A small in-focus exhibition on the sixteenth-century artist Marcus Gheeraerts II opened at Tate Britain on 2 December 2002 and marked the 400th anniversary of the death, in March 1603, of his most celebrated sitter, Queen Elizabeth I.
The portrait of Captain Thomas Lee 1594, also known as 'the man with bare legs', is one of the best loved early pictures in the Tate Collection. Yet little is known about the man who painted it: Marcus Gheeraerts II, or 'the Younger' (1561/2-1636). Not only is this exhibition the first monographic show to be devoted to this important late Elizabethan and Jacobean artist, but the accompanying publication by Tate Curator Karen Hearn is the first book to focus solely on his work.
Gheeraerts produced some of the most haunting and beautiful portraits in British art. Although born overseas, in Bruges, it was he who defined the public images of many of the leading Britons of his age. The display brings together over twenty two works, including loaned paintings, engravings and portrait miniatures from the National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, Scottish National Portrait Gallery and various private collections. There are also sixteenth-century illustrated medical books from the British Library, and a richly embroidered woman's jacket from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The image of the 'Virgin Queen' - Elizabeth I - is only one of the female roles of the age. Paradoxically, it was under this celibate monarch that a surprising English sub-genre, the 'pregnancy portrait' developed. These portraits depict women who are clearly - even exaggeratedly - pregnant. In an age when a wife's role was to bear many healthy children to extend a newly elevated family's name and influence, such a portrait would be visual 'evidence' of hoped-for dynastic success. Simultaneously, childbirth was considered so hazardous that it would also record the features of a beloved woman who might shortly be dead. Gheeraerts painted a number of these and Tate recently acquired an exceptionally beautiful example, Portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1595. It has not been exhibited for more than thirty years and has been newly conserved for this display.
Gheeraerts depicted his male subjects as heroes, often in the increasingly fashionable full-length format. Elizabeth I's final favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, used Gheeraerts to fashion his all-important public image.
The Netherlandish-born Gheeraerts was one of the most significant painters in England during the age of William Shakespeare. Indeed the two men were near contemporaries, for the playwright was born in 1564 (and died in 1616).
Comparatively little is known about the lives and careers of either man, the main evidence being their extant work. We can reconstruct Gheeraerts's life only from fragmentary references, and while he may sometimes have collaborated with other artists, the organisation of painters' workshops in London at this period remains to be established.
The publication, Marcus Gheeraerts II: Elizabethan Artist, discusses his life and art in detail and includes an essay on Gheeraerts's painting techniques by Tate Conservator Rica Jones. The book, which is supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, is published by Tate Publishing (special exhibition price of £6.99 until 20 April at Tate bookshops).