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Samuel Cooper (1609-72)

A Self-Portrait Signed and dated 1645

Watercolour on vellum laid on card with a gessoed back | 7.2 x 5.5 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 420067

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  • Samuel Cooper was brought up and trained by the miniaturist John Hoskins (c. 1590-1665) with whom he at first shared a studio. Once he had established his own studio c. 1641-2, he quickly became the most sought-after miniature painter of his generation, able to charge £20 for a head and £30 for a half-length by the end of his long and successful career. He may have travelled in Europe in the 1630's; his outlook was cosmopolitan and cultivated and he counted amongst his circle John Aubrey, John Evelyn, Thomas Hobbes and John Milton.

    This arresting self-portrait stands out for the force and conviction with which the artist recreates his physical presence in paint. The sitter's slightly open lips give an impression that he is about to speak. It is easy to forget that the intense gaze is actually directed towards a mirror rather than the viewer. He also employs more dramatic lighting than had generally been favoured previously by artists working in this medium and on this scale, throwing deeper shadows which establish the figure firmly in three dimensions. The subtletly of his colouring was one of Cooper's great strengths and is shown to exceptional advantage here with the interplay of varied tones of brown and grey.This portrait may have been painted for Cooper's wife, whom he married in c.1641-2, which would explain its intimate feel. Documentary sources indicate that he looked young for his age: indeed, he looks more youthful than his 35 years here.

    Cooper is also said to have had an agreeable personality, which presumably helped him negotiate the difficult politics of producing portraits of both Parliamentarians and Royalists during the Interregnum. After the Restoration Charles II patronised Cooper extensively, commisioning from his numerous portraits of the king, his family and members of the Court. His reputation as the most talented miniaturist of his generation was recognised across Europe during his lifetime and in 1669 Cosimo III de' Medici sought him out to paint his portrait during his visit to England.

    Although the subject of this miniature was correctly identified as Samuel Cooper in early nineteenth-century royal inventories, by 1881 it was described as a portrait of the painter Robert Walker. However, comparison with Walker's own self-portrait (RCIN 402581) disproves this identification. On the contrary, the sitter bears a strong resemblance to a later pastel of Samuel Cooper, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, allowing for a time lapse of about twenty years.   

    Signed on the right in black: 'S.Cooper fe: 1645' and incised by the artist on the gesso back: 'Samuel Cooper fecit feberuaris 1644 ould stile'

    Adapted from Portrait of the Artist, London, 2016.

    First recorded in the Royal Collection in 1734 by George Vertue at Kensington Palace.

  • Medium and techniques

    Watercolour on vellum laid on card with a gessoed back


    7.2 x 5.5 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    8.5 x 6.9 cm (frame, external)

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