This work by Gottfried Kneller, born in Lübeck (Northern Germany), in 1646, is displayed for the first time ever within the new exposition of the National Gallery. The painting was procured through Georgy Lichev’s collection which became known following an exhibition in the National Museum, in Sofia, in 1934. Nikola Mavrodinov, then head of the Art Division of the museum, wrote in the catalogue: “The portrait displayed has all virtues of a good and effective salon portrait. It shows that Kneller was both good drawer and colourist, but also that his artistic concept was close to that of the general public. The facial expression is somewhat haughty. The artist, it seems, wanted by all means to make it look noble. The rich flesh of the décolletage, the necklace, the small hands, as if shaped from ivory, the wide flowing drapes of her dress – all this contributes to the salon quality of this portrait, without reducing its purely artistic virtues which it undoubtedly possesses”.
The composition is of a young woman, sitting, full-length, turned ¾ to the left, depicted in a conventionally rendered park environment. This beautiful, exquisite finesse imbued female portrait was skilfully composed and executed in a warm, rich and saturated colouring. It reveals many of the qualities of Kneller’s art, especially in regard to his realistic approach to the human figure. The position of the body is free and unaffected. The head and hands are painted with exceptional precision and flourish. The expression of the face is focused and somewhat melancholic. The landscape that lends natural depth to the composition is simple and devoid of superfluous detail. The absence of idealized features and verbose rhetoric, the sharp contrast between dense light and deep shadows, the clarity of the lines, the deep tonal key of the colouring harmony speak of an influence by the North.
Kneller was a disciple of Ferdinand Bol’s and one of the last disciples of Rembrandt’s. His artistic forming began in Amsterdam and developed on the established traditions of Dutch painting. This female portrait from the National Gallery collection features many of the distinctive characteristics of European Baroque painting. The portrait is executed with impressive mastery and shows that Kneller was quite appropriately appointed Principal Painter of the British Crown.
A sense of intense motion within the well-defined diagonal of the composition, masterful application of chiaroscuro, skilful psychological portrayal of the face, elegant beauty of the posture, contrapposto, delicately shaped drapes and attention to detail in clothing: all these define Kneller’s art as portrait painter – an art he mastered to perfection.
In 1672, Kneller set on a trip to Italy, where he studied Italian art for some three years. In Rome he worked with Bernini and Carlo Maratta and produced a number of copies of Raphael’s works. In Venice he studied Titian’s and Tintoretto’s works and soon made himself a name as a modern portrait painter and the author of ambitious historical compositions.
In 1675, Kneller left for England driven by a powerful desire to get better acquainted with great master Antony van Dyck’s works. Deciding to settle in London, he concentrated almost entirely on portraiture, which dominated in English painting at the time. Kneller’s success came quickly enough. His reputation as an artist grew and sometime in the middle of 1680 he became the most distinguished portrait painter in England. In 1692, he was knighted and, in 1695, on demand by the king, he became a honoris causa doctor of the Oxford University. His rich experience and the quality of his portraits, especially those in full-length, were second to none after van Dyck’s time.
Kneller developed an elegant and imposing portrait style which became famous throughout Europe and America via numerous engravings based on his works. Kneller’s main patrons and clients were the English monarchs, as well as numerous prominent British aristocrats and representatives of the affluent society and clergymen. Kneller created a number of superior portraits of prominent figures of the time: the majestic parade portraits of Charles II, Louis XIV, William III and Peter the Great, the splendid portrait of sir Isaac Newton, the sequence of charming portraits of the most beautiful Mary II Stewart’s ladies-in-waiting, known as the “Hampton Court Beauties”, the intellectual portraits of the London Kit-Cat club members, portrayed in the perfect proportions that set up a new standard in portrait painting.
Despite his phenomenal industriousness and amazing skills, it was impossible for Kneller to meet his numerous orders on his own. Under his supervision, in his spacious atelier on Covent Garden square, a large number of disciples and assistants worked on portions of the paintings. It is a known fact that about 1693 the artist’s studio was visited by some 14 models a day, and some of these sat some 10 – 12 times or more. Just like Rubens, Kneller produced elegant, bold and vigorously executed full-length studies of heads in coloured chalk – practice unseen in England since Holbein’s times.
The ascension of George I, in 1714, added the last tribute of esteem to the artist’s fame – he was awarded the title of baronet. After Kneller`s death, a commemorative plaque was mounted in the Westminster Abbey – an honour that has never been granted to another English painter.
Kneller’s amazing number of works influenced strongly English portrait painting of the late 17th and early 18th centuries – the time when the formal Baroque portrait received its lasting shape.