Barbara Villiers, born in 1640, was the daughter of William Villiers, Viscount Grandison, a royalist who died in 1643 of wounds received in the Civil War. In 1659 she married Roger Palmer, a lawyer, during an affair with Philip Stanhope, second Earl of Chesterfield, who in January 1660 had to leave England after killing an adversary in a duel. Later that year she became the mistress of Charles II. She must have met the king immediately after his arrival in London on May 29, 1660, since her first child by him, a daughter, was born on February 25, 1661. To provide her with a title, the king created her husband Earl of Castlemaine. The couple soon separated, and the countess bore Charles II a son in June 1662, the month following the first appearance at court of his new queen, Catherine of Braganza. The countess, who had great influence at court, was created Duchess of Cleveland in 1670, toward the end of the affair. She sat frequently for Lely, who was in a sense her publicist: his many portraits testified to her beauty and underlined the power of her position as the king’s acknowledged mistress.
Hermann Williams assigned the portrait to the artist’s workshop when it came into the Museum in 1939, and that attribution has been maintained despite the fact that R. B. Beckett (1951) later published it as by Lely and Oliver Millar (1978) suggested that the head and bosom were autograph. Beckett had already advised the Museum of his opinion in letters of 1948; the following year, he reaffirmed his view and mentioned another version of the composition, without the inscription, from the collection of Sir John Foley Grey (sold, Christie’s, London, June 15, 1928, no. 45, as "Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, in brown dress with green scarf, and pearl ornaments", 82 x 52 in.). The same or another version may have been later sold as by Van Dyck (Christie's, London, July 31, 1947, no. 114, as "Portrait of Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, in grey and white dress, with green scarf, seated on a balcony", 82 x 52 in.). What may be yet another version was sold at Christie's, London, January 20, 1928, no. 79 ("Portrait of the Duchess of Cleveland, in slate-coloured dress, with blue scarf; brown curtain background", 88 x 52 in.).
The painting is in good condition despite many small losses. These have been retouched, and the retouching has discolored over time. The face is better preserved, while the blue is the most damaged, as the glazes over the white ground have rubbed off.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]