Wednesday, April 17, 2013

NEW SERIES-Bess to Impress: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, thought to be painted from life. Attributed to Zuccaro. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

By the time of her death in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England was the most painted person in the entire world. While most of the last Tudor monarch's existent portraits have been conclusively identified and put on display by historic properties and museums, even now new portraits are being discovered. This is a testament not only to the Virgin Queen's popularity in her own time, (there was a demand from loyal subjects to own a portrait of the Queen to hang in their house) but also to our own enduring fascination with her hundreds of years later.

As someone who distinctly remembers getting goose-bumps when I stood before a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I for the first time, I understand the impact that Elizabethan and Tudor portraiture has not only on myself, but on other history and art enthusiasts as well. One need look no further than the last couple of years for examples demonstrating the popularity of 16th century portraits. Multiple exhibits on Tudor portraiture and the fashions shown in the portraits have opened at the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Buckingham Palace, to name just a few, and have enjoyed considerable foot-traffic and critical acclaim. 

But there is something about Queen Elizabeth I's portraits, specifically. Unlike the portraits of King Henry VIII, which grown increasingly porcine and unflattering as time goes on, Queen Elizabeth's portraits are overwhelmingly appealing. This is due in large part to the fact that so much of the Queen's multifaceted character is conveyed through her eyes and her expressions in her portraits. While Henry VII may have invented Tudor propaganda, Queen Elizabeth I was its master, carefully regulating her image in both official portraits and unofficial renderings. Queen Elizabeth purposefully selected and popularized her chosen personal emblems throughout her reign by including them in her portraits, some of which were adopted from her late mother, Anne Boleyn.

The crowned falcon badge of Queen Anne Boleyn, later adopted by her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. In addition to adopting her mother's heraldic badge, Elizabeth also used her motto, SEMPER EADEM, which is Latin for "Always the Same." Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

According to the National Portrait Gallery, Queen Elizabeth I's accession to the throne in 1558 "presented her with the traditional symbols of royalty, to which her own unique iconography was added by courtiers, officials and artists working for the court. Her gender, unmarried state, and the effects of her aging were all addressed in the portraits." While many of Queen Elizabeth I's portraits emphasize her admirable qualities and right to rule, some are direct commentaries on societal and political events that occurred during her reign, such as her crushing defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. 

The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Attributed to George Gower. This is also the first portrait of Queen Elizabeth I that I saw in person! Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

While most of the existent portraits of Queen Elizabeth I were painted during her 44 year reign, we also have a few posthumous portraits from the 17th century and portraits and representations of her as Princess that survive. 

The Family of King Henry VIII, also known as The Whitehall family grouping, c. 1544. From left to right: A female fool, probably the wife of Will Sommers, Mary Tudor, Edward VI, King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, and Elizabeth, followed by Will Sommers. To discover why this portrait is one of the first clues that we have that proved Elizabeth I felt positively about her mother, please read our article Death Could Not Separate Them: How Elizabeth I Connected to Her Deceased Mother. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

When we asked our loyal BeingBess Facebook followers to vote on their favorite portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in order to determine the subject of our first article in the new portrait series, the poll resulted in a tie-twice! Our readers equally favored the portrait of Princess Elizabeth, circa 1546 and the Rainbow Portrait, circa 1601-02. Since it seems fitting to me to progress in chronological order, our new series, Bess to Impress: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I will begin this Friday, April 19th with an article on the portrait of the Princess Elizabeth. Stay tuned...

A portrait of Princess Elizabeth Tudor, c. 1546. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.