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Johann Georg Ziesenis (1716-76)

Oil on canvas | 134.9 x 96.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 403562

Library, Kew Palace

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  • Born in Copenhagen in 1716, Johann Georg Ziesenis was a pupil of his father Johan Jürgen Ziesenis. He became a German citizen in 1743 and was first appointed court painter in Zweibrücken, then in Mannheim. In 1760 he entered into the service of George II of Hannover and, subsequently, George III; Ziesenis also worked in Berlin and Brunswick. The Royal Collection owns a significant group of Ziesenis portraits, illustrating members of various eighteenth-century noble German dynasties – notably from the houses of Mecklenburg-Streliz and Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.

    This is one of the earliest portraits of the Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, later Queen Charlotte, in the Royal Collection. It was painted in Germany, possibly to commemorate the sitter’s betrothal to George III in June 1761. Aged about seventeen, she wears formal court dress (the grand habit) beneath an ermine-lined robe and gestures towards the ducal crown of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The pearl bracelet on her wrist is traditionally said to contain a miniature of her father, Charles Louis, Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She takes a rose from a woven basket held by black page on the left and there is a view of Neustrelitz Palace, her family home, in the background.

    Princess Charlotte was born at Mirow Palace, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany, the second daughter of Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1708–1752) and his wife, Elizabeth Albertina of Saxe-Hildburghausen (1713–1761). She was educated at home by the poet and private tutor Friderike Elizabeth von Grabow; she spoke French, but learned English only after her marriage. When Charlotte arrived in England, Horace Walpole, the art historian and writer, wrote: 'She looks very sensible, cheerful, and is remarkably genteel'.

    The black page, extravagantly dressed in scarlet livery with a turban and pearl earring, kneels in deference to his mistress; his dark skin colour is in sharp contrast to his white turban. He wears a silver collar, indicating that he is an enslaved person. To date we have not been able to confirm his identity. The composition owes something to portraits by Hyacinth Rigaud (1659-1743), an artist Ziesenis admired (see, for example, the portrait of Marquise de Louville with a black servant, 1708 at Christies, London, 5 July 2011, lot 17). The portrait was similarly painted before the sitter’s marriage.

    The identity of the sitter depicted in the pearl bracelet miniature has proved problematic. It is different to the miniature Queen Charlotte wears in the celebrated Zoffany portrait of 10 years later (RCIN 405071), containing a profile portrait of George III by Jeremiah Meyer, which was possibly part of the suite of jewels given to Queen Charlotte by the King on her wedding day. Described by Richard Walker as a portrait of her father, the youthful sitter in ermine robes, head turned slightly to the right, bears little resemblance to the Duke. Karin Schrader, in 2014, proposed that the miniature was a bethrothal present – and that Ziesenis did not depict the profile portrait because he had not seen it, which is an equally unsatisfactory explanation. It is to be noted that the young princess wears a second pearl bracelet on her left wrist.

    A miniature after the painting, attributed to Elizabeth Ziesenis (the artist’s daughter) is in the collection. This was possibly sent to George III for his approval before her marriage in September 1761, and later set into a snuff box (RCIN 43892).

    Provenance

    In the collection of Adolphus Frederick, Duke of Cambridge; passed to George, Duke of Cambridge. Sale of his effects, Christies, 11 June, 1904. Presented to Queen Mary by James de Rothschild, 1923

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas

    Measurements

    134.9 x 96.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    154.4 x 116.3 x 7.5 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) when Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz