Essay

Portrait of an Unknown Woman c.1670–5 By Peter Lely

Rica Jones and Joyce H. Townsend

Read technical information about this painting resulting from examination and scientific analysis by conservators and conservation scientists at Tate

Fig.1 Sir Peter Lely 1618‒1680 Portrait of an Unknown Woman c.1670‒5

Fig.1
Sir Peter Lely 1618‒1680
Portrait of an Unknown Woman
c.1670‒5
Oil paint on canvas
1251 x 1003 mm
T00755

This painting (fig.1) is in oil paint on a single piece of canvas measuring 1251 x 1003 mm. The linen is coarse and plain woven, with approximately 14 vertical and 12 horizontal threads per square centimetre. There is cusping of the canvas weave on all edges, indicating that the dimensions are original or near-original (fig.2).1 The tacking margins are missing, and the stretcher appears to date from the time of the glue composition lining, probably the late nineteenth or early twentiethcentury.

Fig.2 X-radiograph of Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Fig.2
X-radiograph of Portrait of an Unknown Woman

The ground is opaque buff colour. It was applied about 70 microns thick, and it has a smooth surface (fig.3). The colour was mixed from lead white, Cologne earth, sienna and other ochres, charcoal black and smalt, all bound together in oil. Its colour is not visible as part of the composition.

Fig.3 Cross-section from blue drapery, showing from bottom: buff coloured ground; blue paint

Fig.3
Cross-section from blue drapery, showing from bottom: buff coloured ground; blue paint

As we have found consistently with Lely’s paintings in this study, no underdrawing is detectable with infra-red or microscopic examination (fig.4).

Fig.4 Infra-red reflectograph of Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Fig.4
Infra-red reflectograph of Portrait of an Unknown Woman

The figure was laid in with reddish brown paint, which can be seen at high magnification beneath the features in the face (fig.5). Very often in Lely’s work this brick red first painting was left to show as the shadowed outlines of the flesh tones. In this painting we can see something of this technique in the flesh tones, though the artist went on to strengthen these lines with a similar colour at a later stage of painting (fig.6).2 Elsewhere, low-key underpainting is visible in cross-section in some areas, for example there is a layer of opaque pale grey beneath the final paint of the sky, but it is not extensive or elaborate (figs.7 and 8). The painting was mainly built up from thick, opaque tones applied wet-in-wet to the primed canvas, followed by glazing in some areas to intensify the colours (fig.9). Both the X-radiograph and the infra-red reflectogram reveal alterations to the portrait as painting progressed: the sitter was originally wearing a pearl choker, the fingers of her right hand were lengthened at a late stage of painting (fig.10) and the folds of the drapery over her knees and legs underwent many minor adjustments.

Fig.5 Brick red paint visible beneath sitter's eyebrow, photographed at x10 magnification
Fig.5 Brick red paint visible beneath sitter's eyebrow, photographed at x10 magnification
Fig.6 Reinforcing the contour of the finger with brick red paint, photographed at x8 magnification
Fig.6 Reinforcing the contour of the finger with brick red paint, photographed at x8 magnification
Fig.7 Cross-section through the sky, photographed at x320 magnification. From the bottom: buff-coloured ground; grey underpainting; blue sky
Fig.7 Cross-section through the sky, photographed at x320 magnification. From the bottom: buff-coloured ground; grey underpainting; blue sky
Fig.8 Cross-section through blue drapery, photographed at x160 magnification. From the bottom: buff-coloured ground; grey underpaint; two shades of opaque blue of the dress, worked together wet-in-wet; thin glaze of ultramarine blue on part of the sample
Fig.8 Cross-section through blue drapery, photographed at x160 magnification. From the bottom: buff-coloured ground; grey underpaint; two shades of opaque blue of the dress, worked together wet-in-wet; thin glaze of ultramarine blue on part of the sample
Fig.9 Blue glaze over two opaque shades of blue in shoulder, photographed at x8 magnification
Fig.9 Blue glaze over two opaque shades of blue in shoulder, photographed at x8 magnification
Fig.10 Extension of fingers on sitter’s right hand, photographed at x8 magnification

Fig.10
Extension of fingers on sitter’s right hand, photographed at x8 magnification

All the paint is well bound in oil and is composed of complex mixtures of pigments. The pale blue drapery is composed of three tones of blue made from mixtures of lead white with indigo; the tones were worked into one another on the prepared canvas. Finally they were glazed with two types of translucent blue paint: a mixture of ultramarine, lead white, black and smalt for the lights and probably indigo only for the darks. The ultramarine glazes survive only in the troughs of the brushwork, and the indigo glazes have been worn away or have faded (fig.9). When viewed in cross-section, none of the glazes fluoresces in ultraviolet light, indicating a straight oil binder without resinous additives. The brocade curtain behind the sitter was made from several tones of opaque dark grey mixed from lead white, black, red lake (very finely ground but intensely coloured), and yellowish brown earth colour. Detailing of the yellow brocade was applied on top, followed by the dark outlines. There is no evidence that the curtain was ever glazed. The brown of the dress was mixed from lead white, ultramarine, sienna, red ochre, glassy particles, black, yellow lake, vermilion and cologne earth. Here and there traces of an intense red glaze are visible at high magnification (fig.11). Materials analysis indicates that this glaze was applied by a later hand: it passes into cracks in the paint film and it contains the pigment cobalt blue, which did not exist before the early nineteenth century.

Fig.11 Red lake glaze (not original) remains in cracks in brown skirt, photographed at x16 magnification

Fig.11
Red lake glaze (not original) remains in cracks in brown skirt, photographed at x16 magnification

The whites of the sitter’s eyes are modelled in three opaque shades of blue: light greenish blue, darker greenish blue and a purer blue tone, which looks like ultramarine (figs.12 and 13). Half-shadows in the face are highly coloured: light green between the inner corner of the eye and the nose; purplish flesh-tone for the eye sockets.

Fig.12 Three shades of blue used in the sitter’s right eye, plus brick red paint reinforcing the socket, photographed at x8 magnification

Fig.12
Three shades of blue used in the sitter’s right eye, plus brick red paint reinforcing the socket, photographed at x8 magnification

Fig.13 Sitter’s right eye showing ultramarine blue used to describe the curve of the eyeball, photographed x20 magnification

Fig.13
Sitter’s right eye showing ultramarine blue used to describe the curve of the eyeball, photographed x20 magnification

The painting was cleaned at Tate in 2001, during which treatment much disfiguring overpaint, applied by later hands, was removed from the blue skirt, the architectural background and the dark shadows in the lower left corner.

August 2005

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Project

Tudor and Stuart Technical Research

May 2003 – October 2005

Tate holds a significant collection of paintings by artists working in England during the Tudor ...

Artist

Sir Peter Lely

1618–1680