A skilled portraitist and, for a short time, court artist to King Charles I, Johnson was well known during his lifetime and his works are present in some of the foremost collections and museums in the country, including that of The National Portrait Gallery, who held an exhibition of his work in 2015.
Johnson produced several hundred known portraits and is the first English-born artist to have consistently signed and dated his work.
Johnson was born in London in 1593. Of Flemish origins, his Protestant family had fled to England to escape religious persecution. The young Johnson probably travelled to the continent to train as an artist in the Netherlands, before returning to London to establish himself in Blackfriars around 1618. His skill as a portraitist was in high demand amongst well-off merchants, lawyers, members of the gentry and the minor aristocracy. In 1632, the same year as the arrival of van Dyck to court, Johnson was appointed as ‘picture drawer’ to King Charles I. In 1639 he produced full-length portraits of the king’s children, the future Charles II and his younger brother, later James II, as well as their sister, Mary, future wife of the Prince of Orange.
Johnson’s court career was cut short in 1643 by the turbulence and loss of patronage resulting from the outbreak of the English Civil War. He returned once more to the continent where he continued his career as a portraitist until his death in Utrecht in 1661.
The work of Daniel Mytens and, later that of van Dyck, both had an influence on Johnson, but his work retained its own individual and somewhat traditional characteristics. He produced miniatures and full-length works, but his real area of expertise was in half and three-quarter-length portraits, an intimate format, which best suited his somewhat conservative style.
Johnson is admired for the inherent tranquillity in his works and for his expertise in depicting costume.
This captivating portrait of an unknown gentleman dressed in a black slashed doublet and ruff dates from the 1620’s to 1630’s. Black was a popular colour in the early Stuart period, particularly during the 1630’s, and many of Johnson’s male sitters from this period are depicted in similar costumes. The skill of Cornelius Johnson is exhibited here in the soft modelling of the gentleman’s features and the delicate manner in which he has rendered the fine lace of the ruff. The sitter’s gaze is direct, but Johnson has captured a slight wistfulness in his expression, which gives the work a gentle charm.