Peter Lely: Dutch master's naked ambition

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future