Study for a Portrait of a Woman

Sir Peter Lely (Pieter van der Faes) (British, Soest 1618–1680 London)

Oil on canvas
26 1/2 x 21 1/8 in. (67.3 x 53.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1906
Accession Number:
  • Catalogue Entry

    This sketch provides a good example of Lely's working method. After 1660 the artist was the recipient of steady royal and noble patronage, becoming the most successful portraitist at the Restoration court. He painted only the sitter’s head in his or her presence, sometimes laying in an outline for the pose and costume, and was widely criticized because he so often employed assistants for drapery and backgrounds. He must certainly have retained such studies of heads, as he was often called upon to produce replica portraits of important sitters.

    The present work has been accepted as Lely’s by R. B. Beckett (1948), David Piper (verbal opinion of 1962 recorded in departmental files), and Oliver Millar (1978 and verbal opinions of 1964 and 1991), and dated to the 1670s. The sitter was identified as Nell Gwyn, the comic actress and mistress of Charles II, in the 1906 sale catalogue of the Foster collection, but this identification has been rejected. Piper suggested that she might be the Duchess of Cleveland, which is also unlikely.

    A nineteenth-century copy formerly belonged to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (sold, Sotheby's, New York, 1977). In the Heinz Archive and Library at the National Portrait Gallery, London, there are photographs of copies and variants after what may have been Lely’s finished original of the same woman. All show drapery that is similarly arranged, with the face in reverse to the present work. Two of the images are called Nell Gwyn and two Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester.

    There are some small losses of paint on the exposed breast of the sitter, and an old repair is visible in the lower right corner.

    [2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]

  • Provenance

    ?J. M. Stewart; John H. Foster, Fernside, Witley, Surrey (until d. 1906; his estate sale, Christie's, London, March 24, 1906, no. 31, as "Portrait of Nell Gwyn," for £105 to Colnaghi); [Colnaghi, London, 1906; sold to MMA]

  • Exhibition History

    Little Rock. Arkansas Arts Center. "Five Centuries of European Painting," May 16–October 26, 1963, unnumbered cat. (p. 25, as "Portrait of a Lady").

    Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Miners National Bank. "Loan Exhibition from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," December 1–15, 1964, no. 6.

  • References

    Catalogue of Important Modern Pictures . . . the Property of John H. Foster, Esq. Deceased; late of Fernside, Witley, Surrey. Christie's, London. March 24, 1906, p. 8, no. 31, calls it Nell Gwyn and notes that Peter Cunningham mentions it in "Story of Nell Gwyn," p. 173.

    Bryson Burroughs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. 9th ed. New York, 1931, p. 209, no. L534–3, calls it "Nell Gwynne" and describes it as unfinished.

    R. B. Beckett. Letter. December 24, 1948 [letter unlocated; transcript only], accepts the attribution, dates the picture in the 1670s, but rejects the identification of the sitter as Nell Gwynn.

    R. B. Beckett. Letter. April 21, 1948 [letter unlocated; transcript only], accepts the attribution to Lely.

    Five Centuries of European Painting. Exh. cat., Arkansas Arts Center. Little Rock, 1963, p. 25, ill., suggests that the sitter is probably the duchess of Cleveland.

    Oliver Millar. Letter to Mary Sprinson. July 31, 1978, refers to it from memory as "Unfinished head of [a] girl. Late, probably right".

    Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 22–23, no. 9, ill. (color).

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History