A lyrical vision: Peter Lely at The Courtauld

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Peter Lely was a Dutch artist who made his name in London, predominantly as the court painter of Charles II. He is best known as a portrait painter who captured many of the powerful and attractive members of Charles II’s court.

But he actually came to London much earlier and lived in London through the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. That he seemed to have been busy and successful throughout that period is a testament to his business shrewdness and his business as an art dealer as well as an artist. He bought a number of paintings from the estate of Charles I when it was dispersed after his death but was quick to restore the same paintings to Charles II on his return to London.

Whilst Lely is best known as a portrait painter, this exhibition concentrates on a different aspect of his work. These were his so-called subject paintings, a genre of painting which he started before coming to london and continued in London until they were overtaken by his success as a portrait painter. The exhibition is small in size, filling just one room of the Courtauld and shows about a dozen interesting and attractive works. It is a manageable exhibition which I would challenge anyone not to enjoy.

The subject paintings of this exhibition are essentially narrative tableaux’s set against a landscape background. They date from a period when landscape painting was not a fully formed subject in its own right but essentially only serves as a backdrop to a human scene. Some of these tableaux are loosely based on Biblical stories and some on mythology. And some have no religious or classical context but exist just to be enjoyed. The principal picture in the exhibition is The Concert, illustrated above, which shows a group of musicians seemingly entertaining a couple of scantily clad young women. It is a remarkably modern, hedonistic picture. It shows people enjoying themselves and it appears to have no other purpose than for the enjoyment of the viewer.

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Exactly the same can be said of another picture, Nymphs by a Fountain, which seems to have been painted solely to allow the viewer to enjoy the female nude from a variety of angles.

From today’s perspective this is perhaps nothing extraordinary. We look at the pictures in terms of the quality of composition and execution and the vitality they exude, and we find them lightly enjoyable. Certainly well worth a trip to the Courtauld to see. But when we put these pictures in the context of civil war and the Puritan Commonwealth they seem altogether more revolutionary and intriguing. What was the public and state reaction to these pictures at the time? were they enjoyed solely behind closed doors and for private titillation? Unfortunately we know practically nothing about who first bought these pictures and where they were hung, except that some – The Concert in particular – appears never to have been sold and was in the artist’s studio when he died.

It is an interesting and worthwhile exhibition, with a very informative catalogue. You might not travel the country to visit, but it is certainly worth crossing town.

For more on the exhibition, see this video that The Courtauld has released:

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