This striking oval portrait dates to the beginning of the artist’s second Caroline period in England, shortly after Charles II was restored to the throne by Parliament in 1660. In its simplicity the portrait still shows the influence of the artist’s Dutch heritage – it is not yet the full-blown ‘court portrait’ one associates with later Lely, when his sitters were extravagantly bedecked and bewigged.
Here he places the young man characteristically off-centre in the canvas, drawing the viewer into his face with a dark background. His features are subtly individualised, though the highlights on his nose and in his hair are typical of the artist. The strikingly androgenous beauty of the young man with his rosebud mouth and golden curls is captured with an alacrity that belies the technique required to achieve it. The plain background contains no distracting detail, and this, together with the young man’s pose – no hands visible to suggest distracting movement – convey a sense of quietness and calm dignity. The crisp whites and thick impasto of his undershirt and plain lace collar (features found in early Lelys), stand out in contrast to the rich velvety blacks of his draped, rather informal mantle. Such relaxed garb was fashionable at the time, a state of ‘déshabille’ redolent of the Caroline court.
Peter Lely was the son of a Dutch military officer, born in Germany at Soest in Westphalia in 1618. Though his family name was ‘van der Faes’, he assumed the name Lely after the lily that was carved on the gable of his father’s home in The Hague. He studied in Haarlem before moving to London in 1641 and in 1647 he became a freeman of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. Initially, Lely painted a variety of subject matter including landscape, religious, and mythological scenes, however, he quickly recognized the strength of the English market for portraiture. By working for many of the patrons of the late van Dyck, the artist rapidly established himself as one of the country’s leading portrait painters, numbering Charles I among his patrons. Amazingly, his work bridges the end of the reign of Charles I, through the Republic and well into the reign of Charles II. Lely’s mercurial artistic skills must have extended to his personality, and one can only assume he was as affable as he was politic.
After Charles II’s restoration to the throne by Parliament in 1660, the king proceeded to create and preside over one of the most cosmopolitan and extravagant courts in British history and Lely was very much responsible for creating its visual footprint. As ‘Principal Painter’ to the King, like van Dyck before him, he went on to paint the most elite and influential members of the court.