permanent collection.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Portrait of Henrietta Boyle, Countess of Rochester by Peter Lely, Dutch, 1618-1680. Gift from Sumner T. McKnight
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Source: "Mr. McKnight Gives Lely Portrait," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 37, no. 18 (May, 1948): 86-87.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009