This impressive portrait depicts a fashionable lady seated by a fountain in the middle of a rose garden. The sitter’s identity is unknown but she was doubtless of extremely high social standing and is shown here wearing a style of dress that was typically worn by the ladies at court in the 1660’s and 1670’s.
The style of cut is loose and appears informal, almost like a nightdress; the very informality projects the status of the wearer, as ‘etiquette demanded that those of a lower social position should never appear more informally dressed than their superiors’ (see
Dethloff, D. ‘Portraiture and Concepts of Beauty in Restoration Painting’ in Macleod, C. and Marciari Alexander J. (ed.), Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, London, (2001), p.32).
The image is designed to project the beauty, virtuosity and wealth of the sitter. The lady’s left arm is resting on a fountain in a pose associated with reflection and melancholy.
Huysmans often depicted his sitters in idealised or Arcadian landscapes, some in the guise of a shepherdess and others sat in front of lemon or orange trees holding fruit, a symbol designed to reflect their fecundity.
Here the lady is seated in a rose garden: the red or pink rose was considered a sacred emblem of Venus, who had pricked herself on a thorn and tinted a white rose red with her blood in her hurry to get to her dying lover Adonis, but it was also associated with the virgin Mary, who was described as a rose without thorns. The setting amongst roses thus serves to symbolise both the sitter’s desirability and her flawless feminine perfection.
The artist was an expert at depicting the textures and folds of the rich fabrics worn by the nobility and he has captured in great detail the way that the light catches the tawny silks and the loose ringlets falling through the lady’s fingers.
Huysmans, (sometimes referred to as Houseman), was born in Antwerp in the 1630’s. Having come from a family of artists, he trained under Flemish painter Frans Wouters, before moving to England to seek his fortune around the time of the restoration.
The restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and subsequent revival of the court, broughtwith it many opportunities for patronage and Huysmans soon became one of the fashionable painters at the court of Charles II.
Whilst England was under the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell, Charles had spent many years living in exile in France. The young king picked up a taste for foreign fashion and on his return set up a court that was more lavish and licentious than any that had gone before. It was a place where theatrical performance was commonplace and where powerful women would take a new prominence, many winning great influence and celebrity.
Huysmans’ work followed the continental baroque style that had influenced him during his training, often making use of elaborate and theatrical outfits and props. He brilliantly captured this exciting and sumptuous new atmosphere in the dramatic poses and lavish costumes of his sitters, particularly in his portraits of court beauties who he sometimes depicted in the guise of figures from allegory or mythology, such as the Roman goddess Diana.
The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys visited Huysmans’ studio in 1664. Pepys was clearly impressed, commenting that during his visit, he had seen ‘as good pictures, I think, as ever I saw’, and noting that the artist was capable of a more exact likeness than his famous contemporary Sir Peter Lely, (see Coward, B. A Companion to Stuart Britain, Oxford, (2003), p.203). Certainly the diarist records that by 1664, Huysmans was reckoned to be the better painter of the two amongst the circle of the Queen, Catherine of Braganza.
Catherine commissioned Huysmans to complete an altarpiece for her chapel in St James’ Palace and several portraits, including one of her dressed as a shepherdess, which remains in the Royal Collection. He styled himself ‘The Queen’s Painter’, and certainly his portraits of her show a more profound interpretation of her character than can be found in the works of his rivals.
Huysmans’ work continued to be popular at court and he painted many important members of the aristocracy, including the Duke of Lauderdale and the Duke of Albemarle. The artist’s career in London was briefly interrupted in 1666, when he temporarily relocated to Sussex, perhaps fearing that his Catholic faith might attract suspicion in the paranoid and xenophobic atmosphere following the Great Fire of London. He died thirty years later in London in 1696 and was interred at St. James’s Piccadilly.
Macleod, C. and Marciari Alexander J. (ed.), Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, London,
Coward, B. A Companion to Stuart Britain, Oxford, (2003).