Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen, Portrait of a lady, half length, in a red and white dress with blue bows, c.1640
As is the case with many portraits from the seventeenth century, identifying the sitter is difficult as supporting provenance and documentation for paintings from the period is unavailable in more cases than not. In this work by Cornelius Jonson visual comparisons can be made with other paintings in which the sitter is known, however, this method is not completely reliable, due largely to the artist’s stylistic variations.(1)
Jonson was London-born of Dutch parents who had fled the city of Antwerp and religious persecution. He was born in 1593 as Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen but was more widely known as Cornelius Johnson during his active years as a painter in England from 1618 to 1643 when he returned to the Netherlands, where he used the variation of Jonson.
Jonson lived and had a studio at Blackfriars, London. He was sworn in as one of King Charles’s ‘picture drawers’ in 1632 and worked in his service until at least 1641. Portraits by Jonson of Charles I, and of Charles II and James II as children, are in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Prior to the arrival of Anthony Van Dyck in the court of Charles I in 1832, Jonson was considered one of the most important English portrait painters and produced over 175 portraits during his period in England.(2) While largely recognised as an English painter, the tradition on which Jonson draws is decidedly Dutch, suggesting that his early training may have been in the Netherlands.
The ‘golden age’ of Dutch painting, as it is often referred to, was characterised not by grandeur or religiosity but rather by a sober and civic dimension which produced thousands of portraits, still lifes and genre scenes. Upright citizens and wealthy merchants in ruffs of starched white lace as well as drunken tavern scenes typify the era. That change came about after the mid 1560s when rebellion against the Spanish monarch, Philip II resulted in a Protestant-dominated culture. Political power was born of economic success and the kind of portraiture that Jonson practiced became identified with the bourgeois individualism of seventeenth-century Dutch society.
Portraiture was the dominant form of painting in England and the royal court of Charles I. During his reign, economic, political and particularly artistic exchange between Netherlands and England flourished. Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens were of particular importance to the development of English painting during the Stuart period (1603–1714).
As both England and the Netherlands were Protestant countries — without religious icons as such — the secular expression of permanence through family and individual portraits was a means of ensuring an enduring heritage. Through diplomatic liaisons with the courts of Italian city states such as Genoa and Venice, and the court of Philip IV of Spain, Charles I had also realised that political and sovereign power was greatly enhanced through images produced by the most recognised artists of the day.
The commissioning of portraits in the Netherlands coexisted with genre scenes, still lifes — and landscapes, but in England there was little else during this period. Jonson’s Portrait of a lady, half length, in a red and white dress with blue bows c.1640 has none of the allegory or historical attributes that we see in the court portraits of Van Dyck or Rubens. The clues we have to the status of this woman are to be found in her personal accoutrements — jewellery and dress — rather than background props or classical allusions of pose and symbolic attributes. The work is circa-dated late in the artist’s London period — after the arrival of Van Dyck, but prior to Jonson’s departure in 1643. Attention to detail in costume and dress and sensitive modelling of colour and light mark this painting as a fine example of the artist’s work. The young woman is undoubtedly from a wealthy class but probably not royalty. The arrival of Van Dyck in the court of Charles I attracted the highest echelons of patronage with the result that Jonson received few royal commissions.
Jonson painted many portraits of aristocratic families and gentry, often with a ‘Van Dyckian’ inflection, as he was considerably influenced by Charles’s new and favoured court painter. This portrait, like many others by Jonson, is characteristically defined by clarity of detail and delicate brushwork. The jewellery has been identified as Jacobean and the fine lace ‘falling collar’ have been incisively delineated as indicators of wealth and status.(3)
The complexity of the lace collar in Jonson’s work suggests that it is ‘bobbin lace’ made from dozens, and sometimes many more, threads of plaited and twisted threads of fine Flemish linen. Flemish bobbin lace was widely used in fashionable dress of the mid-seventeenth century and the more delicate ‘falling collar’ of lace seen in Jonson’s portrait had replaced the starched ruffs of earlier decades. The full sleeves and satin-silk bodice were also typical of high fashion for the wealthy. The style of English court dress was much influenced by French fashion due in large part to the queen, Henrietta Maria, being French.
Luxurious and fashionable dress such as the attire in Jonson’s portrait was intended for the court alone but, during the 1630s under Charles I, it was prevalent in the aristocratic and upper levels of society. In 1643 however with the outbreak of civil conflict, Charles issued a proclamation against the wearing of ‘any Lace, Embroidery, Fringe, Riband, Buttons and Clasps or Loops of Gold, Silver, or mixed Gold and Silver, Cloth of Gold or Silver, Bone Lace or Silk or Linen Thread’.(4) Such attempts however were more in the interest of economic and trade relations between France and England than controlling the social expression of extravagance.
Jonson returned to the Netherlands in 1643 where he continued to paint portraits in which a certain austerity returns, but what remains a feature in so many of his portraits, is ‘their individual delicacy and his quiet, rather startled sitters’ — endearing and intriguing qualities which makes Portrait of a lady, half length, in a red and white dress with blue bows, a popular and important work in the Gallery’s collection.(5)
David Burnett, Artlines, no.2, 2010, pp.30–31.
This is the seventh article in a series focusing on selected works in the Queensland Art Gallery's international collection.
1 A painting by Cornelius Jonson, dated 1636, in the collection of George Godfrey-Faussett, of Dorothy Godfrey, has been cited (Pam Courtenay, 'Collection snapshot: Cornelius Jonson's Portrait of a lady', Artlines, winter 2003, p.17.) as the same subject as the Gallery’s work. This identification is based on a black and white reproduction in English Art 1625–1714 by Margaret Whinney and Oliver Miller.
2 AJ Finberg (ed.), Tenth volume of the Walpole Society 1921–1922, Oxford University Press, 1922.
3 Courtenay, 2003.
4 Diana de Marly, ‘Dress in Baroque Portraiture: The flight from fashion’, Antiques Journal, vol.60, 1980, p.269.
5 Whinney and Miller, pp.66–67.