Painted during the 1630s, this is the type of full-length portrait by van Dyck that was to influence subsequent English portrait-painters from Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) to John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). This image of a young woman in a blue satin gown was recorded at Althorp, Northants, the family seat of the Earls of Spencer, in the early eighteenth century, although knowledge of the identity of the sitter had by then been lost. Sir Oliver Millar has recently tentatively suggested that she could be Elizabeth (1618-72) daughter of William, 2nd Lord Spencer of Wormleighton (1592-1636).
Alongside the subject, a small brown-and-white spaniel jumps up at a lizard which clings to the heavily rusticated pedestal of a large urn. Both creatures can be seen as symbols of fidelity, and would thus be appropriate inclusions in a portrait of a recently betrothed or newly married woman. In 1634, Elizabeth Spencer married, as her first husband, John, 1st Lord Craven of Ryton (1610-48) and the portrait could therefore have been painted at around that time. The portrait was complete by 1639, when Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) used it as the basis for an engraving in his set of English costume studies Ornatus Mulieribus Anglicanus, which was published in 1640 with the plates individually dated (reproduced Cumming, p.65, fig.60).
When the German art historian Dr Gustav Waagen saw this painting at Althorp in 1835, he observed that 'The action of walking, and the gambols of a little dog, give much life to the picture. It has unfortunately been rather injured by cleaning' (G.F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England, London 1838, vol.3, p.335). It was acquired in 1977 by the Tate Gallery, which had not until then possessed any work by van Dyck. Its carved and gilded surround is of the type known as a 'Sunderland frame', many examples of which were and are to be found in the Spencer family collection. The frame could not originally have been made for this work, however, because it is a little too large, necessitating the addition, at an unknown date, of flat wooden strips within the inner edges to cover the edges of the canvas.
Born and trained in Antwerp, van Dyck became an assistant there to the great international artist, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Van Dyck first visited England from November 1620 to February 1621, when he painted a handful of works. From late 1621 to late 1627, he was in Italy, where he absorbed the techniques and compositions of such recent Venetian painters as Titian (c.1487-1576). In 1632, van Dyck entered the service of the British king Charles I (reigned 1625-49) who knighted him the same year. Van Dyck single-handedly transformed the portraiture of the king, his family and the Court. He died in London in 1641, his early death perhaps brought on by overwork.
A version of this picture by an unknown artist , but with a different head and facial features and identified as 'Lady Gerard of Bromley', was formerly in the collection of the Earls of Westmoreland; it was sold at Christie's, London, on 20 June 1975, lot 43, and again on 11 June 1999, lot 11.
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, 1979, pp.2-5
Valerie Cumming, A Visual History of Costume in the Seventeenth Century, London 1984, pp.64-5, reproduced p.64
Masterpieces of British Art from the Tate Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art Kobe 1998, cat. no.4, p.114, reproduced in colour