Probably by Mary Beale, but it is initialed CB and has been attributed to her son, Charles, though nothing else of this quality is known to be by him nor did anyone anywhere give him any credit or notice for this kind of work (Henry Scipio Reitlinger, The Beale Drawings in the British Museum, Burlington Magazine, 41:234 (Sep., 1922):142-47)
I continue my project. Mary Beale is among the first women artists in Europe whose careers resemble that of 20th century professional expert: from the time she began she produced work on commission for a set price and supported herself and her family well; she clearly had a vocation for at the same time we find many pictures she did for the sheer love of painting, the person she painted and the image she captured. She was devoted to her art and developed it technically. A the same time as she was so famous to get all these clients, she is unknown to those looking at her pictures.
Trust me if you have ever looked at pictures of famous people at or on the fringes of Charles II’s court, you have seen the work of Mary Beale.
Take the familiar portraits: perhaps the most famous, though utterly without any sense of the personality we conjure up: Aphra Behn; Charles II with his long fat nose, sensual lips and wrinkle-filled countenance. Or Nell Gwynne whose main interest beyond the person the picture is said to represent, Charles II’s “protestant whore,” is that one has to remember that for most periods people who have power (including Hollywood stars in promotional photos) have not wanted their actual personalities to be discerned, but some abstraction which conjures up a presence hieratic and guarded, strong, invulnerable, and what is considered sexy and powerful at the time, in this case the Lely idea of well-fed opulent luxurious elegance.
These are not her best. Her best are the pictures of her family and those of ordinary people we’ve not heard of or go unnamed. Mary Beale is typical of so many women painters in using herself and family primarily. There appear to be many of herself, two of her husband. Her work occurs at the opening of Frances Borzello’s excellent Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits (which readily becomes a history of women artists):
In her portraits of herself with her husband and son, she is more guarded
Those images I’ve found in color have been these personal ones (for which she presumably was not paid) and these offer those critics disposed to look at her mastery of painting, the most opportunity. But I did find one not of her family written adequately about:
From Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art: “As Mary Beale’s artistic career advanced, her pictorial quality increased through a more meticulous treatment of space and growing attention to detail. In her first paintings, the artist gained all of her expressive force from a marked chiaroscuro, employing strong contrasts and the effects of light to emphasize the figure’s face and expression. Later, during the 1670s, she began to move toward a more decorative and complete style.
In this painting, the artist renders a young woman in profile looking toward the right. The woman seems to observe the viewer discreetly from the corner of her eye. There is a considerable difference in conception, aesthetic, and technique between this portrait and those by her husband or by George Saville. The figure is sophisticated, somewhat distant, and idealized. There is a marked interest in representing her with a beauty that does not go unnoticed by the viewer. Indeed, it attempts to capture the viewer’s full attention and sentiments.
Beale thus treated the very last detail with great care, from the complexion to the facial features, sophisticated and modern coiffure, and the somber, elegant, and distinguished dress
made of expensive fabric. The care with which the artist executed the facial features in order to convey a specific expression is enhanced by the dress. Its soft white combines perfectly with the sitter’s delicate skin and creates a strong contrast with the black silk scarf. The folds of the scarf give rise to an interesting interplay of light and shadows, acquiring a sense of texture accentuated by the fleeting highlights of the fabric. Similarly, for the model’s bare shoulder, Beale used the effect of the light to transmit the tactile sensation of the young woman’s skin.
A new element is introduced in this painting: The posture adopted by the woman is neither random nor circumstantial. The artist’s attention to detail serves to intensify the artist’s efforts to create an image with a dual reading in which elegance is combined with sensuality, an attitude of distance with subtle flirtatiousness, and the delicate beauty of skin and dress with refined eroticism, all conveyed by placing the principal point of light on the model’s shoulder and stylized neck. The artist gathers the woman’s hair on top of her head in order to reveal her rosy cheeks and best use the effect produced by the light as it strikes her skin.”
As someone who prefers the unfinished work that reveals something of the individual soul of the artist, I wish more were written about the drawings I started with:
What’s preferred by the general art historians is this kind of coy chubby sexy sentiment: for those who persist in attributing the drawings to her son, consider how like the face of this Bacchus is to the woman above
Her finest pictures are somber, capturing yet “vigorous, with an “expressive style, the skin tones fresh yet not voluptuous, fine treatment of drapery (Germaine Greer, Obstacle Race, 255-57)
Self-portait (1666): note the inset paintings of her son and perhaps a female relative — it’s very large for the era, the subdued brown to red tones and skin color is vivid; there is the beginning of a smile she is trying to subdue too
Some of the less familiar, not quite celebrity types do show Mary Beale’s ability to capture a living identity:
What you have to do is look past all the paraphernalia to the person peering out at you from behind the mask, the clothing, the wig, or not, unknown ones looking away (probably directed to do that) as the case may be:
Some look cunning, some smart, some mild. I recognize many famous individuals those who study the period will recognize by name; and individuals I’ve read about in Anne Finch’s biography (e.g., the Twisdens); there are other family groups. She painted people dressed in semi-classical guise; others imitating Renaissance figures (one woman breast-feeding as if this were a Madonna and child, but dressed in Restoration luxury). Mary Beale also flattered her sisters by giving them long noses, pursy lips and doe-like sensual eyes so that we have to look to see the still breathing identity staring at us:
She did paint a wide variety of minor and major known people of the era for some specific achievement or niche, to start to name a few, John Tillotson, John Ray and Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle (a remarkable likenesses), John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale and two John Lakes (minor powerful people), George Saville, and wives and daughters. And this is what many people might admire her for even if it intrigues or frustrates someone seeking a real presence from them.
Tabitha Barber has written the well-researched biography, Mary Beale: Portrait of a 17th century painter, her family and her studio: Mary Beale lived a personally apparently exemplary quiet life of a gentlewoman, wife, and mother more typical of earnest religious people of the era — except that she was a working woman, professional in 20th century style, producing valued work for a decent living.
She was born 1633 in Barrow, Suffolk, her father was recorder of Barrow. Her mother died in 1643, and nine years later she marries a fellow painter, Charles Beale. Two dates record two of the deaths of Mary Beale’s children by Charles: 1654, the first child died; 1656 a son, Bartholomew. While marriage often ended women’s careers in this era, Mary throve after her marriage. She began a professional apprenticeship then, and continued to paint during her children’s younger years. It was in 1656 she first established herself a a portrait artist. By 1655 she had a house in Covent Garden, and upcoming church people, and artists are said to have intermingled there. In 1656 husband and wife left London to avoid the plague. Another son, Charles, was born in 1660.
Nancy Heller (Women Artists: an Illustrated History) records Mary may have trained with Robert Walker, official painter to Cromwell and by Thomas Flatman, lawyer, poet, miniaturist. Then Lely helped her by inviting her to copy works from his personal collection. In 1670 her husband lost his job in the patent office, and this seemed to stir her up to become a professional artist, find a congenial milieu (not easy). So they moved to Pall Mall where clientele again grows. While she worked in pastels, watercolor, oils, drew, and grew popular for her pictures of children, her husband managed the household, primed canvases, mixed colors, became an art dealer. Heller singles out her portrait of John Wilkins (important person at Oxford and Cambridge universities, eventually Bishop of Chester) as typical of her: half-length, seated, dark background, eyes fixed on viewer (46-47):
Her husband, Charles, says she recorded her workshop practices and sitters, it seems two notebooks of her own have survived out of many. They record lived life for middling or lower middle professional people from Cromwell to William the 3rd’s era; Interregnum to Stadlholder). There is a further diary written by a kinsman, Samuel Woodford, 1 Sept to 30 Nov 1662. These tell of friends and associates, and slowly a picture of an attractive congenial interlocking group of families emerge -= to which Mary Beale belonged despite her rakish, libertine and philosophically thinking clientele (from Carol Gibson-Wood, “Samuel Woodforde’s First Diary: An Early Source for Mary Beale,” The Burlington Magazine, 147: 1230, Painting in England (Sep., 2005):606-607)
Again from Nancy Heller one learns, Mary’s husband’s notebooks survive and these record the daily activities of his busy painting wife. Her husband recorded 83 commissions in 1677. Her sons helped with the work. Charles painted portraits – so the drawings might be his. She worked endlessly, painting replicas of her own work too. Lely’s death led to her losing subjects, and the household felt some financial straits. But after Lely’s death in 1680 she was commissioned to make copies of his work; “ironically, the accuracy of her copies has helped increase the confusion about what she painted” (46-47).
Several people record that Mary taught another woman painter, Sarah Curties (d. 1743) to paint portraits, including her husband, Dr Hoadly. Sarah was a successful portraitist. Elsa Honig Fine (Women and Art) sees Beale as one among several female artists around the court of Charles II and Germaine Greer supplies an image of one such painting:
Greer: “A case has been made for this as a conversation piece; it’s rather a group portrait … figures posed before a background rather than social interaction. It is possible the same figure occurs in both groups, and that there is some attempt of making the picture an allegory of spring, with the lady of the house in the title role” (255-57)
Mary Beale herself charged £10 for 3/4 length, £5 for head and shoulders. On these terms she painted church people, nobility, landed gentry; she received a commission for 30 portraits from one family. “Most in demand were her charming portraits of children” (Fine, 68-69). I’m fond of two for the sake of the cats:
In this attributed to her son: the cat resembles the girl, maybe a bit cleverer?
In 1699 Mary died in her own home in Pall Mall. She left two manuscripts of a Discourse in friendship (written for her friend, Elizabeth Tillotson).
There was an exhibition held in London in 2000 in a newly constructed section of the Geffrye Museum (January 30): Mary Beale (1632/33-1699): Portrait of a 17th century painter, her family and studio. There can be no better example of how a woman’s work is denigrated than the review by Oliver Millar (Burlington Magazine, 142:1162 [January 2000]:48-49): not only were there fewer works by Mary on display than in another exhibit 24 years ago, Millar thinks this no great loss as he finds her work limited, dull, lacking any variety of mood, restricted in range of color and inferior in execution to other imitators of an inferior master, Lely. Mary was just not successful. Millar concedes there is interesting work by other people (Flatman, Mary’s son Charles) and so this exhibit has historical interest for students of Stuart Britain. He’s read Barber’s book with its “sensitive account of the ethics and social world” of Charles and Mary Beale. He sums up Barber thus: Mary lived an admirable life showing “unshaken adherence” to Christian ideals of piety, and with her husband enjoyed “marriage of equals:”
There was a rounded perfection to the Beales’ family life into which aspects of their professional work can be seen to fit with ease. They were godly, puritan folk, producing honest and truthful work to the best of their ability.
As described by Millar, Charles, her husband, emerges as the much more important figure from the catalogue:
Mary Burtin provides an invaluable account of Charles Beale’s investigations to a painter’s pigments, supports and method, an account partly based on his manuscript Experimental Secrets, studied here for the first time, and on materials in the Notebooks. It is a notable addition to what is already in print on an artist’s method and on portrait practice, relevant undoubtedly for other painters than Mary Beale.
Obviously I should have written this account of Charles, the husband, or Charles, the son, or maybe Flatman or anyone else but the central creative artist around whom the exhibit was built and around whose presence her family lived their lives.
But I haven’t. Mary Beale’s work is at its finest when she’s painting ordinary people and her family, and if the drawings are hers, when she is not under pressure to flatter people but can realize a truer likeness.
So I end on this one of her beloved son, Charles:
And I offer two typical portraits of women: both seem to me to be intelligent, the second dreamy
And one last child (also attributed to Charles, her son):