CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision

Exhibition: 11 October 2012 - 13 January 2013

From the museum press release, 1 August 2012

This exhibition is the first to examine the remarkable but forgotten group of large-scale narrative paintings produced in the 1640s and 1650s by Peter Lely (1618-80), England’s leading painter after the death of Anthony van Dyck. Often depicting a sensuous pastoral world of shepherds, nymphs and musicians in idyllic landscapes, these ambitious pictures are all the more extraordinary for having been painted during the turmoil of the English Civil War and its aftermath. Organised around The Courtauld’s enigmatic The Concert, the exhibition includes an important group of little-known paintings loaned from historic private collections.

Sir Peter Lely was Charles II’s Principal Painter and the outstanding artistic figure of Restoration England. Since the 17th century, he has been celebrated for his flattering pictures of the great and the beautiful of Charles II’s court. However, Lely never wished to be principally a portraitist. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, hoping to step into the vacuum left by the death of Sir Anthony van Dyck, Lely had high ambitions and devoted himself to paintings inspired by classical mythology, the Bible or contemporary literature. His pastoral subjects resonated with a lyrical dream of England, an Arcadia far removed from the political upheaval of the age.

Much to Lely’s disappointment, his narrative paintings did not find favour with many English patrons, and he produced no more than thirty. As the artist’s friend, the Royalist poet Richard Lovelace explained, all Lely’s English supporters wanted was ‘their own dull counterfeits’ or portraits of their mistresses. Lely was obliged to turn to portraiture, and he employed a large and productive studio to keep up with the high demand for his work. His paintings of figures in idyllic landscapes remained relatively unknown and yet they are among the most beautiful and seductive made in 17th-century England.

Lely was born in Westphalia, the son of a Dutch officer, and received his artistic training in Haarlem. He started producing his narrative paintings in Holland. One example, depicting the Finding of Moses, is now known only through its inclusion in the background of two paintings by Vermeer (Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, and The Astronomer, Musée du Louvre, Paris). A Pair of Lovers in a Landscape (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes) is a striking example of Lely’s early interest in Arcadian subjects. Observed by two satyrs, an enraptured shepherd gazes longingly at his companion. Lely left Holland around 1643 and tried to develop a market for this type of painting in England. The country was in the throes of civil war but Lely made the most of this inauspicious time. Few painters had stayed in London following the move of the Royal Court to Oxford, and Lely was free to develop his reputation in the city. By 1650 he had moved to Covent Garden Piazza, at that time London’s newest public square, 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 in Richmond. He also kept up his connections with the family of Charles I, and worked for the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, who famously asked him to portray him ‘warts and all’.

Lely had the opportunity to study paintings by Van Dyck and the great Venetian 16th-century artists Giorgione and Titian in the houses of his wealthy and cultivated aristocratic patrons. He began to buy these works himself, and by the end of his life had amassed one of England’s richest collections of 16th- and 17th-century Italian paintings and drawings (several examples from The Courtauld’s collection will be on display at the time of the exhibition). It was probably in response to the work of Van Dyck and the Venetian Renaissance that Lely made his most ambitious works of the 1640s and early 1650s. They include Nymphs by a Fountain (Dulwich Picture Gallery), The Concert (The Courtauld Gallery) and The Rape of Europa (Chatsworth).

The sensual Nymphs by a Fountain is one of Lely’s greatest paintings. Here he created a unique and compelling evocation of quiet, sensuous beauty. It is as if we have stumbled into a forest glade in the evening to discover these nude figures in varying states of abandon. They are arranged so that the viewer is able to admire the perfect youthful body from every possible angle. (The erotic qualities of this work were not lost on the early 20th-century schoolmasters of Dulwich College, who ensured that Nymphs by a Fountain was kept under lock and key in the lumber room, ‘for fear it should injure the morals of the boys’.) The work brilliantly updates the mythological paintings of Titian and Van Dyck, which Lely knew, but it is indebted to no single literary or pictorial source.

Boy as a Shepherd belongs to the same unspoilt Arcadian world as Nymphs by a Fountain: a mythic place of harmony and repose. One of Lely’s most celebrated works, this painting was once owned by the collector Horace Walpole (1717-97) who eulogised the boy’s ‘impassioned sentimental glow, the eyes swimming with youth and tenderness’. Framed by a rocky niche, the young shepherd is shown with a flute and one finger of his left hand curled elegantly over his crook. Lustrous hair and full lips emphasise his youthful sensuality and the evening light adds to the elegiac mood. Lely’s beautiful boy evokes the rural idyll described by ancient poets such as Virgil.

Once thought to show the painter’s family, The Concert seems more likely to be a highly personal and allegorical interpretation of Music in the service of Beauty. It transports its viewers into an enchanted and timeless woodland paradise, where musicians entertain beautiful women. The man who plays the viol da gamba in the centre is the painter himself. Life and art intersect in Lely’s paintings, and a significant number of works in the exhibition bear witness to the artist’s love of music and song and he is said to have liked to hear music playing as he worked. The Concert belongs to the pastoral mythologies which dominated cultural life in 17th-century England, from the court masques of Inigo Jones, the plays of Shakespeare and his successors, and the poems of Donne, Milton, Dryden and their contemporaries.

Unusually in England, Lely worked extensively from life models, both male and female. Later in his career, he ran an informal drawing school from his home in Covent Garden, encouraging artists to draw from the live model. A small number of identifiable individuals appear in various guises in his narrative pictures. For instance, the dark-haired woman at the top right of the group of sleepers in Nymphs at a Fountain reappears as an attendant in another of Lely’s major compositions, The Rape of Europa. Unlike The Concert or Nymphs by a Fountain, which were Lely’s own poetic inventions, this subject was taken from the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. It shows the princess Europa and her attendants decorating the horns of a beautiful white bull, which lasciviously nuzzles her knee. The bull is the wily god Jupiter and he will shortly abduct Europa to the island of Crete.

Despite its complexity, scale and ambition The Rape of Europa did not find a buyer during Lely’s lifetime. Evidently there was only limited interest in such narrative paintings by contemporary artists. Lely’s friend Richard Lovelace blamed the ignorance of ‘an un-understanding land’. The artist’s first biographer, Richard Graham, was more sanguine, noting that Lely, ‘finding the Practice of Painting after the Life generally more encourag’d he apply’d himself to Portraits’ (1695).

By 1654 Lely was judged to be ‘the best artist in England’ but from then on, aided by a flourishing studio, he produced almost exclusively portraits. He was knighted and granted an annual stipend by Charles II, as his predecessor Van Dyck had been honoured by Charles I. Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision looks beyond our conventional understanding of Lely to reveal a neglected chapter of this major painter’s career. It sheds new light on one of the most ambitious group of paintings to have been produced in England in the 17th century.