Sir Peter Lely

Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), a German-born painter who worked in England, was the most famous baroque portrait painter at the court of Charles II.

Peter Lely was born on Oct. 14, 1618, at Soest in Westphalia; his family was Flemish. He was trained as an artist in Holland and was in England by 1647. This was not an auspicious time to launch a career as a portrait painter in England. The nation was involved in the civil wars, which ended in 1649 with the execution of Charles I and the accession to power of Oliver Cromwell, the army, and the Parliamentarians. But Lely secured the patronage of influential people, and between 1647 and 1660 he impartially painted royalist and Parliamentarian alike. Charles II became king in 1660, and the following year Lely was appointed Principal Painter to the King and granted a pension of £200 a year; from then on he was the most popular painter of society portraits in England.

Lely's name is associated with the "grand manner" portraits he painted of society beauties and court ladies. Wrapped in voluminous but disordered shimmering draperies, the subjects of these opulent portraits gaze languidly at the spectator from heavy-lidded eyes and convey a curious combination of sensuality and dignity. Most of the portraits are three-quarter length, and generally the sitter is posed somewhat to one side of the composition. The setting is often a turbulent landscape and is frequently enriched by swags of drapery, an architectural element, or a decorative urn. Lely was famous for his facility in handling fabrics, and the play of light on flowing satin clothing is one of the primary visual elements of his paintings.

In the 1630s Sir Anthony Van Dyck had established the general style and format of the sumptuous baroque portrait in England. Lely's work lacks the delicacy and refinement of Van Dyck's finest English portraits and is more robust and heavier in tone and volume. Lely's mature style in the female court portrait is best seen in the series of 10 portraits painted as a set (1662-1665) and known as the "Windsor Beauties." By the late 1660s his work was in such demand that he frequently utilized studio assistants even in the execution of the original version of a portrait.

Always conscious of his position, Lely conducted himself in a lordly manner; Samuel Pepys found him a "mighty proud man, and full of state." He lived well and accumulated an impressive art collection. He was knighted by King Charles II in 1680 and died the same year, on December 7, in London.


Further Reading on Sir Peter Lely

The only recent work devoted entirely to Lely is R. B. Beckett, Lely (1951). For an excellent analysis of Lely's position within the context of 17th-century English art see Margaret Whinney and Oliver Millar, English Art, 1625-1714 (1957). Older but still useful works are C. H. Collins Baker, Lely and the Stuart Portrait Painters (2 vols., 1912) and Lely and Kneller (1922). See also Ellis K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain, 1530-1790 (1953; 2d ed. 1962).