Gerrit van Honthorst had an international reputation for attracting high-status clients. After working in Rome, he was invited to England in 1628 by Charles I and painted several royal portraits before returning to live mainly in The Hague. In Holland he became a favourite of Charles’ sister Elizabeth Stuart, depicted here. She was married to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and in 1619 they were also crowned King and Queen of Bohemia. Deposed in the winter of 1620, they went into exile in The Hague, where she became known as the ‘Winter Queen’.
This near life-size portrait represents a new type of formal picture of Elizabeth. Made in 1642, ten years after her husband’s death, it was the first time she was depicted in the open air. She wears black for mourning, a state confirmed by the black ribbon on her right arm. Her jewellery is a combination of enormous pearls and black precious stones.
If it weren’t for the inscription on the balustrade you might not realise that this is a portrait of a queen. This lettering was actually added to the picture at a later date; the sitter’s contemporaries would have gauged her status and nobility from the portrait’s dimensions (near life-size) and her sumptuous lace and silks.
They would have also realised that she was in mourning, a state suggested by her black dress and confirmed by the black ribbon on her right arm. Her jewellery is astonishingly impressive: a combination of enormous pearls and black precious stones. The earrings had been given to her by her husband, who had died ten years previously. He was Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and she is Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I of England.
She moved to Heidelberg with Frederick when they married in 1613. He was elected King of Bohemia in November 1619 and they then moved to Prague. But the following November he was defeated by a rival claimant, the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II. Frederick and Elizabeth went into exile in Holland and Elizabeth became known as the ‘Winter Queen’ (her brief reign began and ended in that season).
This picture was made in 1642, when Elizabeth was 46 years old. In the same year, civil war broke out in England – it would eventually lead to the execution of her brother Charles I – and her sister-in-law Queen Henrietta Maria crossed the Channel to join her in exile in The Hague. Elizabeth eventually returned to England in 1661 after the restoration of her nephew, Charles II. But she died just nine months after her return.
Gerrit van Honthorst had an international reputation for attracting high-status clients. After working in Rome, he was invited to England in 1628 by Charles I and painted several royal portraits before returning to live mainly in The Hague as painter to the Stadholder. He was also one of the artists most favoured by Elizabeth Stuart and he made numerous portraits of Frederick, Elizabeth and their children.
This full-length, near life-size example represents a new type of formal picture of Elizabeth. It shows her with a new hairstyle – the first time she had appeared without a fringe – and it was also the first time she had been depicted in the open air. The outdoor setting creates a certain grandeur, with the landscape and winding river receding into the far distance. The rosebush and what seems to be an oak tree frame her head and shoulders, and the stone balustrade and chequerboard pavement create a sort of platform in the foreground which gives the impression that she is sharing the same space as the viewer. The dog may be a symbol of fidelity as well as a portrait of a favourite pet.
The National Gallery also owns portraits of two of Elizabeth’s sons – Prince Charles Louis, Count Palatine and Prince Rupert, Count Palatine, both from the studio of Anthony van Dyck – which usually hang on either side of this painting.
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