Over the mantel there was an enormous portrait of a dark-haired, late-seventeenth-century beauty in a yellow gown. It had certainly been painted by Sir Peter Lely.
– A Discovery of Witches, chapter 8, page 84.
Peter Lely (born Pieter van der Faes) was one of the foremost artists of the Seventeenth Century, rising to prominence for his portraits, usually of aristocratic women in elaborate dress. Born in Westphalia on 14 October 1618 (dies 1680 in London), Lely’s early career focused on largely history paintings and landscapes. However, he realised that money and notoriety were to be found in portraits, rather than in other genres of painting. In England, his career stretched the length of the English Civil War and Restoration, and the artist painted for both the aristocracy and Parliament. Lely’s patrons included both Oliver Cromwell (connected to over 200 portraits from various artists) and Charles II, who established him as principal court painter, which earned Lely £200 per year.
Lely’s work is defined by precise draughtsmanship that utilised both colour and light to give an air of superiority and power to his sitters. At the high point of his career, Lely’s portraits were produced in a studio, where the artist completed the head and other pertinent details, while studio assistants and apprentices finished backgrounds.
Like other artists, Lely was also known for his collecting impulses. His collection consisted of over 10,000 drawings and prints, and included artists such as Veronese, Holbein, and Van Dyck. Lely’s collection impulses were such that they eventually bankrupted the artist. After his death, the executor of his estate, Sir Roger North, oversaw two major auctions of the collection in 1688 and 1694. Before each, North stamped ‘PL’ on the items, allowing art historians to trace their provenance to Lely’s collection.
Portrait of a Lady, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, is a typical example of Lely’s female portraits, and demonstrates his use of light and colour to capture the audience’s eye. In the Fitzwilliam Portrait, the yellow-gold of the lady’s gown seems to light the entire canvas with its vibrancy, catching the light source off the canvas. The lady stares haughtily at the viewer, posed as if she could speak. She sits, on a red-brown cloak, in a forest-like environment that is dark, despite the breaking clouds visible through the trees. Details such as the landscape and the rich fabric hints at influences of contemporary Dutch Art by artists such as Gerard Ter Borch and Gabriël Metsu, as well as the earlier portraits of Anthony van Dyck.
Lely also produced many studies of various parts of his portraits, and the study of the Fitzwilliam Portrait’s forearms survive in New York. The study shows the attention that Lely placed on the hands as an active part of the composition.
Portraits by Lely have raised varying sums at auctions in recent years. In June of 2003 the Chesterfield Portrait fetched £800,000, and a portrait of Nell Gwyn was purchased in June 2000 for £48,000.
Sources & More Information:
Campbell, Caroline. Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision. Peter Holberton Publishing, 2012.
Goodison, JW, ed. Catalogue of Paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Fitzwilliam Museum, 1997.
Millar, Oliver. Peter Lely, 1618-1680. London: National Portrait Gallery, 1979.
“Lely, Peter.” Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
“Peter Lely: Artist-Collector of the Baroque.” https://www.codart.nl/guide/exhibitions/sir-peter-lely-the-artist-as-collector/