“A Real Master Among Hundreds” : The Secrets and Techniques of Seventeenth Century Portraiture in Britain
Jessica David, Richard Hark, Edward Town
“A Real Master Among Hundreds”: The Secrets and Techniques of Seventeenth Century Portraiture in Britain.1
The research presented here derives from the “Reformation to Restoration” project, which at the time of writing, is entering its sixth year at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA). At its heart, it is an in-depth cataloging endeavor developed to address and where possible answer numerous questions about the Center’s early portraits through the process of technical examination, archival investigation and collaboration with other institutions engaged in the study of Tudor and Stuart portrait painting.2 The focus of this paper is portrait making in seventeenth-century Britain, and in particular the investigation of flesh painting in oils using macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) scanning alongside conventional methods of study (conservation imaging, sampling, microscopy), which in turn is interrogated using historical texts about painting practice. It does not aim to “unpack” each portrait from the ground layer up, nor does it offer an exhaustive review of previous technical studies.3 Rather, its goal is to identify specific aspects of the portraits’ construction that are not visible to the eye or readily observed using traditional methods of technical analysis. Whereas these traditional methods have been, and will remain, essential in identifying the presence of certain pigments in a painting, aggregated MA-XRF data provides unique insights into how those individual pigments were actually deployed in paint. By comparing this data, we seek to reveal broad trends and patterns in portrait production, identify signature qualities of five influential painters and their studios, and contextualize firsthand accounts about these artists’ working methods using examples of their work from the YCBA’s collections.
X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy is a nondestructive technique that has been used for many years in the field of cultural heritage for the analysis of a variety of materials, including the identification of pigments on paintings. Point XRF measurements, often using a handheld instrument, are commonly utilized to gain valuable information about elemental composition, which often allows one to infer the identity of the colorants.4 Micro-XRF (μ-XRF) instruments offer higher spatial resolution, and some can be used in scanning mode to map the distribution of elements over a small portion of a painting (a few square centimeters). The more recent development of large area μ-XRF, usually referred to as macro-XRF (MA-XRF) offers the high definition of μ-XRF but allows for examination of a much larger area (hundreds of square centimeters) in a single scan.5 MA-XRF instruments are commercially available and allow paintings to be scanned in a horizontal position on a table or vertically with the painting secured in an easel or on a wall. By digitally stitching together individual scans, even very large paintings, such as Rembrandt van Rijn’s Night Watch (17 sq. m), have been analyzed using MA-XRF.6
The procedure consists of first obtaining a mosaic image of the area to be scanned and then selecting the data-collection parameters, all of which influence the duration of the analysis. Scans with higher spatial resolution and better spectral characteristics require more time. For the “Reformation to Restoration” project, the analysis of an entire painting was usually accomplished with a lower-resolution (the equivalent of ~72 dpi) overnight scan requiring 12–18 hours, while smaller features such an eye or cheek could be scanned at a higher resolution (~500 dpi) in 4–6 hours.7 Processing of the raw spectral data is required to resolve the overlap between certain elements (e.g., lead and sulfur, iron and cobalt, barium and titanium). False-color element maps were generated using either the instrument software or the freely available MA-XRF data processing and visualization programs. A specific color was assigned to each element by the authors for consistency and increased visibility when the maps are overlaid.
Illustrated in Figure 1 is a compilation of MA-XRF element maps, all acquired with the same collection parameters, showing the distribution of iron and copper in the eyes of nine portraits discussed and illustrated below. The portraits span approximately one hundred years, from 1619 to ca. 1720. This selection, though concise, illustrates several broader trends identified among the paintings analyzed using scanning XRF. For example, application of iron- and copper-containing paint on the sitters’ features shift from crisp, deliberate lines and careful blending (in examples a and b) toward looser, less discreet strokes of paint, with the layering and blending of brushwork less observant of contour. Under magnification, the sitter’s eyes in examples a and b are blue, supporting the conclusion that the copper located on their scleras relates to azurite blue pigment. The subsequent examples shown in Figure 1 also contain copper, but it is evident from visual examination of the paintings that the copper there does not relate to a local color, like blue or green, and its distribution makes less sense in terms of the sitter’s features. In those cases, the presence of copper more likely relates to the use of copper-containing materials (not necessarily as a colorant) in ground and paint layers, potentially added as a siccative to speed the paint layer’s drying, a practice discussed further below.8
Prior to this study, important technical research has been conducted on this period of portraiture, and the authors gratefully acknowledge the “Making Art in Tudor Britain” project of the National Portrait Gallery, London; Rica Jones and Joyce H. Townsend’s technical catalogue of the Tate’s sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings; and Mansfield Kirby Talley’s Portrait Painting in England: Studies in the Technical Literature Before 1700 (1981), among other publications. Talley combined close reading of early technical treatises with analysis of contemporary portraits and in some cases mapped, by drawing over photographic reproductions, the placement of specific paint mixtures and their sequence of application. A sort of precursor to XRF scanning, his method was akin to the process of elemental mapping and interpretation presented here.9
In around 1678, at the height of his reputation and influence, Peter Lely (1618–1680) participated in a performative competition against a rising star of the Stuart court, Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723). Their challenge: to paint the likeness of Charles II from life, in front of an audience, and within a set time. When, some years later, the gossipy George Vertue (1684–1756) described this event, he captured the sense of intense rivalry between the two painters. Although both were born and trained outside England and described as equally “gentlemanly” in their demeanor, Kneller was twenty-eight years Lely’s junior and full of “fire and ambition.” When time was called, Lely had “only laid in his picture in a broad manner” while Kneller, “to the pleasing Surprize to the King & the whole Court,” had brought his portrait to completion.10 These two portraits of the king—one finished, one not— are not known to have survived, but the focus of that demonstration was not so much the product as the process. While the episode is known through Vertue’s anecdote, it demonstrates how differently these painters approached their practice. It also attests to a contemporary interest among those both within and beyond the profession with the personae of these artists, their methods, and most importantly their secrets.
Then, like today, the curious and the covetous wanted to know one thing: how was it done. Like Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) before them, Lely and Kneller redefined the style and craft of painting in Britain by creating an aesthetic at court that had a pervasive influence.11 Generations of native-born painters trained in their workshops, contributed to their output, emulated their signature techniques and, if and when it was possible, documented their processes for personal reference or profit. The second half of the seventeenth century saw a boom in the publication of painters’ manuals, or “how to” guides, often largely plagiarized.12 These manuals cover a range of topics from the philosophical and moral role of art to the specifics of studio design, composition setting, and the nitty-gritty of studio work such as pigment and support preparation, brush selection, and the stages of painting. Most of these manuals were authored by artists who are little known today, and certainly never achieved the celebrity status of Lely or Kneller. Their knowledge of contemporary painting practices may have come either through their own training, or through a position in society that gave them time and access to observe these processes.13 Like Vertue’s notebooks, these were personal memoranda and likely never intended to be published, but the “de Mayerne” manuscript, the so-called “Gandy” manuscript, and the “pocket-books” of Charles Beale, offer unparalleled insight into the working methods of the period’s greatest painters. What was seen and said is one thing; what was committed to paper is quite another, so a healthy skepticism is required when dealing with these texts, which in any case often use esoteric and archaic terminology.
Analysis and Interpretation
Among the YCBA’s early portraits are those that represent one of many versions of the same likeness, which may or may not be products of the same workshop. Others belonged to larger portrait sets but are now orphaned. Advancements in the methods used to examine paintings—developments in non-destructive analytical techniques, wider availability of equipment and its greater mobility, and improved visualization of the results—have revealed information about artistic and studio practices that have not been seen before, and help explain the relationship of these paintings to pictures outside the YCBA’s collection (Fig. 2). Few painters of the period habitually signed their work, a problem that is exacerbated by the complexity and scale of the studios where they were produced. First-hand accounts describe workshops in which various levels of apprentices and specialist painters (drapery, landscape) may have contributed to any given commission.14 The practice of copy making by apprentices for the purpose of learning or simply to accommodate requests for multiple portrait versions was widespread.
Upon Lely’s death, the executors of his estate authorized former pupils and associates to complete the unfinished portraits that remained in Lely’s studio and to also restore a number of works in order to make them fit for sale.15 Thus, the very notion of a definitive date or an attribution to one artist was far from straightforward then and is therefore difficult to describe today. This paper does not delve deeply into authorship but, when possible, focuses on objects with solid attributions (through rare signatures, payments, or other records) as the starting point upon which to build a technical profile of that painter. That said, it is equally important to identify evidence of multiple hands at work, characteristic quirks, and generic practices, as they help differentiate the contributions of studio assistants from the primary painter.16
Cornelius Johnson (b. 1593 London – d. 1661 Utrecht)
Johnson was unusual among his contemporaries in routinely signing and dating his portraits. The five portraits in the YCBA’s collection that are inscribed span thirty years of a long career, from a somewhat stylized Jacobean period to the more gestural, swaggering Dutch subjects made after his move to the Netherlands in 1643.17 Today, there are only two firsthand accounts of Johnson’s painting practice: the first, a brief note by Théodore de Mayerne (1573–1655) on Johnson’s use of, and warnings about, orpiment; the second, recorded by Daniel King, on Johnson’s advice for painting drapery and, notably, his use of ultramarine blue as a final glaze.18
Little is known of the size of Johnson’s studio at its height, but extant portraits such as that of Martha, Lady Penyston and her uncle Sir Alexander Temple (Fig. 3) help reconstruct the painter’s process and circle of patronage. It does not require spectroscopic analysis to see that Sir Alexander’s face is redder and rougher than Martha’s. In keeping with historical practices and contemporary texts on flesh painting, Johnson varied his palette according to gender, making the male complexion hotter than the female, and yet MA-XRF scans for iron and mercury show more than just an increased volume of certain pigments. Johnson pushed hue and texture to differentiate gender, lifestyle, and age. For example, the ruddy tones on Sir Alexander’s face were applied in discreet, almost hatched brushstrokes, whereas Martha’s soft blush was created with thorough blending, or “sweetening,” with a sable brush that thinned and smoothed the pink hue to a transparent veil of color (Fig. 4).19 Only on her eyebrows, eyelashes, and the azurite blue veins on her temple did Johnson permit the shape of the brush to leave a visible footprint.
The portraits once formed part of a set commissioned by Sir William Lenthall (1591–1662) at Bessels Leigh, Oxfordshire, completed by Johnson between 1619 and 1622. Johnson also made pictures for other members of this family, including the 1620 portrait of Susanna Temple, later Lady Lister (Tate Britain, London), where, again, Johnson emphasized the sitter’s youth and gender with a cooler flesh palette and careful wet-in-wet blending that visually “closed” the brushwork on her flesh without quenching the luminosity of the lighter paint below.20
The individuality of the sitters’ expressions and complexions, and the skillful juxtaposition of soft flesh, crisp lace, and patterned silks comprise a product that is technically sound, visually luminous, and shrewdly formulaic. It is unlikely that Johnson painted every part of these portraits himself. The sequential, wet-over-dry paint layering of the costumes and the fictive ovals created an opportunity for studio hands, as did the demand for additional versions. The portraits of Sir Alexander Temple and Martha, Lady Penyston (and quite possibly others not yet identified) were produced more than once (Fig. 5).21 Comparison of the two Lady Penyston’s shows how exactingly alike those versions were produced, suggesting they were completed in very close succession and possibly with both in the studio simultaneously.
Comparison of Johnson’s Sir Alexander Temple (Fig. 4) to the Portrait of a Man, a painting he made over thirty years later, illustrates an evolution in his technique (Fig. 6). The tidy brushstrokes and careful articulation of eyelids and lip shape evident in MA-XRF maps of Sir Alexander’s face were abandoned in favor of soft, gestural strokes, some sure, others almost searching, without an obvious formula. Both likenesses are individual yet bear the anatomical “stamp” of Johnson; the sitters’ crisply delineated irises impart a watchful, soulful expression, their foreheads high and luminous but the crown of their heads slightly squashed, and their low shoulders sloped to make a wide pyramidal shape of their busts.22 But the articulation of every detail—metallic embroidery, spangles, loose hair tendrils—seen in earlier portraits gave way to a softer, atmospheric quality in the later paintings, where only a few, subtle clues were provided about texture: the hazy bluish highlights on black velvet and the flash of a sparkly ring in the shadow.
The presence of specific pigments in the above paintings that can be inferred from MA-XRF analysis (lead white, ochers, earths, brown umber, azurite, and bone black) comprise a small portion of the palette outlined in contemporary manuals and manuscripts, which include the following: lead white, ochers (yellow, brown, and red), massicot, orpiment, yellow lake or “pinke,” vermilion, red lead, various organic red lakes (cochineal, brasil wood, and carmine), Indian red, azurite or bice, smalt, indigo, ultramarine, ultramarine ashes, verdigris, green verditer, spa green terre verte, umber, asphaltum, Cologne earth, Spanish brown, burnt ivory, lamp black, charcoal, sea coal, and lamp black.23 The limitations of XRF analysis result in significant omissions from the flesh palette, namely organic materials like red lakes and “pinkes” (meaning organic yellow lakes). However, XRF can provide clues to the locations of organic lakes based on identification of inorganic “ingredients” used in their production (i.e., aluminum hydroxide, potassium carbonate, and calcium sulphate).24 The deep berry hue on Martha’s lips and nostrils, for example, corresponds to a density of calcium and potassium, which, when compared to the painting, neatly follows brushstrokes of red lake–like paint (Fig. 7).
Sir Anthony van Dyck (b. 1599 Antwerp – d. 1641 London)
The shift in Johnson’s style and his method of paint application can be seen as indicative of shifting tastes in portraiture and in particular the influence of Anthony van Dyck, which is apparent in Johnson’s work from the 1630s.25 The range of pigments available to painters changed little over this period, but the various ways that they were used was of great interest to contemporaries, particularly as related to Van Dyck. King, for example, described Van Dyck’s three mixtures for “carnation tints” (warm/ rosy hues) and “bluish scumbles” for cool tones.26 The pigments are not always named specifically; for instance, King described the carnations as varying mixtures of white, burnt ocher, red ocher, plus unspecified “red” and “yellow” pigment. Composition of half-shadow tints applied “between the deep shadow and flesh colour” are specifically named as “sea cole” black, white, and ocher, which “he scumbles over with bise white red xc.”27
The portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, one of many high-quality versions of this likeness, and that of Mountjoy Blount, Earl of Newport support King’s account to an extent (Figs. 8, 9). Visual examination, supported by MA-XRF analysis, reveals soft gradations of iron-based earths mixed with lead white blended across their flesh and then, mixed with umber, daubed to reinforce shadows. In neither portrait does vermilion pigment seem to be mixed into those modeling layers, but rather was added later in the painting process—sparingly to Henrietta Maria’s cheeks, tear ducts, and lips, and enthusiastically to Mountjoy’s visage (Fig. 10). The flesh paint is thin and permits the peach-color imprimatura to peek out along the sitter’s eyelids, cheekbones, and the bridge of the nose. The underlying brown umber “sketch” that delineates the features along the shadowed sides of the face (the left side on Henrietta Maria; the right on Mountjoy) was also left partially visible.
The flesh paint on Henrietta Maria is in better condition than on Mountjoy Blount, and it is, therefore, clearer to see that the transitions between the deep shadows and flesh tones on her face were “bridged” by a greenish blue paint, a mixture of lead white, black, and ocher particles followed by scumbles of high-grade azurite (Fig. 11). MA-XRF affirms that most shadows on her face contain azurite; sometimes applied in dense daubs, such as under her eyes and on her neck, and in other places as a thin bluish tint that skims over highlights to impart a luminous glow. Some azurite was detected on Mountjoy’s face and hand, but rather than crisp strokes and scumbles over flesh mid-tones, it seems to be concentrated in areas of shadow and therefore likely relates to a drying accelerant like a copper-infused oil or sparse amounts of verdigris rather than blue pigment (Fig. 12).28
The “Gandy Diary,” an anonymous journal attributed to the minor portraitist William Gandy (d. 1729) is a compilation of firsthand accounts, technical critiques, and gossip pertaining to the paintings and practices of portraitists such as Van Dyck, Lely, and Kneller.29 Between 1691 and 1692, the author visited several Van Dycks and made visual analysis of their palettes and layer structures. Like King, Gandy also noted the painter’s use of blue scumbles, writing, “I observed that the flesh was broken with blue where the light was, & all over as in this Nature he took a middling Hoggtoole [hog’s-hair brush] or a large [brush] or according as the place did require and & laid it all on, broad, with some flesh broken with blue, then . . . breaking it with more blue.”30 In short, Gandy (similar to King) recognized Van Dyck’s generous use of blue scumbles on his sitters’ faces to bridge highlights and mid-tones and to delineate cool shadows.
At another point, Gandy saw Van Dyck’s portrait of the three eldest children of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and commented, “Vandike about his hands used yellow ochre & red ocre only.”31 Perhaps not coincidentally, Gandy’s observation corresponds to the portraits discussed here. MA-XRF analysis combined with microscopic examination of the paint layer shows that the quantities of azurite used to almost sculpt the flesh tones of Henrietta Maria’s face and bust were substituted on her hands with a modest mixture of lead white, earth pigments, and a little black (Fig. 13). And, neither sitter’s hands contain considerable amounts of vermilion. On neither portrait is a discrepancy between the flesh passages evident by simply looking, and it is curious that Gandy had the confidence to make these judgments on Van Dyck’s pigment mixtures, unless of course he was party to a firsthand account of the artist’s technique—in other words, if a member of Van Dyck’s studio informed him that costly pigments were limited to specific commissions and/or to privileged passages of the canvas, such as the face and textiles of the primary figure. The difference in paint mixtures may also be purely practical, illustrating that the hands were painted at a different stage than the sitters’ faces, likely by assistants using generic flesh-paint mixtures that were never intended to precisely match or compete with the sitters’ visages.
Sir Peter Lely (b. 1618 Soest – d. 1680 London)
Some of Gandy’s notes on specific painters take the form of conversations with his “informants.” For example, he says “to Mr. [William] Fever that Vandike, did not paint with so much variety of Colouring as Lilly did.” To this Fever replies, “Vandike had as great variety of Colouring as any other, but Vandike did obscure his Colouring with—Sweeting over the surfaces, . . . he obscured his Art.”32 This is not a critique commonly associated with Van Dyck today, but Gandy and Fever, who at that moment seem to be high-level (studio?) assistants, regularly engaged in the comparison and critique of painters from the previous generation. Their comments indicate a shift in taste away from the soft-edged, atmospheric haze created with wet-in-wet layering and soft blending toward a more direct, painterly approach. Lely, Gilbert Soest (ca. 1605–81), and Kneller advocated (through explicit advice or practice) extensive pre-blending of hues on the palette and limited blending on the canvas.33 Lely advised Fever to “lay your patches of Colouring one by another & not Colour upon Colour, and only hack them together & keep them beautiful and Clear.”34
Anecdote paints Lely as secretive. His long-time apprentice John Greenhill reported that he never saw his master paint a face from life, which, given the evidence of Greenhill’s aptitude as a portraitist, may be something of an exaggeration.35 Lely was certainly observed in the act of painting by Gandy’s mysterious William Fever, as well as Mary and Charles Beale, although the Beales did have to pay for the portraits and by extension the privilege of watching the master at work.36 The tremendous demand for his portraits, as well as copies and versions, compelled Lely to “commercialize.”37 His studio was filled with unfinished canvases of what he called “poses”; pre-prepared canvases left half finished (no doubt by assistants) from the bust down, onto which sitters could have their heads placed by Lely.38
According to Gandy’s source, Lely started every likeness with many gradations of just lead white and earths, similar to Van Dyck. These were laid and adjusted over numerous sessions on top of a flat dead color, “a mediam that he might put in lights & darkness in the finishing, so that the dead color stands for something,” meaning the dead color played a role in the finished painting.39 It is impossible to dissect the number of sittings over which Diana Kirke’s head was painted, but microscopic examination of the paint’s surface helps inform a basic stratigraphy. Comparison of the paint layer with MA-XRF maps for iron, manganese, and mercury illuminate specific pigment mixtures used, including many discreet strokes of pure earth pigment, followed by brown umber to reinforce features, and then vermilion for Diana’s blush and the hot shadows on her mouth, nose, and eyes (Fig. 14). In many places the paint “patches,” or the footprint of the paintbrush, is un-smudged, suggesting that each application was allowed to dry before the next went down, both to build up deep shadows and retain a range of local hues that layering and soft blending could obliterate. The result is a patchwork of subtle hue shifts, which is even more evident on the faces of Lely’s male sitters, such as Sir Ralph Bankes (Fig. 15).40
Many years after it was painted, Gandy copied a portrait of Isabella Dormer, observing that “it did Shine like a thousand Glowormes” and in places the brushwork was “very rude & Edgey.” These were compliments, for as he goes on to say, “if you sweeten [the paint] together you take away the Spirit & it is quite spoiled.”41 The words “rude” and “edgy” in this context seem to mean rough or unresolved, but deliberate. This idea of belabored nonchalance was clearly on Gandy’s mind, as in the same year he made the copy of Dormer, he recorded a comment from Fever that “[Lely] put in the touches & dashed over here & there, with Judgement, this made it seems careless or done with a Sight, but the great labour & pains was done before.”42
Mary Beale (b. 1633 Barrow – d. 1699 London)
Mary Beale is recognized as the most commercially successful woman artist of the seventeenth century. Her husband, Charles, worked for the Patent Office and was also a colorman who made and supplied painters’ materials, including a special red lake used by Mary and several prominent painters in their circle.43 Charles kept notebooks from at least 1660–81 documenting his trade, family accounts, and details of his wife’s studio activity.44 Mary Beale was clearly on good terms with Lely. They dined together, Lely gave her advice, and he lent her paintings from his personal collection, works by Van Dyck and various Italian masters, which she only returned upon his death. Attributions to Beale can be difficult because of her great talent for making copies and emulating Lely’s style specifically.45
Beale was interested in fast painting—the single sitting—and talked with Lely on this subject. On one visit to her home, Lely took notice of a Van Dyck there. Clearly an object of significance to her, she posited how Van Dyck, “could possibly divise to finish in one day a face that was so exceeding full of work and wrought up to so extraordinary a perfection.”46 Lely replied that it looked to have been “painted over” fourteen times. He then recounted an anecdote told to him by the painter and musician Nicolas Lanier, who claimed that when he sat for Van Dyck it took the master seven days to capture his face and he was still not satisfied with it. Lely, it should be remembered, was not himself a fast painter, although he endeavored to hide the laborious stages of painting.47
Beale’s portrait of Bartholomew is one of many depicting her sons, most left unfinished from the neck down (Fig. 16). The technique is so brusque, the brush digging and smearing the paint, that it almost looks as if it could have been completed in one sitting.48 In fact, Mary mastered what Gandy envied of Lely, the appearance of very fast painting, accomplished here in about three steps. The basic placement of Bartholomew’s features was sketched with a dark brown umber, which was also spread across the background (and is still visible there).49 Beale then worked up Bartholomew’s flesh very swiftly, perhaps in one go, with a mixture of earths and lead white. These hues are evident under magnification, but MA-XRF provides a clearer image of the paint’s application by showing the distribution of pigment particles within each brushstroke, beginning with a mixture of lead white and earth pigment, slightly gradated, dragged straight down the left side of the cheek (Fig. 17). Next, a scattering of vermilion pigment was laid on top. This application does not smear the underlying stroke, indicating that it was already dry. Beale then cleaned up Bart’s silhouette by adding more umber around his head.50 The pigment mixtures and sequence of paint application are not vastly different from those on Lely’s Diana Kirke or Lady Frances Savile, but the result shows genuine immediacy rather than affected facility.
Sir Godfrey Kneller (b. 1646 Lübeck – d. 1723 London)
Unlike Lely, Kneller let anyone watch him paint. He reportedly worked on multiple likenesses in a single day, always in his studio, the faces painted from life in sittings as short as one hour. In 1693 he described to Gandy how to paint a face in under an hour, which explains why the paint-off with Lely turned out in his favor. His work was noted for its unfinished or sketchy look; the costumes and backgrounds left unresolved, and this became a vogue among contemporaries who sought to emulate his effortless fluidity. But even those who observed him in action were little enlightened, as his process was so swift and intuitive that his methodology remained beyond them. Miniature portraitist and author Jean André Roquet observed that “Kneller was in every respect a difficult pattern to follow and yet all the English painters would fain imitate him. . . Several were so affected, as not to cover the whole canvas.”51
Kneller rarely traveled to take a likeness and clearly preferred to work in his studio where light, sitting distances, and the arrangement of mirrors—for the benefit of sitters and onlookers—could be controlled.52 Alexander Pope urged him to make one exception for his friend and patroness, Lady Mary Wortley (see Fig. 2). Pope explained to Lady Mary that Kneller “thinks it absolutely necessary to draw the Face first, which he says can never be set right on the figure if the Drapery & Posture be finished before.” Having apparently negotiated the arrangement with Kneller, he further explained that “he proposes to draw your face with Crayons, finish it up, at your own house, in a morning; from whence he will transfer it to the Canvas.”53
It seems almost certain the YCBA’s portrait of Lady Mary Wortley is a product of that commission. The portrait is typical of Kneller’s loose, searching method of paint application; stray contour lines buzz around her silhouette and the mark of the brush is visible throughout, flicked to draw a linear shadow on fabric, dragged to make a bluish scumble on flesh, and daubed for impasto highlights off the tip of a hog’s-hair brush. The paint of the flesh is thicker than any other passage and although there is some soft, wet-in-wet blending (of cool highlights into her rosy cheeks, for example), the premixed paint “patches” were not merged. As a result, the thicker flesh tones seem to hang on the armature of her features, with the ground color peeking out along most facial contours. Her textiles and hands were described with lean, fluid paint that sketches their proportions without defining their shape or articulating texture.54
This concentration of thick, mostly unblended paint on Lady Mary’s face, as well as several other Knellers at the YCBA, resonates with advice he gave to Gandy when he had to capture a likeness quickly, emphasizing, “Mind only to get the likeness . . . when you have got the likeness & it is Scumbled all over, then Imboss your face and fill it with Colour, This Method makes nothing of Painting.”55 Gandy observed Kneller working and noted that after applying premixed tints to his sitters’ faces with a bristle bush, he “heaps it with Colours in the middle of the face so leaves it When he finish the 2^nd^ or 3^rd^ Setting . . . he only minds the likeness put in the Spirit, to get in the likeness takes up all his Time.”56 The lack of punctuation clouds Gandy’s meaning, but the emphasis in both accounts on capturing and preserving likeness stands out. The likeness, it seems, was captured early in the process and guarded as painting progressed, presumably so the portrait would not lose its resemblance to the sitter, especially if they only sat for Kneller once as in the case of Lady Mary.
Like Johnson, Kneller varied both his palette and his brushwork according to the sitter’s gender and age. Compared to his Lady Mary, the flesh paint on Sir Theodore Colladon of ca. 1705 and Henry Portman Seymour of c. 1714 (both at the YCBA) resembles islands of unblended, subtle hues laid down with directional brushstrokes that help model the topographies of those male faces (Fig. 18). But in all the portraits examined, Kneller’s paint never completely covers the contours of his sitters’ features; male or female, the light (sometimes greenish) gray underlayer remains visible, like guidelines along their features.57
The “footprints” or gaps in the upper paint layers that allow one to see down to the ground color tend to be narrow, as if Kneller’s brush skirted a line that is no longer visible. His practice of applying loose guidelines of brown oil paint to his figures is evident on the portrait of Lady Mary (and other less “finished” canvases), but those dark lines are not consistently visible within the vacui that follow her features.58 MA-XRF affirms the strong presence of calcium in those channels, significantly more than any other portion of the painting. Although not visible to the eye today, could those calcium-rich lines have defined the likeness that, according to Pope, Kneller transferred to canvas after visiting Lady Mary?