Michael Dahl
Portrait of Mrs Haire 1701

Artwork details

Michael Dahl 1659–1743
Portrait of Mrs Haire
Date 1701
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 768 x 639 mm
frame: 948 x 822 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1991
On display at Tate Britain
Room: 1650


This portrait is typical of the formula used by Dahl, a Swedish portraitist working in England from 1689, for head-and-shoulder images of women. Mary Haire is presented against a stark background, extravagant lighting casting a prominent shadow to one side. The curve of her neck, enhanced by the dark sweep of hair falling behind, as well as the elegant turn of her head and the lively handling of drapery, are all elements within a tightly controlled composition. Given the limitations of the canvas size, it has been carefully contrived to produce as arresting and expressive an image as possible. Characteristic of Dahl, especially in the 1690s and early 1700s, is his interesting use of colour, sometimes in unexpected shades. Here, the fresh, pale emerald green of Mary Haire's gown (the pigment has probably faded slightly) provides a strong decorative contrast with her white frilled chemise.

In 1701, the date of this portrait, Dahl had a broad range of patrons including members of the royal family, the nobility and prominent court office-holders, as well as London professionals and gentry families. The exact identity of Mary Haire (if indeed the inscription on the reverse of the canvas, which identifies her as such, is correct) remains obscure. The portrait descended in the Wodehouse family which most likely suggests that she is in some way related. The Wodehouses, created baronets in 1611, were a prominent Norfolk family, the main family seat being Kimberley House in the parish of Wymondham.

It is known that Dahl was in Bath in 1701, but presumably only in the summer for his health so it seems unlikely that this portrait was painted there. He probably painted Mary Haire in his London studio in Leicester Fields, in the neighbourhood of the Swedish Legation, which he occupied from 1696 until at least 1725. Although a modest work, the portrait is nevertheless a good example of Dahl's manner at a time when he was in direct competition with the pre-eminent portraitist Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). With her somewhat detached, reflective gaze and graceful solemnity, Mary Haire appears (but on a lesser scale) not unlike Dahl's imposing images of court beauties at Petworth: the work is an interesting instance of Dahl applying a court style to a sitter of a family of more moderate prominence.

Further reading:
Wilhelm Nisser, Michael Dahl and the Contemporary Swedish School of Painting, Uppsala and London, 1927

Tabitha Barber
October 2000