9 Apr 20

Mary Beale: pioneer of portraiture


Mary Beale’s three-quarter-length Self-portrait with husband and son c. 1663–64 (The Geffrye, Museum of the Home, London), anticipates her renown a decade later as a professional portrait painter in post-Restoration London. This early group portrait not only conveys Mary’s loving eye as a dedicated wife and mother but also showcases her prodigious skills as a painter and technical virtuosity as a colourist, with the muted ochre tones offsetting the pearlescent luminosity of the skin. Charles Beale stands on the right, one hand resting on the shoulder of his son Bartholomew and the other gently cupping the boy’s small hand. Bartholomew looks upwards at his father adoringly. As Charles stares benignly towards Mary, transfixed in contemplation, a communicative formality and gendered complexity intensifies the intimate play of familial gazes and affectionate gestures. With a massive stone column positioned behind her, Mary turns to engage the eye of the viewer. The fingers of her right hand delicately fondle the mantle draped on her left shoulder, creating a subtle diagonal movement across her torso to accentuate her flawless décolletage, and hover near her heart in an expression of artistic authority and love of family.1 For a comprehensive overview of Mary Beale’s art and life, including bibliographies listing primary and additional secondary sources, see Helen Draper, “Mary Beale and Art’s Lost Laborers: Women Painter Stainers.” Early Modern Women 10:1 (2015): 141-151 and “‘Her Painting of Apricots’: The Invisibility of Mary Beale.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 48:4 (2012): 389-405; Tabitha Barber, Mary Beale (1632/3–1699): Portrait of a Seventeenth-century Painter, Her Family and Her Studio, Geffrye Museum Trust, London, 1999; Elizabeth Walsh & Richard Jeffree, ‘The Excellent Mrs. Mary Beale’, Inner London Education Authority, London, 1975..

Iconographic and stylistic elements in the Beale family portrait confirm Mary’s knowledge of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting, particularly the genre of portraiture stemming from Sir Anthony van Dyck, court painter to the Stuart monarch Charles I of England. The column, for example, was both a conventional prop used to frame sitters in Baroque portraits and an emblem of fortitude, steadfastness and chastity. Similarly, the direct gaze of subjects and artful application of viscous oil paint to fabricate the illusion of lustrous pearls and sumptuous textiles were characteristic of portraits and domestic scenes made during the Dutch Golden Age. Van Dyck’s equally influential successor, Sir Peter Lely, had also moved from the Netherlands to England, in the early 1640s, and was appointed court painter to Charles II in 1661. While the Beales had made the acquaintance of Lely in 1659, the relationship evolved into a form of artistic mentorship for Mary that would lend credibility to her transformation from amateur to professional artist.

Mary’s Self-portrait with husband and son demonstrates a strategically conceived allegorical context derived from Dutch art. She appears to have cast herself as Pictura, the feminine personification of painting prevalent in the poetical discourse of Netherlandish art theory. Her gown made of shimmering shot silk (an exotic luxury commodity in seventeenth-century England), her direct gaze, her hand gesture and the tendrils of hair curled around her face mirror an oil on copper painting, Pictura (An allegory of painting) (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), executed by Frans van Mieris the Elder in 1661. The Leiden artist used his wife as a model to invoke the trope of connubial love as creative inspiration.2 See Erin Griffey, ‘Pro-creativity. Art, love and conjugal virtue in seventeenth-century Dutch artists’ self-portraits’, Dutch Crossing, vol. 28, no. 1–2, 2004, pp. 27–66 and Michael Zell, ‘The mirror as rival: Metsu, mimesis and Amor in seventeenth-century Dutch painting’, in Walter S. Melion, Joanna Woodall & Michael Zell (eds), Ut pictura amor: The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500–1700, Brill, Leiden, 2017, pp. 399–400. Reversing the traditional roles of man as artist and woman as muse, Mary portrays herself as endowed with the powers of artistic and biological creation – the timeless embodiment of painting itself. In her later self-portrait of 1666 (National Portrait Gallery, London) she alludes to Pictura’s symbolic tools, with a palette hanging on the wall and one of her hands touching a small oil sketch. The sketch shows the likenesses of the sons (Bartholomew and Charles) she had produced in life and was inspired to represent in art.

Mary’s maternal devotion to her children was a compelling metaphor for feminine creativity and practical motivation for her development as an artist during the 1660s. This is further demonstrated in Portrait of the artist’s son, Bartholomew Beale, c. 1660. This charming painting in oil on paper, one of several head sketches made of the artist’s two sons at different ages, is a tender commemoration of the innocence of childhood and also functioned as a type of preparatory work made for study and improvement. While the warm autumnal tones resemble the colour scheme used in Mary’s self-portrait with family, the subdued highlights on the small upturned nose, cherubic lips and softly rounded chin endow the skin with a soft glow. This glow recalls Lely’s use of light to capture the flawless sheen of the complexion, which is visible in his own c. 1670 portrait of Bartholomew Beale as a youth (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London).

Bartholomew was baptised in either 1655 or 1656, and his younger brother, Charles, was born in 1660, probably after Mary’s self-portrait with family was painted. In their maturity, both sons would assist Mary’s production of portraits for her respectable clientele by painting costumes and illusionistic Baroque-style cartouches for framing busts. While Bartholomew would become a physician, Charles found success making miniature portraits (watercolour on vellum), having been instructed in the technique by the poet and miniature painter Thomas Flatman, who was a friend of the Beale family.

The success of any female artist’s portrait practice in seventeenth century England was contingent on her pious reputation as a dutiful wife and exemplary mother with no financial independence. This Protestant ideal of the good wife grated against the moral permissiveness and indulgent lifestyle enjoyed by Charles II and his glamorous mistresses. Sharing a Puritan background, Mary and Charles navigated these gender strictures in a marriage that was an equal partnership cemented by friendship. Charles had started his career as Deputy Clerk of the Patents Office in London. By 1670 he had transferred his business acumen to the management of Mary’s commercial, and increasingly profitable, studio within the family’s residence on Pall Mall. He primed canvases, recorded sittings with fee-paying clients, and conducted systematic chemical experiments in painting techniques and pigments. It was a productive collaborative enterprise that endorsed Mary’s public status as an artist without scandal or reproach. As she did with her sons, Mary portrayed Charles in several informal likenesses, which repeatedly highlight his tousled chestnut brown hair and twinkling brown eyes.

Technical skill and social graces facilitated a successful transaction between an artist and sitter in seventeenth-century England, and Mary’s upbringing had equipped her with an upstanding paternal role model. Her father, Reverend John Cradock, had combined his clerical ministry as the Rector of Barrow, Suffolk, where Mary was born in 1633, with his interest in painting. His active involvement in the nearby arts hub of Bury St Edmunds as an amateur painter makes him the likely candidate as his daughter’s first tutor in art, reflecting the traditional manner of training that female artists from Catharina van Hemessen to Artemisia Gentileschi received from their fathers. Husbands were also integral for supporting their wives in the professional occupation of painter. In contrast with Lely’s large studio and the numerous apprentices and assistances required for his royal and noble patrons, the domestic context of Mary’s studio provided the optimum conditions for portraying the Beales’s extensive network of men and women of the gentry, including family and friends. Sitting for a portrait could take from three hours to one day. The Beale family alleviated this discomfort with musical entertainment and stimulating conversation, reflecting the idea that an amicable experience in the studio would result in an agreeable likeness.

Working in a capacity that moved beyond the traditional notion of the woman artist as a novelty or marvel of nature, Mary was particularly skilled at placing her subjects at ease. Her portraits of female sitters are imbued with an enchanting naturalness. Executed in the last phase of her career, during the 1680s, Portrait of a lady demonstrates Mary’s command of the genre of portraiture as a beguiling mode of artful fiction. While the sitter’s poise and opulent low-cut silk gown are reminiscent of Mary’s early self-portrait with family, the subtle coquetry of her gaze is accentuated by her russet ringlets, slight smile and dimpled chin. The scintillating lustre of the single string of pearls that embellishes the bodice of the sitter’s dress and is barely visible as an accessory in her hair is also present in Mary’s earlier portrait Mary Wither of Andwell (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide), commissioned in the early 1670s. Decorative cartouches, which may have been painted by Mary’s sons, Bartholomew and Charles, also frame each sitter, emulating the encasements of seventeenth-century portrait miniatures. The unidentified lady with dark hair in the NGV’s Portrait of a lady is enhanced by the warm reddish-brown hues in the background, black pearls, and the metallic copper material of her loose-fitting robe. Wither’s cool ash-blonde colouring is flattered by silver chromatic effects and white pearls, and her comparatively flat chest and large drop pearl earrings heighten her ingenuous appearance.

This formulaic conception of ideal femininity intersects with the elegance of Lely’s series of eleven portraits of eminent women of the Restoration court known as the ‘Windsor Beauties’, painted in the mid 1660s. Portrait of a lady shares points of connection with the autumnal ambience, artfully curled hair, pearl adornments and graceful gestures in Lely’s portrait of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York (Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace). Likewise, the polished grey fabric of the voluminous gown, the drop pearl earrings and the choker of Lely’s painting of Frances Brooke, Lady Whitmore (Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace) are echoed in Mary’s Mary Wither of Andwell. However, Mary dispenses with the Dutch master’s floridity, modulating the decadent cosmetics associated with Charles II’s reign. While the dimensions and pastoral landscape backdrop of Mary’s 1683 portrait, A lady of the Montagu family, possibly Elizabeth Pelham or Lady Anne Montagu, Countess of Suffolk (The Johnston Collection, Melbourne) more closely align with Lely’s ‘Windsor Beauties’, the facial features appear naturally contoured, with only a subtle flush of pink on the cheeks. Notwithstanding the exquisite burnished golden gown that glimmers in the condensed folds of fabric concealing the sitter’s lower legs, Mary’s portraits of women seem less concerned with the art of being on display than invested in the creation of an affective bond with the sitter.

Mary’s portraits of men, from affectionate sketches of her husband to dignified likenesses of the educated elite, were just as discerning. Her 1688 portrait of the prominent physician Thomas Sydenham (National Portrait Gallery, London) is comparatively austere, radiating intelligence in the intensive focus on the face. Dubbed the ‘English Hippocrates’, Sydenham was acclaimed for his careful clinical observations. Mary had also recorded her insights on the value of close-looking in the act of painting. Her treatise of 1663, Observations, is the first known theoretical text on art in English written by a woman.

Beyond the evidence of her self-portraits and portraits, Mary’s second unpublished manuscript, Discourse on Friendship, penned about 1666, not only articulated her views on the importance of marital companionship and female amity but also confirmed the intellectual basis of her manual abilities as a painter. Mary dedicated the treatise to Elizabeth Tillotson, whose husband would become the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing:

I might be truly ashamed to send you this my very imperfect draft after that immortal Beauty Friendship, your considering that we esteem a Picture done by a very unskilful hand out of that great affection we may have for the person whom it was design[ed] to represent, the work itself being very wretched and inconsiderable. So though you may call these my conceptions rather the Portraiture of my own inabilities than any true Image of that Divine thing which I have endeavoured to describe, yet that which bears me up – if not in the belief of your acceptances, yet in the hopes of your pardon – is that high esteem which I am assured you have for this subject.3 Mary Beale, Discourse on Friendship, British Library, London (1666/67), MS Harley 6828, fol. 510r.

The rhetorical register of her composition conveys her humility, emphasises her innate command of the arts of painting and writing, and demonstrates her knowledge of classical sources on friendship.

The decline in demand for Mary’s portraits coincided with the death of Lely in 1680 and culminated with her style being out of favour by 1688, the year of the ‘Bloodless Revolution’ that deposed James II.4 Ron Radford, Island to Empire: 300 Years of British Art 1550–1850, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2005, p. 81. She died in London in 1699 and was buried in St James’s Church, Piccadilly. Charles would outlive his talented wife by five years. Love of family had formed the foundation of Mary’s success, allowing her to make art for fame and profit on an equal footing in a competitive masculine domain. In an era of intractable impediments to women’s creativity and economic autonomy, the arc of Mary Beale’s career from amateur painter to professional portraitist is a remarkable achievement in the history of art.

Notes

1

For a comprehensive overview of Mary Beale’s art and life, including bibliographies listing primary and additional secondary sources, see Helen Draper, “Mary Beale and Art’s Lost Laborers: Women Painter Stainers.” Early Modern Women 10:1 (2015): 141-151 and “‘Her Painting of Apricots’: The Invisibility of Mary Beale.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 48:4 (2012): 389-405; see Tabitha Barber, Mary Beale (1632/3–1699): Portrait of a Seventeenth-century Painter, Her Family and Her Studio, Geffrye Museum Trust, London, 1999 and Elizabeth Walsh & Richard Jeffree, ‘The Excellent Mrs. Mary Beale’, Inner London Education Authority, London, 1975.

2

See Erin Griffey, ‘Pro-creativity. Art, love and conjugal virtue in seventeenth-century Dutch artists’ self-portraits’, Dutch Crossing, vol. 28, no. 1–2, 2004, pp. 27–66 and Michael Zell, ‘The mirror as rival: Metsu, mimesis and Amor in seventeenth-century Dutch painting’, in Walter S. Melion, Joanna Woodall & Michael Zell (eds), Ut pictura amor: The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500– 1700, Brill, Leiden, 2017, pp. 399–400.

3

Mary Beale, Discourse on Friendship, British Library, London (1666/67), MS Harley 6828, fol. 510r.

4

Ron Radford, Island to Empire: 300 Years of British Art 1550–1850, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2005, p. 81.