Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680)

Dutch Classicist, English Portraitist, and Collector

by Brandon Henderson

e-Book PDF
Institution: University of Manchester: Sotheby's Institute of Art
Advisor(s): Dr. Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe; Dr. Megan Aldrich
Degree: M.A. in Fine and Decorative Art
Year: 2001
Volume: 189 pages
ISBN-10: 1599426889
ISBN-13: 9781599426884


The Dutch-born English Baroque portrait painter Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) is chiefly known for his drowsy, sensual beauties and bewigged courtiers associated with the Restoration court of Charles II. He is often seen as merely successor or "imitator" of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), with a common resemblance in all his sitters and an inability to capture a true likeness, as well as an absence of any personal characterization or psychological interest. Alternately, this dissertation aims to reveal Lely's genius of superb draughtsmanship, fine color and lively composition, as well as to examine and reinstate the artist's impact and deep impress on British painting. Lely's early style owes much to his Dutch origin and training with the pioneers of Dutch classicism, and the distinctive qualities of his early work and the change in his traditions and techniques are examined. The development of Lely's portrait style is examined - from his arrival in England in the early 1640s through his years as leading aristocratic and society portraitist and Principal Painter to the King in the 1660s, to his mature work in the 1670s when his work is characterized by a restricted palette and cool restraint. And finally, Lely as collector is examined. He assembled one of the largest and most impressive private collections of art in seventeenth-century Europe, and his acquisitions and their influences, benefits and effects are considered. Upon Lely's death, his highly important collection was dispersed by auction in a series of four well-publicized sales in 1681, 1682, 1688 and 1694, respectively. These sales brought many important works to the London art market, and were some of the most important sales to date in England, as well as the most spectacular of the modern auction world. Although Lely initially emulated the style and techniques of Van Dyck, he juxtaposed his profound Dutch qualities of rich color, dramatic illumination and romantic landscapes, and ultimately imbued a sensuality, languor and luxurious negligence into the traditions and continuity of Van Dyck's grand Baroque style of English portraiture. Subsequently, together later with Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), Sir Peter Lely completely dominated British portraiture from the death of Van Dyck in 1641 until William Hogarth (1697-1764) challenged his style in the first half of the eighteenth century.

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