Peter Lely: A Lyrical Visionby Peter Lely, Caroline Campbell
Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) was Charles II’s Principal Painter and the outstanding artistic figure of Restoration England. When Lely arrived in England in the early 1640s his ambition was to be a painter of narrative scenes and not to work as a portraitist. However, the ‘subject pictures’ did not find favor with many English patrons and he produced
Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) was Charles II’s Principal Painter and the outstanding artistic figure of Restoration England. When Lely arrived in England in the early 1640s his ambition was to be a painter of narrative scenes and not to work as a portraitist. However, the ‘subject pictures’ did not find favor with many English patrons and he produced less than thirty. As Lely’s friend Richard Lovelace explained, all they wanted was “their own dull counterfeits” or portraits of their mistresses. Thus, Lely was obliged to turn to portraiture to make a living. Yet, his poetic pictures of figures in idyllic landscapes are among the most beautiful paintings made in 17th-century England and this catalog will be the first in-depth look at this important chapter of this major painter’s career.
Lely was born in Westphalia and received his artistic training in Haarlem with Frans Pietersz. De Grebber. He came to England around 1643. Few painters had stayed in London following the move of the Royal Court to Oxford, and Lely was therefore free to establish his reputation in the city. By 1650 he had settled at a house on Covent Garden Plaza (a five-minute walk from Somerset House) where he remained for the rest of his life. His major patrons were the ‘Puritan Earls’, a group of cultivated noblemen including the Duke of Northumberland and the Earls of Pembroke and Salisbury, as well as the circle surrounding the Countess of Dysart at Ham House.
Lely never met Van Dyck (who had died in London in 1641), but he had the opportunity to study his paintings and those of the great Venetian 16th-century artists Giorgione and Titian in the houses of these wealthy aristocratic patrons. He began to buy these works himself and by the end of his life had amassed one of Europe’s richest collections of 16th- and 17th-century Italian paintings and drawings. It was probably in response to the pictures of Van Dyck and the Venetian Renaissance that he made his most ambitious works, including The Concert (The Courtauld Gallery) and Nymphs by a Fountain (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London). This group of enigmatic paintings are massive in scale and united by strong lighting, idealized landscape settings and a sense of theatricality and sensuality. Unlike many painters, Lely did not rely on classical mythology, but was able to create his own, highly personal dramas. For instance, it is likely that the man playing the viola da gamba in the center of The Concert is the painter himself.
The exhibition Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision at The Courtauld Gallery, London, is on view from 11 October 2012 to 13 January 2013.
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