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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Peter Lely

The Windsor Beauties, 1864-65, Peter Lely
When it comes to things mass produced, made in factories, we don't today give much thought to the process. We take it for granted that virtually everything, short of handicrafts, is produced in a factory of some sort. Even reproductions of famous works of art hanging on our walls come from factories. And, although it's something of a closely guarded secret, most of the bargain-priced paintings (under-one hundred dollars) that we sometimes see advertised as traveling "starving artists" shows are, in fact, produced in factories in China. They appear at first glance to be quite original, heavy on painterly texture, usually impressionistic/expressionistic in style utilizing bright colors and bearing the signatures of American sounding names. Yet in reality, as many as a dozen, highly specialized, assembly line painters (not artists) have had a hand in their creation. Just add an expensive frame and you have what would appear to the uninitiated to be an expensive work of art for over the couch.
Charles I with James, Duke of York, 1647, Sir Peter Lely
Children Singing, 1650, Peter Lely
If that surprises you, you might also be surprised to know that there's not much new in all that. Several highly popular European artists from the 16th century on had a large retinue of apprentices attached to their ateliers allowing them to do the planning and the "hard parts" of a painting then turn the rest over to carefully supervised talented "assistants." Leonardo da Vinci was once such an apprentice, his style and technique so well developed even as a student as to be easily distinguishable from his master's work. Peter Paul Rubens also ran such a workshop, giving art historians today "fits" trying to ascertain how much of the master's hand was involved in several of his works. However, a Dutch artist named Peter Lely may well have taken such mass production even beyond the bounds ofthe workshops of the "Old Masters" to very nearly modern-day Chinese lengths. When he died in 1680, his executor directed that dozens of unfinished portraits stacked all about his studio be completed by his dozens of apprentices. As might be expected, the quality of such "finishing touches" varied considerably.
Nymphs by a Fountain, 1650, Peter Lely
--what you paint when you're trying to get noticed.
Peter Lely Self-portrait, 1670
Peter Lely was born Pieter van der Faes in Soest, Westphalia (northwestern Germany, not far from the Netherlands border. Born in 1618, Lely studied art in Haarlem, becoming a master of the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke in 1637 at the age of nineteen. With the death of Anthony van Dyke (another Dutchman) in 1641, Lely moved to London where he began by painting mythological and religious scenes in the Baroque style of van Dyke. However it was his portraits in the van Dyke style which made him a hit with the richly adorned ladies of London. He was fashionable to such an extent Lely had trouble meeting the demand for his work--hence the large workshop and specialization that evolved. Poses were standardized and numbered. Backgrounds were similarly categorized. Various appropriate props were used and reused again and again. Even some of the ladies' high styled dresses often belonged to Lely to be borrowed for portrait purposes, modified only slightly in color and details in the completed painting.
The Concert, 1650, Peter Lely
Repentant Magdalene, ca. 1674Peter Lely
In due time, Lely replaced van Dyke as the royal "Principal Painter," executing several portraits of the exceedingly vain, King Charles I (before he was beheaded, of course) as well as other members of the Royal family. So great was Lely's talent at portraiture he served both the Charles I monarchy as well as Oliver Cromwell and the intermediate Commonwealth, before the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (son of Charles I). There is such a massive wealth of surviving Lely portraits it's difficult to pull out exceptional efforts (also, because there were so few of them). They were all good portraits, but few could be called much more than that. The best that could be said about Lely and his portrait factory might be that the quality of work  was consistent, if uninspired. Lely apparently ran a tight shop.
Anne Hyde, Duchess of York; King James II, 1660s, Peter Lely
Edward Montague, 2nd. Earl
of Manchester, Peter Lely
Nowhere is this consistency more evident than in the series of portrait commission paid by Anne Hyde, Duchess of York. The ten portraits were of ladies of court (often royal mistresses) and were originally hung in the queen's bedchamber at Windsor Castle. They're now referred to as the Windsor Beauties (top). Painted between 1660 and 1665, who each painting depicts matters little now. The interesting element is in comparing them. The top six or seven appear to be different versions of the same dress while the ones toward the bottom look like similar variations of a blue frock. The poses, while varied somewhat more than the dresses, still lend themselves to a nicely coherent group display. One of the portraits is not by Lely, and the twelfth is of Anne Hyde herself (sixth portrait down from the top). Both have been added to the group in later years. While some of the ladies reflect the term "beauty' more than others, in no case was that the fault of the artist (or his "assistants.")

King Charles II, 1680, Peter Lely--The monarchy restored.


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