Richard Cork extols the restraint that lies behind Tate Britain’s haunting Elizabethan masterpiece
Emerging from the dark to reveal her prominent pregnancy, the lady appears to welcome our attention, inviting us to share her delight at the prospect of childbirth. The identity of this beguiling sitter has long since been forgotten; the only clue lies in an inscription on the back of the panel, suggesting that the portrait was once owned by an 18thcentury Shropshire landowner. His Elizabethan forebears, however, were probably not prosperous enough to have commissioned such a sumptuous image.
By the time Marcus Gheeraerts II (1561/2–1636) painted this picture, in about 1595, he was one of the most prominent portraitists of the era. A few years ealier, his monumental Ditchley portrait of a resplendent Elizabeth I had proclaimed the abilities of this Bruges-born artist. Forced to flee his native country for religious reasons, Gheeraerts went on to depict the top-ranking denizens of his adopted land as confidently as any of his English rivals.
Nothing in his oeuvre is more haunting than Portrait of an Unknown Lady. She is festooned unashamedly with pearls, which dance around her dark hair, dangle from her blanched forehead, curl round her neck and hang like plump white fruits from her ear-lobes. Then, in even more glistening profusion, they cascade from both shoulders before curving upwards to be held, in an almost nonchalant loop, between her breasts.
Gheeraerts clearly intended an erotic frisson, and the lady’s smile may convey a tacit acknowledgement of her delight in display. Most sitters in Elizabethan portraits are serious, so artist and sitter needed considerable audacity to depart from precedent. Pearls, however, also symbolised purity, and were the attribute of the virgin-martyr St Margaret of Antioch, the patron saint of childbirth. So the avalanche of pearls may also be intended to attract St Margaret’s blessing during the hazards of pregnancy.
The sitter’s husband must have commissioned the portrait to celebrate her fertility and the hoped-for birth of an heir. The swell of her belly is shown with relish, and more pearls pepper the dress enclosing its ripeness. Gheeraerts revels in his skill at simulating their texture.
The exceptional quality of this painting stems, nevertheless, from the artist’s fundamental restraint. Unlike so many Elizabethan portraits, crammed with an overload of pictorial embellishment, this image is notable for its rigour. Largely limited to a discreet range of black, white and the palest of greys, it benefits from the discipline of an artist who knows when to stop. However much he savours the elaborate ruff radiating from the lady’s neck like an exclamatory sun-burst, Gheeraerts reins in his appetite for spectacle elsewhere. Only the sitter’s brazenly painted lips, and a few crimson jewels glinting in her hair, break free from his pared-down palette.
As the familiar Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I testifies, it was fashionable at the time to depict high-born women as though drained of blood: their blanched skin proved their pedigree. But in this painting, the pregnancy theme gives the lady’s overall pallor a more ominous meaning as well. For childbirth was dangerous, and everyone knew it – one in a hundred women died as a direct result of the stress endured in labour. Pregnancy portraits were commissioned not only as proud demonstrations of dynastic prowess, but as records of deeply cherished wives who might not survive their confinement. No amount of pearls could save this unknown lady or her unborn child if there were complications during childbirth.
Gheeraerts had traumatic personal experience of life’s brevity. He married Magdalen de Critz in 1590 and they had three children in the next decade, but all appear to have died young. Hence, perhaps, the awareness of fragility detectable in Portrait of an Unknown Lady. While he bedecks his sitter in finery, Gheeraerts also stresses her vulnerability. Almost as white as a corpse, she can easily be imagined lying horizontally on a tomb. By portraying her magnificence even as he warns of the hazards to come, Gheeraerts produces a poignant image where joy and anxiety compete for the viewer ‘s attention.
This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 4.