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Isaac Oliver (c. 1565-1617)

A Self-Portrait c.1590

Watercolour on vellum laid on card | 4.5 x 3.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 420034

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  • Isaac Oliver was the pupil of Hilliard and his earliest known portrait miniatures date from the 1580s. Like Hilliard, he was the son of a goldsmith; Oliver's father, Pierre Olivier, was of Huguenot descent. Although Oliver worked all his life in England, he retained close artistic links with the Continent and visited Venice in 1596. His cosmopolitan approach to portraiture and his broader terms of visual reference gave his output a more sophisticated appearance that appealed to a younger generation of patrons. In 1605 Oliver was appointed Limner to Anne of Denmark, Queen of James I; and he was Painter (1608-12) to their eldest son, Henry, Prince of Wales. Although he predeceased Hilliard by two years, his reputation had long since eclipsed that of his master. There are seventeen portrait miniatures by Isaac Oliver in the Royal Collection and two drawings. Ten of the miniatures are of royal subjects; five of these can be traced to Charles I's collection.

    This confident self-portrait is one of five exceptional miniatures by Oliver acquired by Frederick, Prince of Wales from the collector Dr Richard Mead in the late 1740s. It was made when the artist was aged about 25 and derives its dynamism from the pose, notably the angle of the shoulders, the position of the arms, and the tilt of the hat. Oliver's style is distinguished by stark contrasts in lighting, emphasised here by the use of black against the white ruff and the paler flesh tones, and by short neat brushstrokes for the features. The format, with the figure seen almost three-quarters length, was only used sparingly by the artist and coincides with Hilliard's small full-length miniatures of the same date. The success of this self portrait - its bristling self-confidence and air of assertiveness - lies in the scale of the figure seen within the restricted space. The face is particularly diminutive. Another self-portrait miniature, larger in size but close in date to the present example, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Oliver continued to emphasise his French origins which may account for a certain elegance of style that the artist was perhaps keen to portray in this miniature.

    Signed at right IO (in monogram)

    Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002 and The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760, London, 2014.


    Dr Richard Mead; from whom bought by Frederick, Prince of Wales, by 1751

  • Medium and techniques

    Watercolour on vellum laid on card


    4.5 x 3.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    5.5 x 4.8 cm (frame, external)

    4.2 x 3.5 cm (sight)