Catalogue entry

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1561–1636

Portrait of a Woman in Red
Oil on oak panel
1142 x 902 mm
Inscribed ‘1620’ above the sitter’s left arm
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1982

Ownership history
…; Duke of Norfolk; passed to a private English collection after 1973; sold to Oscar and Peter Johnson Ltd, from whom bought by Tate 1982.

Exhibition history
The Age of Charles I, Tate Gallery, London, November 1972–January 1973 (24); Marcus Gheeraerts II: Elizabethan Artist, Tate Britain, London, December 2002–April 2003

The Tate Gallery 1982–84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986, p.22; Karen Hearn, Marcus Gheeraerts II: Elizabethan Artist, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2002, pp.46–8, 53–6.

This portrait is traditionally thought to represent a lady of the Constable family, who were ancestors of the Dukes of Norfolk in the Herries line. If this is the case, she may be Anne, daughter of Sir William Roper, the wife of Sir Philip Constable Bt, of Everingham, Yorkshire. The elaborate pendant jewel above the sitter’s foreheard appears to incorporate an ‘R’, which could stand for ‘Roper’.1

Anne is recorded as having borne several children between 1618 and 1630. The sitter here is evidently in late pregnancy. From the 1580s through to about 1630, what might be termed the ‘pregnancy portrait’ seems to have been a distinct sub-genre of British portraiture.2 From the mid-1590s onwards Marcus Gheeraerts II was a main producer of these images. His works in this field include the group portrait of Anne, Lady Wentworth and her Children 1596 (National Portrait Gallery, London),3 and a number of three-quarter-length images of heavily pregnant women, such as the Portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1595 (Tate T07699), as well as the present work, painted twenty-five years later. His last signed example is the portrait of Anne Hale, Mrs Hoskins, dated 1629.4

The reason for the brief vogue for this unexpectedly explicit mode of portraiture remains unknown. At a time when a wife’s principal role was to bear as many healthy heirs as possible to perpetuate and extend a family’s name and influence, such a portrait would act as a form of visual evidence of anticipated dynastic success. At the same time, childbirth was potentially so hazardous that the portrait might also act as a record of the features of a beloved individual who could shortly be dead.

Although the pigments used for the reds in the present portrait have somewhat faded, it is still a rich harmony of varying shades of this colour. Red textiles were both celebratory and a mark of high status. During the first three decades of the seventeenth century, ladies were often portrayed wearing black threads or ribbons round their necks or, as here, their wrists. The sitter here also has a gold ring threaded through the black ribbon tied round her left wrist, which is draped elegantly across the back of a scarlet-upholstered chair. The black cord clearly acted as a contrast to set off a lady’s fashionably white skin, but it was also sometimes used, as here, to anchor and display an item of jewellery which may have had a memorialising significance, perhaps having been inherited, for instance, from a deceased parent.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger was born in Bruges, but was brought to London as a child in 1568 by his painter father Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (c.1520–1586) who, as a Calvinist, was escaping religious persecution. It is not clear where or with whom the younger Gheeraerts trained, but presumably he received at least some instruction from his father. It has been suggested that he could also have studied abroad, but no evidence for this has been found. Early in the 1590s, he gained the patronage of Sir Henry Lee (1533–1619), who had held the important post of Queen Elizabeth I’s Champion, coordinating the annual Accession Day tilts. In 1592, Lee staged a lavish entertainment for the Queen at his house at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, and it is thought that he commissioned what is probably Gheeraerts’s most celebrated work, the immense ‘Ditchley’ portrait of the Queen (National Gallery, London) in connection with this event. Gheeraerts also gained the patronage of Elizabeth’s final favourite, the glamorous 2nd Earl of Essex (1566–1601) before his fall from grace and execution in 1601.

Following the accession of James I to the British throne in 1603, Gheeraerts become the favoured artist of James’s queen, Anne of Denmark (1574–1619). He painted a number of portraits of her, and there are records of payments to him for portraits of other members of the royal family (now lost).5 However, from 1616 onwards, Gheeraerts was superseded in royal favour by the overseas-trained Paul van Somer (c.1576–1622) and then by Daniel Mytens (c.1590–1647). From about 1620 onwards, Gheeraerts’s sitters were of somewhat lesser status – gentry and academics – although he continued to be prolific.

The present composition confers on the sitter considerable dignity. As curator Elizabeth Einberg pointed out, although the pose was becoming a standard one by this date, the soft modelling of the face, the elegant hands, and the sense of impeccable balance between the shapes – for instance in the way that the curtains at either side follow the outline of the figure – are highly characteristic of Gheeraerts’s later work.6

Karen Hearn
June 2009


1 See Sir Oliver Millar, ‘Portrait of a Woman in Red by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’, The Age of Charles I, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1972, p.27; and The Tate Gallery 1982–84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986, p.22
2 See Karen Hearn, ‘A Fatal Fertility? Elizabeth and Jacobean Pregnancy Portraits’, Costume: The Journal of the Costume Society, no.34, 2000, pp.39–43; Marcus Gheeraerts II: Elizabethan Artist, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2002, pp.41–51; Karen Hearn, ‘“Saved Through Childbearing”: A Godly Context for Elizabethan Pregnancy Portraits’, in Tara Hamling and Richard L. Williams (eds.), Art Re-Formed: Re-Assessing the Impact of the Reformation on the Visual Arts, Newcastle 2007, pp.65–70.
3 Tate Britain 2002, pp.48–51.
4 Ibid., reproduced p.48.
5 See K. Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England, 1530–1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995, no.130, p.192.
6 The Tate Gallery 1982–84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, p.22.