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National Portrait Gallery

Women of the court of Charles II

On view at the National Portrait Gallery, London

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London hosts an exhibition of 45 portraits, “Painted ladies: women at the court of Charles II” (11 October to 6 January), many of them by Sir Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter and régisseur, two on loan from The Queen (from the “Windsor beauties” series commissioned by Anne Hyde, the Duchess of York and her husband) and five from the Earl Spencer, along with engravings, miniatures and medals. The first big show of Restoration portraiture since the NPG’s Lely exhibition in 1978, it reflects the changes in scholarship in the intervening years, particularly the advent of “cultural studies” and contextual art history—evident in the examination of the interaction of art and politics in the later 17th century—and feminism and “gender politics”—in the exploration of the role and status of women, especially the ambivalent moral and political positions of the royal mistresses Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth (each portrayed by Lely for the gallery of beauties commissioned by the Earl of Sunderland), and the social status of Nell Gwyn, few of whose portraits can be identified with any certainty. Evaluations of the less famous female members of the court, such as Barbara Palmer (shown here), Queen Catherine of Braganza’s entourage, the royal princesses, and women who were patronesses of the arts, such as the Duchess of Lauderdale, are made in the light of their portraiture. The catalogue, edited by Catherine MacLeod, costs £30 hardback (National Portrait Gallery). The exhibition travels to the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven (25 January to 17 March)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The National Portrait Gallery, London: women of the court of Charles II'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 118 October 2001