Surviving information about Lely’s early life and career is scarce, and little is known about the artist before he came to England. The late seventeenth century artist and writer Arnold Houbraken, the source of most of information on Lely’s early life, stated that he was born to Dutch parents in Soest, presumed to be Soest in Westphalia rather than the Soest near Utrecht, in the Northern Netherlands – his father being a captain of infantry in a Dutch regiment in the service of the German Elector of Brandenburg, stationed in Westphalia. As a young man Lely is believed to have trained in Haarlem with Frans Pietersz. de Grebber, and was certainly recorded in his studio in 1637,1 before coming to England in the early 1640s where he worked initially as a landscape and history painter. George Vertue, also writing in the early eighteenth century, stated that in London Lely initially worked in the studio of George Geldorp, citing as his source the Dutch marine painter Isaac Sailmaker (1633–1721) who had lived and worked in Geldorp’s house at the same time,2 before establishing himself in independent practice as the leading portrait painter in England, filling the void that had been left by the death of Sir Anthony van Dyck. In 1647 he was elected a Freeman of the London Painter-Stainers’ Company and in 1661, following the Restoration, he was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to King Charles II, the position that van Dyck had held at the court of Charles I until his death in 1641.
Only a small handful of paintings survive from Lely’s Haarlem period, the majority of which are small scale landscapes with mythological or biblical figure groups, which also dominate his early production in London. The only securely dated of these is a picture called Nymphs Bathing (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes), which is signed and dated 1640 and is reminiscent of the work of contemporary Dutch painters such as Dirck van der Lisse and Cornelis Vroom, also from Haarlem. Other works by Lely that probably date from this period include The Finding of Moses (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes), A Young Woman seated at a Fountain (Private collection) and another Nymphs Bathing (Private collection), all of which show the influence of early seventeenth century Dutch genre painting, such as that of Cornelis van Poelenburgh. Only one other portrait from Lely’s Haarlem period is known, however – a Portrait of an Elderly Lady (Private collection) – which is painted on a slightly larger scale. Whereas that work is on canvas the present portrait is on panel, typical of the professionally prepared panels readily found in artistic centres such as Haarlem at this period.
Painted bust length, in quarter profile to the right, with the sitter’s gaze directly engaging the viewer; the pose is typical of that used in artists’ self-portraits of the period and is particularly reminiscent of van Dyck’s celebrated Self-Portrait of 1640 (National Portrait Gallery, London). Whilst no other documented early self-portraits by Lely have survived the likeness of the sitter in the present painting accords well with his circa 1660 self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London, allowing for the passage of over twenty years, as well as with a slightly earlier self-portrait drawing by Lely recently sold in these rooms, 5 July 2016, lot 216 (Private collection). Further the facial features of the sitter in the present portrait – with his aquiline nose; dark eyebrows over almond shaped eyes; neatly trimmed thin moustache; slightly sloping brow and rounded chin; framed by long dark, softly curling hair – are strikingly similar to those of a male figure that appears in a number of Lely’s works; including the cellist in The Concert (Courtauld Gallery, London); his Man playing the Violin (ex Blaffer Foundation, Texas); a Portrait of a Man playing the Lute (Christie’s, 20 November 1992, lot 8); and the reclining male figure in A pair of lovers in a landscape (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes), all of which are thought to depict the artist himself. The apparent age of the sitter would also fit with that of an artist in his early twenties and the sketchy, almost unfinished handling, with two prominent alterations to the composition of the body, are suggestive of a work intended for the artist himself, rather than a commissioned painting for a paying sitter.
We are grateful to Catharine Macleod and Diana Dethloff for endorsing the attribution to Lely.
1. K. Hearn, ‘Lely in Holland’, in C. Campbell (ed.), Peter Lely. A Lyrical Vision, London 2012, p. 29
2. George Vertue, ‘Notebooks: 1’, in The Walpole Society, vol. XVIII, 1929–30, p. 74.
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