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Peter Lely: Dutch master's naked ambition

In the 17th century, Peter Lely left Haarlem for London and became a renowned portrait painter. But, as Adrian Hamilton discovers in a new show, he also produced powerful erotic and mythological pieces

Of all the foreign artists who came to Britain, Peter Lely made the greatest name for himself and the biggest fortune.

As official painter to Charles II he became synonymous with a certain style of full-busted, fresh- faced women showing plenty of cleavage and a lot of luxurious robe. If they looked alike, they were. For Lely, ever the Dutch businessman, saw his market and supplied it with standardised pictures that flattered the sitter and could be produced off the easel with repetitive ease.

Was it just money, enough to buy one of the largest collections of old master drawings in Europe, that he sought so assiduously? An intriguing and persuasive exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery sets out to show us a quite different painter, with far wider artistic ambitions, who set off from the Netherlands to London as the Civil War broke out in 1643.

This was a young man, in his mid-twenties, well trained in draughtsmanship and painting in Haarlem, with a desire to show off the full range of subject matter he'd been brought up to cover, including religious subjects, pictures from mythology and portraiture. With the portraiture he soon found commissions in England, mostly from aristocratic patrons who had sided with the parliamentarians. His portraits from this time make up some of the finest pictures he did, not least the ones of Oliver Cromwell, with a realism and insight he lost with the return of the monarchy and his own appointment as Principal Painter to Charles II in 1660.

But he also continued during the period of war and the Commonwealth with his "subject paintings" of biblical subjects and of Arcadian landscapes, works of romantic sentiment, no little eroticism and heavily influenced by the Venetian masters then fashionable in English. It is on these works that the Courtauld concentrates, dividing them up into religious, mythological and musical themes.

What unites all of them is a youthful sense of pleasure in the flesh and joy in life. Biblical and mythological themes, of course, were used regularly as a means of introducing the female nude and Lely was no exception. The Finding of Moses, painted in the Netherlands and possibly his first independent pictures, has the Pharaoh's daughter and her attendants semi-naked by the water as the child in the basket is discovered. The Infant Bacchus goes one better with a delirious depiction of puerile flesh at play.

With Nymphs by a Fountain and Cimon and Efigenia from a decade later in the 1650s, we are faced with a completely unabashed celebration of the naked female figure and the male eye that relishes it. In the latter, it is Cimon who peers at the sleeping figures of the ladies, seen both front and back. In the Nymphs by the Fountain it is we who are the viewers. It's a study of quite extraordinary sensual post-coital stupor as the nymphs rest satiated and at ease. Above them the figure of the grotesque man lies collapsed. In the lower part of the picture, the eye is caught by the soles of the feet of the slightly masculine prostrate nude seen from the back. They are brown and dirty, an allusion perhaps to what has taken place. Little wonder that the work, owned by Dulwich Picture Gallery, was kept locked away from the students of Dulwich College "for fear that it should injure the morals of the boys".

It is possible to make too much of the eroticism of these pictures. Clearly Lely was a man who enjoyed women. They're not to everybody's taste, any more than they were to the sober-minded citizens of the time. But what comes through most strongly, and most attractively, in the pictures gathered here is Lely's infectious fondness for people and for pleasure. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Courtauld's own The Concert. In it a mustachioed man plays the bass viol with intense concentration and uplifted eyes. Behind him a child plays the flute and a young girl sings, while to the right a semi-naked woman with her back to us reads a sheet of music while an attractive young lady faces us, seated, with bared breasts.

It's a big picture and a complex composition that has been variously described as representing the painter himself and his mistress Ursula and children or an allegory of the life he has left behind in Holland, on the left, and, on the right, the courtly future he faces in Britain. Maybe. But to me it represents simply the reverie and the dreams of love and sex that music inspires.

Lely himself was inordinately fond of music. His depictions Boy Playing a Jew's Harp and Man Playing a Pipe from around 1648-50 are acute studies in concentration and the pleasure of performance, quite unlike any of the Dutch or Venetian paintings of the same theme. So too with Two Children Singing, a touching portrayal of innocence and poise. Altogether, Lely is known to have painted some 30 of these subject paintings between the early 1640s and mid-1750s, of which a dozen have been gathered together in the Courtauld exhibition. By the time of the Restoration he had ceased doing them altogether. But portraiture was what was wanted, albeit of the décolleté variety, and that is what they got.

The young Dutchman came, wrote his first biographer, Richard Graham, as a painter of "landtschapes with small Figures, and Historical Compositions," but "finding the practice of Painting after the Life generally more encourag'd, he apply'd himself to Portraits." His friend the Royalist poet Richard Lovelace was more dismissive of his fellow countrymen, enjoining Lely to

"…smile at this un-understanding land;
Let them their own dull counterfeits adore,
Their Rainbow-cloaths admire and no more;
Within one shade of thine more substance is
Than all their varnish'd Idol-Mistresses."

Painting their "varnish'd Idol-Mistresses" was exactly what Lely went on to do, of course. Richard Graham may have been right. It was the market and English taste that forced him away from his first ambition. Or it may be that marriage and children and success seduced him, as it does with so many others, to a life of the easy option.

If that was the reason, it was a loss for art. The Courtauld's pictures show a painter of very considerable talent reworking and refreshing a genre. It also reveals a young man full of affection and good spirits. If that is what the country drove out of him, it fully deserved Lovelace's biting dismissal of England as an "un-understanding land".

Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision, Courtauld Gallery, London WC2 (020 7848 2526) to 13 January