Peter Lely, A Lyrical Vision, Courtauld Gallery (1)

The Lely exhibition at the Courtauld got me thinking in a number of directions – so many, in fact, I’ll have to do separate posts on them.

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First, a bit of biography. Lely’s arrival in London from Haarlem coincided with the beginning of the English Civil War. He would become dominant in the 1640s and 1650s following William Dobson’s retreat to Royalist Oxford, attracting patrons such as the Earl of Northumberland (I’ll post on this later). Lely is best known as a society portraitist of the 1660s, a kind of Mario Testino of the Restoration  – although in his 1650s picture of Cromwell he famously kept the Lord Protector’s warts in, as apocryphally requested. However, this is not the focus of the Courtauld show; the ‘lyrical vision’ in the title of the exhibition refers to the pastoral, musical and allegorical paintings of his pre-Restoration, narrative period.

The most prominent pictures are musical (I’ll also be blogging about those later). The narrative paintings are Biblical (The Finding of Moses, Reuben presenting Mandrakes to Leah) or mythological (The Rape of Europa, The Infant Bacchus). The only representative of secular literary tradition is Boccaccio, which appears in the Lely exhibition in Cimon and Efigenia, or Cymon and Iphigenia in the Decameron. Inevitably, this sent me off to read Boccaccio’s tale.

Cymon, the boorish, semi-imbecilic son of a great nobleman in Cyprus is the despair of his family, but is suddenly transfigured on beholding the sleeping, half-naked Iphigenia. Whether or not the text explicitly parodies a conversion narrative, it’s clear that erotic contemplation is here a transformative act, both in aesthetic terms (“he changed of a sudden from a husbandman into a judge of beauty”) and moral. In fact, sexual awakening becomes a short cut to an otherwise laboriously acquired humanist education: “He not only modulated his gruff and boorish voice to a degree of smoothness suitable to urbane life, but made himself accomplished in singing nd music; in riding also and in all matters belonging to war, as well by sea as by land, he waxed most expert and hardy”.  Take that, Castiglione.

What I’m puzzling over is the Courtauld’s insistence on Lely’s being part of a pastoral tradition, at least as would have been articulated in England in the seventeenth century. The catalogue references Sidney’s Arcadia, but I’m having difficulty finding anything in the early modern artistic tradition that relates to Sidneian pastoral at all; if anyone can point me in the right direction I’d be grateful.

You can barely move for renderings of Ovidian subjects in seventeenth century art – Lely’s Rape of Europa is just one example. One of my essays for my Renaissance Studies MA tackled the changing cultural representations of Danae in the 1590s, if you’re interested

So when I saw the Boccaccio-derived painting I thought there might be a minor tradition of depicting more contemporary texts, but there doesn’t seem to be any, and certainly not English texts. It’s one-way traffic; Sidney’s romance is absolutely stuffed with episodes where art carries the erotic charge.  I can think of three just off the top of my head. There’s Pyrocles falling in love with Philoclea’s portrait, an extended moment that also functions as a convenient narrative spur which takes the two princes to Arcadia. There’s also Helen’s melancholy attachment to the picture of Amphialus. And the one that is uppermost in my mind is the episode in the Iberian jousts when Phalantus challenges all-comers “The conditions of his chalenge were, that the defendant should bring his mistresse picture, which being set by the image of Artesia (so was the mistresse of Phalantus named) who in six courses should haue better of the other, in the iudgement of Basilius, with him both the honors and the pictures should remaine.” .(Book 1, chapter 15)

The reason that this episode is uppermost in my mind is because Roger Boyle lifts this wholesale for an early episode of Parthenissa (1651) where his hero Artabanes jousts with the challenger Ambixules. I have an abundance of theories why, but I digress.

Anyway, what the Courtauld describes as pastoral consists of landscapes and sleepy nymphs. I always thought that water nymphs were part of Diana’s chaste train, but Google Images throws up a pretty lascivious painting by Cranach, and Lely’s sated, fleshy beings (Nymphs by a Fountain) are suspiciously heavy with slumber– and have very dirty feet. Check out the picture above..

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