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
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions