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

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?

An enlightening finale for Don Draper

Arts and Entertainment
Serious player: Aussie Guy Sebastian rehearses for the big show in Vienna

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable