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Playing a Part

In this portrait Eleanor Needham, Lady Byron is depicted as Saint Catherine of Alexandria in a guise probably intended to flatter Charles II's Queen, Catherine of Braganza. Accordinly she carries the martyr's palm branch and leans upon a wheel. The sitter

Eleanor Needham, Lady Byron (1627-64) ©

While many portraits of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries accurately depict the sitters in up-to-the minute fashions, others show people wearing fanciful dress for occasions such as a court masque. The masque was a form of elite courtly entertainment, particularly popular at the courts of James I and Charles I, which combined allegorical storylines with elaborate stage sets and imaginative costumes.

From about 1630 it became increasingly fashionable for women to be depicted in a simplified and more timeless style of dress that differed from fashionable clothing. Anthony van Dyck and subsequently Peter Lely were the leading proponents of the style, with each playing the role of a stylist, modifying the dress of the sitter for its portrayal in paint.

Real people were sometimes portrayed in the guise of a mythological or historical figure, a practice often intended to send a particular message. Being painted in the guise of St Catherine, for example, was popular for female courtiers during the 1660s, intended as flattery towards Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II, who was born on St Catherine’s feast day. The clothing worn in such allegorical images – while sometimes resembling the lines of fashionable styles – was often modified for artistic effect and usually bore a closer resemblance to classically inspired drapery.